Signs of Hope: The Benedict Bishop Bump

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One of the memes currently circulating is that Pope Francis is in the midst of radically changing the American episcopate in a leftward, “progressive” direction.

And whether or not you like using terms like “progressive” and “orthodox”, the media and some figures in the church are eager to claim that big change is happening.

The two examples cited are the appointments of Bishop Blaise Cupich to Chicago and now Robert W. McElroy as bishop of San Diego.

Pope Benedict with American bishops. Copyright: St. Louis Review

Pope Benedict with American bishops. Copyright: St. Louis Review

I’m going to present a different view.

In the first installment of my new series, Signs of Hope, I described the phenomenon that younger priests in America are on the whole more likely to be orthodox than their elders. Attribute it to what you will (I give lots of credit to the papacy of St. John Paul II), I think this claim is a verifiable fact.

My second installment will now describe what I refer to as the “Benedict Bishop Bump” – the fact that Pope Benedict has had an over-sized and I predict, long-lasting, effect on the makeup of the American hierarchy, one that will take an awful long time for Pope Francis to reverse (if he even wants to, which I leave as a separate debate).

Back in 1995, my father Edward Peters published an article “The coming bishop crunch” in Homiletic & Pastoral Review where he pointed out that beginning in 2005 the pace of episcopal retirements and vacant seas would increase dramatically:

“The question I want to consider now is simple: during just the three years from 2005 to 2007, where will we find 45 men “outstanding for their solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and other virtues and talents, possessing advanced degrees or true expertise in scripture, theology, canon law…” (1983 CIC 378) to fill those episcopal slots? If only for mathematical reasons, we can’t count on the present pool of bishops to cover the bases.”

In other words, in three short years (2005-07), 10 archdioceses and 35 dioceses needed new leadership.

In the twilight years of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, new episcopal appointments in the United States had slowed, many bishops and archbishops were serving past their age of mandatory retirement and it was no secret that the Holy Father was not able to be as involved in the selection of new bishops as he once was.

The Holy Spirit’s answer to this problem was Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict’s election in early 2005 was perfectly timed to effect a sea change in the American Catholic hierarchy as well as create an enduring legacy.

Beginning in May 2005 until his retirement in February 2013, Pope Benedict appointed 100 bishops to head dioceses and archdioceses in the USA. There are 195 U.S. dioceses in all, which means that almost half of the currently serving bishops in America are Pope Benedict appointees. And that is not counting the dozens of auxiliary bishops he also appointed.

Pope Francis, by comparison, has appointed roughly 33 bishops — and most of these bishops were originally made bishops by Pope Benedict (just as many of Pope Benedict’s bishops were originally made bishops under St. John Paul II).

Out of all these appointments, the media has only been able to latch onto two that fit their narrative (Bishop Cupich and Bishop McElroy) and  both of them were appointed by Pope Benedict! The other 31 bishops Pope Francis has advanced apparently do not fit the narrative.

Pope Francis will not reach the 100-bishops-appointed mark until 2023, eight more years from now. And if he keeps up his track record of 2 “progressive” appointments per 33 chances, that would mean a grand total of 6 “progressive” bishops in America by 2023, which is about what we have now. 😉

In the meantime, the majority of American bishops will continue to be men appointed by Pope Benedict, and their replacements will disproportionately come from the ranks of auxiliary bishops Pope Benedict appointed and after that, the young men who will become bishops next are the ones I described in my first installment: orthodox priests!

Keep this in mind the next time you see a headline from the mainstream media claiming that they can predict what the future of the Catholic hierarchy in America will look like.

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I am using this (recently out of date) list of American bishops plus my own independent research using Catholic-Hierarchy to come up with the numbers in this article … feel free to quibble with my math in the comments!

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Thomas Peters, 31, grew up in Southern California and attended college in Michigan. He has two graduate degrees in theology. He began his award-winning American Papist blog in 2006, which went on to become one of the most popular Catholic blogs in America. He was one of a handful of Americans invited to the Vatican’s first-ever Bloggers’ Meeting in Rome. Peters has appeared in dozens of TV, radio and online media outlets over the years discussing the intersection of Catholicism and political activism, debating topics related to life, family and religious freedom, in addition to writing and speaking about the future of social media and online organizing. Since 2010, he has served as an advisor to CatholicVote.org. He and his wife Natalie live in Washington DC. You can follow him on Twitter @AmericanPapist.

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