Can Francis really change the “old boys’ club” that controls bishop appointments?

The promotion of the current bishop of Toledo, Leonard Blair, to archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut is being treated as a sign that Pope Francis is not as serious as he seems to be about putting an end to careerism among bishops. Protests have come especially from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, though notably Tablet journalist and Toledo native Robert Mickens has also described Blair's appointment as "more of the same." Blair is known most recently for his position as one of the episcopal visitors of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

While I think the "promotion" of any bishop from one diocese to another is a sign of the careerism embedded in the current process of episcopal appointments, I'm not sure that some of the critics really understand how this works (not counting Mickens, who surely does). Take SNAP's Claudia Vercellotti: “There is no congruency between the vision that Pope Francis puts forward and his actions here in Toledo, Ohio,” she said according to Toledo Faith and Values, a community news service associated with Religion News Service. “Either Pope Francis is asleep at the wheel and has no idea who he’s promoted, or he is ambivalent. Either way, it’s dangerous.”

The fact is, Pope Francis probably indeed has no idea who he has promoted because he likely doesn't know Blair at all. These kinds of appointments begin at the national level, go through the papal nuncio, and on to the Congregation of Bishops, which makes the final decision for all practical purposes, and then forwards its decision to the pope. He could, of course, make a change, but he'd have no data on which to make that kind of decision. There are just too many dioceses in the world for him to be that hands on. Mickens is right: It's an old boys' network, and as long as the current crop of old boys in the U.S. are still bishop, they will still heavily influence who gets appointed. 

The problem is not with the pope, it's with the appointment process, which could use a major dose of transparency and input from the local church. And we're a long, long way still from that.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.