A Swiss prelate has said that the laity must be involved in the appointment of bishops, quoting from the fifth-century pope Leo the Great to argue that “he who is to preside over all must be elected by all”.

– Exclusive right of Popes to name prelates “only a hundred years old!” – Bishop of Basel Felix Gmür

“There have always been different election procedures” for bishops in the Catholic Church, Bishop of Basel Felix Gmür recalled in an article for Forum, a publication of the Church in Zurich.

Gmür, 54, and shepherd of the Basel diocese since 2011, explained that in the earliest days of the Church “the broadest possible participation” of the lay faithful and other Church elements was considered necessary in episcopal appointments, hence the formulation of Pope Leo’s principle, which Gmür said “makes perfect sense”.

Though there are exceptions, today the norm is that the Pope appoints a new bishop from a list of candidates, known as a terna, presented to him by the nuncio in the country of the vacant diocese.

The nuncio draws up the terna on the basis of consultations carried out in the strictest confidentality, which process can involve selected laypeople but more often does not.

Gmür pointed out that that exclusive right of the Pope to name bishops only came in with the publication of the Church’s first comprehensive Code of Canon Law in 1917.

“So this development is only a hundred years old!”, the Basel bishop exclaimed, recalling that for 19 centuries the Church’s practice around episcopal appointments was more consultative.

Not only did the Church formerly appoint bishops on the basis of broader consultations, Gmür continued, but with the publication of the Code in 1917 it attempted “to create the impression that the papal right of appointment was ancient and that other models of bishop-election were based on a pure act of grace by the Pope”.

“That is not true”, the Swiss prelate underlined.

– Campaigning no, discernment yes

Gmür stressed once again in his article that in his opinion laypeople, religious, deacons and priests “should be involved in the election of bishops”.

But he pointed out a tension there, saying that although the Church in a diocese is the whole Church, but not the universal Church, the involvement of members of a diocese in the appointment of their shepherd must be balanced with the involvement of neighbouring dioceses and also with that of the Pope, “who must confirm an election”.

Gmür himself went through an uncommon election process to rise to become Bishop of Basel.

As with the Bishop of Sankt Gallen, also in Switzerland – and with a reduced number of bishops in other places – Gmür was appointed bishop on the basis of a vote of the cathedral chapter that was subsequently confirmed by the Pope, a privilege that dates back to the Vienna Concordat of 1448.

Gmür said that he would like to go past even the models of bishop election in the Basel and Sankt Gallen dioceses, since they suffer from shortcomings including a veto on priests not incardinated into those dioceses and the informal understanding – not institutionalised – that the cathedral chapters will take into account the perspectives of diocesan priests and laity in their voting.

“Mechanisms need to be found, according to the respective cultural sensitivities, to ensure that the whole diocesan people of God is adequately represented” in the appointment of its shepherds, Gmür underlined.

The Swiss prelate nonetheless said he was aware of possible pitfalls to a broader consultation process.

“The procedure for selecting candidates and electing the bishop must not under any circumstances be organised as a democratic election campaign”, Gmür stressed in that sense, insisting that it rather be designed as “a process of spiritual discernment leading to a decision that is as unanimous as possible”.

“Here the Church can learn from those religious orders which have been practising this for a long time”, he pointed out.

Gmür concluded with a clear restatement of his argument for the powers that be in Rome: “Models for the election of bishops, supported locally by the faithful and at the same time supported by the universal Church, should not be the exception, but the rule”.

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Swiss bishop calls for Church Council on ordination of women: “The facts are on the table; the time is ripe”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.