An Apostolic Succession

by Philip Jones

‘By Divine Institution, Bishops succeed the Apostles through the Holy Spirit, Who has been given to them’ (Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 375(1)).

Some good local news in these gloomy times, concerning a priest of the Roman obedience.  Nearly 40 years of distinguished and selfless dedication to duty (including the unenviable task of instructing a certain blogger in the Catholic faith, and hearing his first confession) have now been recognised by elevation to the episcopate.

The first intimation to the priest was a terse telephone message summoning him to the nunciature immediately (a journey of about 150 miles), regardless of engagements.  There he was informed that the Pope wished to appoint him Bishop of an English diocese.  Mindful of every priest’s ‘special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff’ (canon 373), he accepted.

This happy event provides a useful case study of the Roman Catholic law, and the equivalent English law, concerning the appointment of bishops.

Such appointment requires 2 processes

(1) the processus informativus – i.e the search for a suitable candidate, and

(2) the process of conferring title on the chosen candidate.

Processus Informativus

This seeks to answer the 2 questions What? and Whom?, which arise when an ecclesiastical office is to be filled.

The meeting at the nunciature, and the priest’s acceptance of the appointment marked the conclusion of this process. If the priest had declined the appointment, the process would have had to continue.

The process has only recently been codified, perhaps since the 1970s. It was not regulated by the original 1917 Code of Canon Law. The equivalent process of the Church of England likewise dates from the 1970s, and is regulated only by the General Synod, not by Parliament. It therefore lacks the force of law, though it may have the force of a constitutional convention (i.e that the Church nominates bishops to the Crown).

There are 3 arbiters of the Roman Catholic process, who officiate in an ascending hierarchy of authority

(1) The Nuncio or legate, the papal representative to the local Church, has the primary responsibility.  Canon 377(3) requires the nuncio to compile a ternus, or list of eligible candidates, after canvassing the local bishops and senior clergy of the vacant diocese.  He may also consult other clergy, and ‘lay persons of outstanding wisdom’.  However, as this case indicates, there are no job applications or interviews.

The ternus is sent to Rome, along with the suggestions canvassed by the Nuncio, and his own recommendation.  As well as canon 377(3), the Nuncio’s function is regulated by special norms (canon 364(4)).

(2) The Congregation or ‘Dicastery’ for Bishops, a department of the Roman curia, issues the aforesaid norms (cf canon 360).  It reviews the Nuncio’s findings, and may overrule him, or refer the case back to him to make further enquiries.  Like the rest of the curia, the Congregation is regulated by the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (2022), see article 205.

The Congregation does not depend on the Nuncio alone.  Local bishops are collectively required to submit a list of eligible priests to the Congregation at least every 3 years (whether or not there is a vacancy).  Individual bishops may also submit names (canon 377(2)).  So the Congregation can compare the Nuncio’s report with the communications received earlier from the local bishops.

The late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who was a member of the Congregation, gave an account of how it works in practice in his memoirs An English Spring (2015) at pp204-205.

(3) The Pope is, of course, the ultimate arbiter of the process.  The Congregation for Bishops reports to him.  The Cardinal related that ‘9 times out of 10, he accepted the name we had recommended’ (p.205), but another outcome is always possible. 

The Pope’s decision is communicated to the Congregation, which in turn communicates it to the Nuncio.  Hence the priest’s summons to the nunciature.

Conferring Title

There is a dictum of English law that ‘there are 4 things … requisite in a making of a bishop:

[1] election

[2] confirmation

[3] consecration and

[4] installation or [enthronement]’

(Bishop of St. David’s case (1699) 91 English Reports 126, at p.128). This probably reflects the mediaeval canon law.

However, in the present (Roman Catholic) case, title requires only 3 things

(1) the Apostolic Letter, i.e the Pope’s letter of appointment

(2) consecration and

(3) canonical possession.

(1) The Apostolic Letter

Canon 377(1) provides that the Pope

[1] freely appoints (nominat) bishops or

[2] confirms those lawfully elected (electos)’.

This makes the point that the Pope does not appoint all the bishops of the Latin Church.  There are still some elective bishoprics, although there are none in this country.  Church of England bishoprics are still elective, of course, albeit the election has always been the merest formality.

Free appointment (or nomination) by the Pope [1] is effected by the Apostolic Letter. There can be no confirmation of such appointment, because confirmation is the act of a superior and the Pope has none.  (When the cardinals elect a new Pope, the successful candidate confirms his own election by accepting it: canon 332(1).)

In England, the Crown also has power to appoint a diocesan bishop directly, by letters patent, but only if the cathedral canons fail to elect the Crown’s candidate, which never happens in practice (Appointment of Bishops Act 1533, s.3).  All Irish bishops were appointed by letters patent, not elected, until the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869 (R v Archbishop of Canterbury (1902) 2 King’s Bench 503, at p.547). Suffragan (assistant) bishops are appointed by letters patent (Suffragan Bishops Act 1534).

Even the Apostolic Letter cannot turn the priest into a bishop.  It cannot confer the Holy Spirit or the Apostolic Succession. The priest must be ordained, or ‘consecrated’ bishop.  (Again, in a papal election, the senior cardinal must consecrate the successful candidate, if the latter is not already a bishop (canon 355(1)).

The Apostolic Letter therefore constitutes the bishop-elect’s title to consecration and possession.

(2) Consecration

Canon 1013 provides that ‘No bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone as bishop, unless … a pontifical mandate has been issued’.  (The late Archbishop Lefebvre incurred excommunication for consecrating bishops without such mandate, cf canon 1382).  The Apostolic Letter constitutes the required mandate.

Consecration requires a principal consecrating bishop, and, absent a dispensation, at least 2 other co-consecrating bishops (canon 1014).  The principal consecrator need not be an Archbishop.

Armed with the Apostolic Letter, the bishop-elect can apparently choose his own consecrators, just so long as they are bishops in the Roman Catholic sense, and in full communion with Rome.  In this case, the bishop-elect has tactfully chosen his predecessor, the retiring bishop, as his principal consecrator, with the present and former Archbishops of his old Province as co-consecrators – but not the Archbishop of his new Province. Nor, according to the 1983 Code, does the new bishop make a declaration of obedience to the Archbishop.

In the Church of England, by contrast, the Archbishop has both the right and the duty to consecrate a bishop-elect (1533 Act, s.4), though he can delegate this function to another bishop. An English bishop-elect also swears obedience to the Archbishop (canon C14(1) of the Canons of the Church of England).

(3) Canonical Possession

The Archbishop’s lack of function under the 1983 Code is in notable contrast to his position in English law.  In English law, the process of appointing a new bishop is largely managed by the Archbishop, acting as agent of the Crown.  He is responsible for the new bishop’s confirmation, consecration and – in the Province of Canterbury at least – enthronement. A new Roman Catholic bishop is evidently left to manage his own appointment, once he has received the Apostolic Letter.

This self-management requires observance of the time limits for acquiring title.  The processus informativus can take years.  However, once the Apostolic Letter has been received, the priest must normally get consecrated within 3 months, and take canonical possession of his diocese within 4.  An appointee who is already in bishop’s orders has only 2 months. (Canons 379 and 382(2)).

Consecration must take place before canonical possession (canons 379-380). This is common sense, because consecration confers the episcopal function. And the bishop-elect cannot exercise the episcopal function before he has taken canonical possession (canon 382(1)). 

Before taking office the bishop-elect is required to take the prescribed oath of fidelity to the Holy See, and to make the Profession of Faith (canon 380).  The oath is comparable to the oath of allegiance to the Monarch sworn by an English bishop-elect (1533 Act, s.4).

Canonical possession is effected when the bishop-elect shows (ostenderit – shows, not gives) the Apostolic Letter to the college of consultors (the senior clergy of the diocese), in the presence of the diocesan chancellor, who keeps a record of the event (canon 382(3)).

This must be done physically within the diocese, but not necessarily in the cathedral or in any other church.  The bishop-elect need not even be present in person.  He can appoint a proxy to act for him.  However, ‘it is strongly recommended that … canonical possession be performed with a liturgical act in the cathedral …’ (canon 382(4)).

There is no mention of installation or enthronement in the 1983 Code.  The position is different in the Eastern Churches.  There the diocesan (or ‘eparchal’) bishop ‘takes canonical possession of the eparchy by the enthronement itself’ (1990 canons, 189(1)).