Sunday, June 13, 2010

Natural Selection

Somewhere, if I dug through enough books, I'm sure I'd find a heresy condemned called archaeologism. This could possibly be defined as the irrational belief that if something was done in the first seven centuries of Christian history it must be right and must be restored. Now if you are talking about Conciliar definitions it's one thing but if you are holding up practices that were at best transient and localised can't we say that the lesson has already been learnt? If we accept the precepts of some scholars versus populum existed in some places but, nota bene,  it disappeared. Similarly receiving Holy Communion in the hand may have persisted into the 9th Century in some places but, nota bene, it disappeared. The same can be said of some transient theological notions. Many of the ideas floated today have already been tried in previous centuries and found wanting. Most children learn from experience. 'Touch that and you get burnt'. The child touches it, gets burnt, and retains a cautionary memory.

There's some talk at the moment about the way episcopal candidates are selected. The current practice is largely the product of the 1983 Code, 'revising' the  1917 Code, and involves recommendations being sought from within the bishops themselves who prepare a list of suitable candidates for the local nunciature which, in turn, prepares a terna, a short list if you like, to submit to the Holy See.  The suitable candidates, as determined by the local bishops, are scrutinised by a questionnaires collected from clerics and laity. I've never seen one of these questionnaires but I'm told they are quite lengthy and completed under the condition of complete secrecy.

But it hasn't always been this way. Before 1917 the groups producing lists of candidates extended beyond the episcopate. Certain ranks of priests  within a region were able to produce  lists for submission. Going back into the mists of time the laity may have had a greater direct say. Both possibilities were laid aside although the 'memories' of the earlier practices are enshrined in the liturgical rites. They were found impracticable, not because of any desire to disenfranchise, but,  rather to avoid the unseemly campaigning that went on. So you'll excuse me if I feel slightly uneasy about the calls, from certain quarters, for the direct nomination, indeed election of bishops.

Maintaining the status quo however leaves us with two problems interconnected. (1) Effectively the selection of the candidates is left in the hands of the bishops. In a small pool they will naturally select candidates who fit their particular view so not to cause ripples. A 'safe pair of hands' I gather is the euphemism in use. (2) This means that candidates 'outside the box' (or 'circle' if you like) are not likely to even become known to the Holy Father, who makes the actual selection. Good men, who the faithful see as excellent possibilities, will never 'get a guernsey' let alone be captain of the team.

The Holy See, and specifically the Congregation for Bishops, does read it's mail and if the same name was to come up frequently there would be a chance of that name at least being considered. If anybody was to consider writing a letter it should be quite simple outlining the candidates history and qualifications. I'm told a 'bullet form' CV is quite digestible to the Roman stomach.


  1. Archaeologism is undoubtedly a danger to be avoided, but we surely need to look at the reasons why practices change. Changes in practice can be introduced and persist for a very long time for reasons that later come to seem ill-founded. Receiving communion standing in the hand is clearly found by many today to express better the sort of devotional attitude they think God invites them to than receiving kneeling on the tongue. Perhaps it is the meaning of a practice that we need to look at, as well as its age or longevity.

  2. Savonarola,

    I think that you may be giving us poor pew-fodder too much credit; aside from a vociferous few, most of us queue up to receive communion in the hand without thinking about the nature and quality of our actions. I would go so far as to speculate that the former practice of receiving kneeling could be re-instituted without any comment by most of the laity.


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