Fourth Wound

The wound in the right foot of holy Church: the nomination of bishops left in the hands of civil government.
No man can serve two masters

For over a thousand years, and at the times of Rosmini, emperors, kings, and political rulers in Europe and world-wide had arrogated to themselves by force or had been given by the Church under duress the right to nominate bishops for the sees in their countries. The Pope was simply demanded to or reserved to himself the right to “confirm” their nominations. This is the “wound” Rosmini is highlighting in this chapter, but in presenting it and in giving a most painful historical account of the way a “free” Church became enslaved to civil governments, he also suggests that the Church ought to go back to the practice of the early Church when bishops were elected by the clergy and the people. It was this second issue that fired up people’s and theologians’ thinking right up to our own times, and that became the pretext for the condemnation of the book.

For Rosmini, the clergy and the people had a “divine” right to elect their shepherd. He was asked by the Pope, Pius IX, to clarify this theological point which seemed to declare “invalid” elections of bishops who had been nominated by rulers only, with the approval of the Pope. Other bishops and theologians made the same request, and Rosmini obliged by publishing three letters written to Canon Giuseppe Gatti. He distinguishes between “divine constitutive right” and “divine moral right”. The right clergy and people have in the elections of bishops is “divine moral right” only and the violation of this right does not cause “invalidity”; the Pope has indeed the authority to by-pass this right of clergy and people if pressed by other serious considerations. Therefore all the elections of bishops nominated by civil powers are indeed “valid” if they have been confirmed by the Pope, as stated by the Council of Trent. The violation of a “divine constitutive right” does instead render “invalid” the action of whatever is being violated, but this is not the case of the divine moral right of clergy and people to elect their bishop.

Rosmini, therefore, claims only a “divine moral right” for the election of bishops by clergy and people. But it is a very serious right indeed, of “divine” origin, and therefore it ought to be exercised unless other very urgent considerations intervene. Rosmini justifies the Popes who permitted the interference of civil governments in the election of bishops on the ground that they believed permission to be “the lesser evil”.

What about today? Most civil governments have, thankfully, surrendered the “privilege” of electing their own bishops, recognising the freedom of the Church in such important matter; we say “most” because we are aware that State interference has not ceased everywhere, see China, Cuba, and States with a totalitarian regime.  But, what about the “divine moral right” of clergy and people to elect their bishops?

It is in the news these days in the UK: the people of Northampton have been without a bishop for a long time, and they are waiting for the Pope to make his mind up and decide finally on one name out of the three that have been subjected to him by a restricted number of bishops. The ordinary clergy and the people of God in Northampton have not been consulted: for all they know, their Shepherd may well be some unknown person from a far off part of Britain who may have no knowledge of the persons, of the churches, of the real situation of the people of God in Northampton.

This is a typical example, but the same procedure is being followed in the election of bishops everywhere: has the time come to acknowledge and to respect in practice the divine moral right of clergy and people to elect their Shepherd?

Rosmini even suggested a method that could be followed in the election of the bishop. Registers should be opened in each parish of the diocese “where the faithful who so desired could give their opinion about the choice of bishop, indicate the canonical irregularities incurred by those who might be chosen, and nominate the priest they think most worthy to be future pastor of the diocese”. Prayers should be said in the diocese for the best outcome. The registers are closed after eight days by the parish priests who would convene “twelve of the older parishioners” and the other priests in the parish to scrutinise the results, to discuss and send them. The clergy then meets at the Cathedral, the various parish priests are heard, then the names of those chosen by the people are made public to the assembled canons and priests. The assembly cast their votes on the priests of their own choice, and if the names deriving from both elections (people, priests) are the same then the assembly progresses to the next stage, otherwise they study the results and try to work out which is the name that has the most votes. If the clergy does not approve any of the top names elected by the people they must give reasons and put forward their own names. The people’s chosen names and the clergy’s, or the name of the one who has been chosen by the majority of both groups are then sent to the Metropolitan bishop who will meet with other provincial bishops “as arbiters”, and they will submit the decision to the Pope as supreme judge. The pope in any case will make the final decision.
The election of the Pope, however, is a different matter and there should be no change.
The history of the Church lays bare before our eyes as Rosmini gives us a harrowing account of the dramatic struggle between Church and State over the right of the election of bishops and abbots. The first six centuries are the golden period of the Church: the Church was poor but free, and the original structures set up by the Apostles and their immediate successors were followed everywhere, the bishop was elected by clergy and people. Rosmini provides plenty of evidence for his assertion, starting with the Church of Rome in the West, the Church of Alexandria in the East, and the influential Churches of Africa.

  • St. Clement, pope and martyr, and immediate disciple and successor of St. Peter, wrote in his letter to the church of Corinth: “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be disagreement about the nomination of future bishops. Because of this, they handed down a rule for future succession: bishops must be outstanding men elected with the consent and approbation of the whole church”. The Apostolic Constitution, attributed to St. Peter, states, “I, Peter, as first among you, declare that the person to be ordained bishop is to be without fault in all things, and chosen by all the people as the most worthy… The president of the assembled Christians must ask the priests and the people if this is their choice. If they agree, he goes on to ask if all witness to the person’s worthiness for such an office… When they have agreed for the third time, let the person be elected.” St. Clement and his successors remained faithful to this tradition as we can see from the acts of St. Cornelius, Julius, Zosimus, Boniface, Celestine, Leo the Great, Hilarius, Hormisdas, Gregory the Great, Hadrian I, Gregory VII, Urban II, Pascal II and innumerable others. All these witnesses strongly defended the tradition of the election of bishops by clergy and people.
  • What was the Alexandrian tradition about the active presence of the Christian people in the election of bishops? St. Athanasius and Origen spoke diffusely of the same tradition in the election of bishops. Origen writes: “When a bishop is ordained the people must be present so that all may know and be sure that the most worthy, learned, holy and virtuous person amongst them has been chosen for the priesthood in the presence of all. Thus, there will be no reproaches later, nor doubts about the bishop. The Apostles insisted on this when speaking about the ordination of bishops”. And St. Athanasius, “When the people have gathered the ordination should be carried out in the presence of the people and of the clergy. The emperor Constance – Athanasius laments – thought he would change the law of God by violating the Lord’s statutes handed down through the Apostles. He sent bishops backed by the military to unwilling people great distances away. His only recommendation and notification were threats and letters to the magistrates”. Athanasius regarded such false bishops as “intruders” and “wolves”.
  • The churches of Africa testify to the same unbroken tradition. St. Cyprian writes, “We recognise that choosing a bishop in the presence and sight of all the people, when his worthiness and suitability are supported by public witness and testimony, comes down to us from divine authority… What we hold to in all our provinces as the rightful celebration of ordination is to be preserved and held as of divine and apostolic observance. The people for whom the new leader is ordained, the bishops of the provinces are to gather so that the bishop may be chosen in the presence of the people who are fully conversant with the life of individuals and aware of how each has behaved himself”.


History shows as an undeniable fact that in the greatest Churches founded by the Apostles, in the churches of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Ephesus, Caesarea, Heraclea, Corinth, Thessalonica, Carthage and others, the people took an active part for many centuries in the ordinary choice of bishops. A bishop without the support and approval of the people was considered an unlawful usurper.

This tradition remained secure and universal during the first six centuries of the Church. The invasions of barbarian armies which brought to an end the old Roman Empire caused dramatic changes in the Church especially in her status as a poor but free Mother of all her subjects. The new barbarian rulers favoured the Church with wealth and power while at the same time enslaving her through the bishops who became progressively political princes subjected to the authority of the rulers.

The battle with secular powers over the choice of bishops lasted many centuries. The Church defended herself with decrees and canons, and strong statements from many councils. Pope Symmachus, for example, already in 500AD published a Decree in the presence of 218 bishops which declared: “We cannot permit any power of decision in the Church to those whose duty it is to follow rather than to command”, and then goes on to confirm the ancient manner of choosing bishops with the consent of the clergy and people. Gregory the Great wrote in 593, “Inform clergy and people of the city immediately to agree about a choice of bishop, and send the decree of election so that he may be ordained with our consent, according to ancient practice. Above all, be careful not to allow royal power, or patronage from highly placed persons, to have any influence in the election”.

But all the efforts to safeguard this fundamental principle of freedom for the Church produced little results before determined and powerful kings and princes bent on accumulating all authority and dominion on themselves. They spoke initially of “royal assent” to the ordination of bishops, then they considered bishops as their subjects and their properties as properties of the king. It happened often that at the death of a bishop the king would not appoint a new bishop for a long period so that he may enrich himself with all the revenues of the dead bishop’s properties. It often happened that the king would offer the office of bishop to the highest bidder. And because ordinary priests also shared church revenues, kings decided that the Church should no longer have the right to ordain even a humble priest without the king’s permission.

Freedom of choice in Episcopal elections was almost totally lost by the beginning of the 11th century. Abbot Ingulfus, a contemporary of William the Conqueror, thus describes conditions in England: “For years now, there has been no free, canonical election of prelates; Episcopal and abbatial office has been conferred at the pleasure of the royal court by investiture with the ring and the pastoral staff”. It is worth reading the sad pages produced by Rosmini as evidence of what he says, particularly the heroic acts of Hincmar, the holy archbishop of Reims, and of Pascal II.

It was Gregory VII that brought to an end this long, sad period of the history of the Church. We will not go into the details of Gregory’s battles against kings and princes of his time, especially the emperor Henry IV, whom he had barefoot for days in the snowy ground outside his palace at Canossa before admitting him and receiving from him unreserved manifestations and words of sorrow for the damage he had inflicted to the Church by his arrogance in selling Episcopal sees and getting bishops to defy the Pope. In one of Henry IV letters to the Pope, before his act of submission at Canossa, we read, “Our Lord the king commands you to resign from the apostolic see and the papacy, which is his, and cease cluttering up this holy place”! Rosmini claims that the real struggle between “priesthood” and “empire” was in reality a struggle between corrupt bishops refusing reform and the Church wishing to reform them. Behind every ambitious king in Europe there were many corrupt bishops far more loyal to the crown than to the Church, that constantly advised their kings on how to grab more power from the Church.

After Gregory’s victory over the empire, there followed a relatively calm time for the Church, during which ancient traditions and disciplines were re-established. But after a century or so, “the devil found a new and more subtle means for disturbing the peace and prosperity of the Church: unlimited reservations”. The Church had triumphed with Gregory VII, therefore she gained in prestige and power. She used the power to concentrate into the hands of the Pope all the right of appointment of bishops and abbots everywhere. This accumulation of power on the papacy generated immense resentment among Christians, and they reacted “with disgust rather than anger” at the sight of the supreme leaders of the Church reserving all privileges to themselves in order to acquire more wealth and authority.

The bishops gathered at the Council of Basel attacked papal reservations, causing kings and rulers everywhere to demand from the pope acknowledgement of their rights and privileges. A terrible consequence of this was the surrender, once again, to secular powers of the nominations of bishops. Resultant treaties forced the relinquishment by the popes of a large part of the freedom of choice of Episcopal appointments. The nomination of bishops was granted to the king; the Holy See simply retained its power to confirm the nomination. “In effect, the new style of discipline, which still prevails and causes one of the most painful and bitter wounds in the crucified Spouse of Christ, divided the “reservations” between sovereigns and popes”.

This was the situation at the time of Rosmini. He makes a powerful case inviting kings and emperors to give up their ill-gotten privilege to nominate bishops. He reasons with them and argues that it is in their best interest to let the Church of God free to choose her bishops. He lists four fundamental principles in the election of bishops which, he argues, can be properly fulfilled by the Church, never by the State:

  • “The best person available should be chosen as bishop”: who is in the better position to judge the qualities required of a bishop, the Shepherd of his flock, who leads his people in the way of holiness by sound doctrine and moral up-righteousness?
  • “The priest chosen should be known, loved and wanted by those whom he has to govern”: the church’s desire to have as father and pastor the priest it feels more at home with is good and reasonable. But if rulers nominate the bishops, the people’s wishes are rarely listened to.
  • “The priest chosen as bishop should have been enrolled for a lengthy period amongst the clergy of the diocese he is to govern, and not be sent there as a stranger from a distant country”: it is in the best interest of the local church that the person who is going to be the father of all is known to all. Rulers follow favouritism and personal interest, not the interest of the people.
  • “Generally speaking, only the moral body or moral person concerned is capable of judging what is best for itself”: the Church is a spiritual and moral reality, and her interest and mission differ widely from the preoccupations of civil governments. The Church knows what is best for her, and the Christian people know what is in their best interest in matters related to their salvation.

Finally, Rosmini, after giving his full approval to the maxim established by Leo the Great, “The person governing all should be chosen by all”, sums up the duties and rights of the people of God in the election of their bishop:

  • To bear witness to the virtue and suitability of the bishop they are to receive. They have the right to make known defects as Cyprian says, “so that in the people’s presence good and evil may be discerned”.
  • To express their desire and request for the bishop whose virtues they witness to. The bishops of Alexandria in supporting the election of St. Athanasius maintained that he became bishop when “the entire crowd, together with the whole assembly of the catholic church, united as one body and soul, cried out and shouted for Athanasius as bishop of the church. They publicly begged this of Christ, and beseeched us for it for many days and nights, neither leaving the church nor allowing us to leave it. We ourselves, this city, and the whole of the province are witnesses of the fact”.
  • To refuse a bishop who has been chosen, provided the refusal is the work of the majority or the more reliable part of those belonging to the diocese. St. Celestine prescribes that “no bishop shall be given to people unwilling to receive him”. This is a kind of veto recognised by the Church as a right belonging to Christian people.


From the Decree on the Bishops of Vatican II:

“Bishops of themselves enjoy full and perfect freedom, and independence from any civil authority… Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and serves a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this most sacred ecumenical Synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and of itself exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more suitably and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this most holy Council desires that in future no rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be any longer granted to civil authorities. Such civil authorities, whose favourable attitude toward the Church this most sacred Synod gratefully acknowledges, are most kindly requested to make a voluntary renunciation of the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom”.

Copyright © Rosmini Centre,
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