Is the ‘era of big government’ over for U.S. dioceses?

Analysis

As they face a shortage of episcopal candidates and the challenge of supporting expensive infrastructure with a dwindling number of priests and practicing Catholics, my colleague JD Flynn suggested yesterday that the Vatican may soon need to take a serious look at merging smaller and rural American dioceses.

That might well be the approach of the Apostolic See. But merging dioceses is a massive administrative and canonical challenge, and not one that Rome will likely reach for hastily. In the meantime, there are two other ways to potentially address the challenges facing underfunded and understaffed rural dioceses: developing new models of ministry, and divesting some large metropolitan dioceses of their auxiliary bishops to fill an upcoming spate of vacant sees.

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Many dioceses, especially those facing bankruptcy, are struggling to maintain the institutional footprint of parishes, schools, hospitals, and social welfare agencies built with and for a much larger, more observant, and more predictably generous Catholic population. 

Propping up a “big government” approach to these ministries is no easy task. But neither is it necessary — which is why some ecclesial leaders have begun suggesting that bishops consider a more dynamic vision of a diocese, in which evangelically-minded local Catholic communities are encouraged to erect and run Catholic schools, charities, and other apostolates in response to local need and capacity. 

In such a model, the bishop becomes governor and guarantor of Catholic identity and mission, but is not charged with sustaining and overseeing the administration of Catholic projects through a chancery office, or even in federation with other projects in the diocese. 

The drawback, for sure, to this model is that apostolates not administered by a centralized bureaucracy lack economy of scale in all kinds of areas: accounting, employee benefits, legal services etc. But as that scale proves increasingly unsustainable, centralized apostolates are closing their doors. Giving use of the buildings to evangelically-minded Catholics may well prove to be the most effective stewardship of those resources.

That kind of re-imagined vision of Catholic ministry makes the bishop more teacher, priest, and governor than CEO or executive chairman. In such a mindset, the urge to merge dioceses might well be staved off, and indeed the episcopacy itself might seem more attractive to potential candidates and to local Catholics who might appreciate their bishop having more time to spend among the flock. 

If that model proposes a kind of renewal of diocesan leadership, a cutback on the “big government” approach to diocesan administration might also include reducing the number of auxiliary bishops in some large dioceses — and tapping those bishops to lead the dioceses soon to become vacant sees. 

While every diocese needs a diocesan bishop, no diocese requires an auxiliary bishop to function. And while there is no sacramental distinction between the two kinds of bishops, there is a great deal of difference in their governing authority and responsibility. 

This disparity is reflected in the manner in which the two kinds of bishops are appointed, which may help explain why it is harder to find ordinary bishops for smaller dioceses like Gaylord, but much easier to find auxiliaries for Chicago, which has ordained three in the year Gaylord has been a vacant see.

When a diocesan see falls vacant, the apostolic nuncio of the country proposes a list of three potential candidates drawn up after consultations with local clergy and neighboring bishops. That list is sent to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, who may add their own ideas and recommendations, before presenting a final slate of candidates to the pope to select from. 

A lot of people feed into the process, and, given the importance of the role, there can be strong and conflicting opinions. Moreover, there needs to be a great deal of scrutiny of the candidates to prevent scandals.

Auxiliary bishops, on the other hand, come at the request of the diocesan bishop who decides he needs one. When he makes that request, he ordinarily presents his own list of three candidates, and, while there are categorical exceptions, that list mostly determines the appointment. This means that, generally speaking, metropolitans exercise far more direct influence over what kind of man becomes an auxiliary than in the process of selecting a priest to immediately become a diocesan bishop.

As the Holy See will find itself by Easter 2022 with 19 U.S. sees to fill, dioceses with the most auxiliaries will probably find their benches thinned to fill the vacancies, especially since those candidates are bishops already, and most of their role as auxiliaries can actually be performed by priests — even the “confirmation circuits’ ridden by auxiliary bishops in many large dioceses, can actually be taken over by priests given the proper faculty from the diocesan bishop. 

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Of course, auxiliary bishops are not evenly distributed across American dioceses.

Los Angeles, which has the largest number of Catholics in the country at 4.3 million, has five auxiliary bishops helping Archbishop Jose Gomez. But Chicago, which has less than half the Catholic population of LA, has seven auxiliary bishops under Cardinal Blase Cupich. 

The Diocese of Brooklyn, 1.5 million Catholics, has six auxiliaries, while the Archdiocese of Houston, 1.7 million Catholics, has only one auxiliary. 

From an administrative standpoint, its worth asking if archdioceses with a large number of auxiliaries really need them: Chicago’s Catholic population shrank by around 300,000 between 2016-2019 and is in the process of closing parishes and schools, while the Diocese of Gaylord, with only one bishop at a time and vacant for over a year now, grew by 2,000 Catholics over the same period.

Among the metropolitan archbishops who actually have auxiliaries, those most willing to go without them — or those who can replace them with greatest ease, perhaps because they are a member of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome — might end up reshaping the country’s episcopal landscape fairly quickly.

And, given the metropolitan with the most auxiliaries to spare, that could prove to be a very consequential turn of events.