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Ratzinger weighs in on careerism of bishops

NCR Staff

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is latest to weigh in on the subject of careerism among bishops — fueling a debate among senior Vatican prelates that has become remarkably public in recent weeks.

Speaking in an uncharacteristically repentant tone, Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal officer, expressed regret for leaving his own diocese. He was quoted in the June issue of the Italian journal 30Giorni. Ratzinger said he believed bishops should ordinarily remain in one diocese for life.

He was seconding the argument made in April by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, former head of the Congregation for Bishops.

Gantin had complained of the “amazing careerism” he experienced in making episcopal appointments. He said candidates often pressured him for higher offices, and he proposed that bishops should be transferred only in rare circumstances.

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, agreed that the “natural place” of the bishop is as head of one diocese. In a March speech at a Roman university, Medina rejected careerism: “The episcopacy cannot be the coronation of a career.”

Ironically, all three men were first diocesan bishops before being transferred to Rome. Gantin led the Cotonu diocese in Bénin in West Africa, Ratzinger the archdiocese of Munich-Freising in Germany, and Medina the dioceses of Rancagua and Valparaíso in Chile.

Ratzinger acknowledged the seeming inconsistency of his stance. “The view of the bishop-diocese relation as matrimony, implying fidelity, is still valid,” he said. “Sadly I myself have not remained faithful in this regard.”

An opposing view came from Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome diocese and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.

“I can say that to have been a professor for many years, and the auxiliary bishop of Reggio Emilia for three years, helped me a lot when I became the secretary of the bishops’ conference, and it also helped me when I became cardinal vicar and the conference’s president. This seems quite normal to me, quite logical,” Ruini said on Italian television.

In the magazine interview, Ratzinger disagreed. “In the church, above all, there should be no sense of careerism. To be a bishop should not be considered a career with a number of steps, moving from one seat to another, but a very humble service.

“I think that the discussion on access to the ministry would also be much more serene if the episcopate saw it as a service and not as a career. Even a poor see with only a few faithful is an important service in God’s church.”

Medina said that although some bishops, such as curial officials, have no responsibility for dioceses, and although authority in some geographic areas is divided among bishops, such as Roman and Eastern-rite bishops, episcopal ordination still implies “pastoral responsibility as the head of one diocese.”

Ratzinger did not endorse Gantin’s proposal to amend canon law to stipulate that transfers could only occur in rare cases. But he said the next time the code is revised, language should be added on the “oneness and fidelity” of the bishop’s commitment.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999