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The feminine genius - and episcopal accountability - at the Dicastery for Bishops

Pope Francis has promised to appoint two women to the Dicastery for Bishops, the Vatican department responsible for episcopal appointments. While media attention has focused on an expanded role for women in the selection of new bishops, the most significant aspect of the  reform might be something else entirely.

Pope Francis. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

In comments published Wednesday, the pope told Reuters that “two women will be appointed for the first time" to the bishop-making congregation dicastery.

Most members of Vatican dicasteries are cardinals or bishops serving as diocesan bishops around the world. While those members tend to travel to the Vatican regularly to attend the dicastery’s meetings, they are not usually present for weekly working sessions attended by members living in Rome.

Depending on who Francis decides to name  — and where they live — it will become clearer whether the pope intends to appoint them as part of the broad consulting membership, or in something closer to full-time roles at the dicastery.

Either way, and despite media focus on the subject, it’s up for debate how much sway they will have over individual episcopal appointments.

The Congregation Dicastery for Bishops produces terna, lists of three names, to submit to the pope for each vacant see in the Latin Church, and the pope freely chooses one (or none) of those on the list.

The terna have traditionally been drawn from the recommendations and files submitted by the local apostolic nuncio, who has a rolling brief to identify potential candidates for promotion to the rank of bishop.

And in more recent years, the selection of candidates for papal consideration has been influenced heavily by regional metropolitan archbishops and cardinals — especially in places where some of them are members of the dicastery.

During that process, the apostolic nuncio himself consults with local Catholic leaders - especially by means of confidential questionnaires - about particular candidates for episcopal office, and, in more recent years, about the issues of concern in vacant dioceses, and the kind of bishop who would be best qualified to lead it.

That consultation, governed by the pontifical secret and not extensive, often involves lay men and women — especially the leaders of religious congregations, and women working in diocesan leadership and administration.

While staffers in the Congregation Dicastery for Bishops vet candidates’ backgrounds and prepare dossiers, it is, in short, the generally accepted practice of the office largely to defer to local expertise. A member of the dicastery can certainly exercise influence over the process, but not singularly — and local cardinals are often all the more influential.

This is unlikely to change much, no matter whom the pope appoints.

But the dicastery’s membership is of much greater significance in another area of the department’s competence: the resolution of allegations of misconduct leveled against bishops.

Since the promulgation of Come una madre amorevole in 2016 and Vos estis lux mundi in 2019, the Congregation Dicastery for Bishops has been responsible for receiving complaints of negligence or abuse of office against bishops across a range of issues, most notably in their handling of sexual abuse cases.

In the U.S. alone, several investigations into serving and former diocesan bishops have been opened under the norms of Vos estis, with another local bishop, usually the metropolitan, delegated by the dicastery to conduct the investigation and submit a report to the dicastery’s members for consideration.

That process remains notoriously lacking in transparency, both regarding the progress of investigations, its terms of reference, and its conclusions.

In many cases, Rome has refused to even publicly confirm if complaints have been received, or whether an investigation is happening at all.

The process - and its secrecy - is in stark contrast to the process employed by diocesan bishops to handle complaints against their own clergy, during which regular public announcements are made — even, at times, regarded as excessively so by canonical advocates.

So while the idea of laity - perhaps women especially - working in the episcopal selection process is interesting, it is a far more dramatic change for lay women to take seats at the table when episcopal misconduct is under discussion.

That element of their appointments would represent the first substantial lay voices in the process of episcopal oversight — a process which many Church watchers would agree remains in need of reform.

In some recent cases, diocesan bishops have become the subject of serial complaints of misconduct and abuse of office by their own clergy — even, to the point in one diocese, that priests have written to the apostolic nuncio begging for assistance — while the Vatican has declined to confirm the receipt of the complaints, the opening of an investigation, or the results of a report submitted by the metropolitan, and while the bishop remains in place.

In another recent situation, a diocesan bishop was removed from office seemingly without any accusations of misconduct, or investigation or canonical process, and without even being told why he had been deposed from office.

Catholics hoping to see transparent reform, especially in the wake of scandals like that of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, have expressed frustration about that kind of opacity from the Congregation Dicastery for Bishops.

The appointment of two women to the dicastery cannot be expected to transform instantly how the department does business. But lay voices at the table may well challenge the way things are done. And that - more than weighing on the complex appointment process - might become the real fruit of the papal plan for the feminine genius at the Congregation Dicastery for Bishops.

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