Sunday, December 1, 2013

Should each territory have only one bishop?

Perhaps relevant to Pope Francis' recent comments on decentralization is a discussion on the ancient ideal of monepiscopacy, which is the notion that each territory - eparchy or diocese - should have only one bishop. Pope Francis writes, "It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'"[1] Could a sound decentralization ever include a retraction of monepiscopacy as an ideal?

Icon of Saints Peter & Paul by Athanasios Clark, 
Though monepiscopacy is ancient and widespread,[2] it is neither apostolic nor essential to faith. Even Rome looks (or ought to look) to its dual apostolic foundation of Peter and Paul. As Michael Holmes points out, "the office of monarchial bishop..., does not appear to have existed in Rome [before the second century]. Leadership seems to have been entrusted to a group of presbyters or bishops.”[3] 

Monepiscopacy has not been the reality for a long time in East or West. But should it be the ideal? Perhaps sharing one bishop helps neighbors realize their unity in Christ. Contrariwise, perhaps separate bishops can provoke rivalry and opposition.

Insisting upon monepiscopacy, however, is insensitive to current realities, where numerous Churches coexist in relative harmony, each equal in dignity. Having one’s own bishop helps protect the full expression of a particular Church’s traditions, which were threatened, for example, in the historical case of American Eastern Catholics who were once subject to Roman bishops.

[1] Evangelii Gaudium, 16.

[2] Ignatius, for example, promoted monepiscopacy to ensure unity. Early Christian Fathers. Ed. Cyril Richardson. Vol 1. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953. 126.

[3] "Presbyter" and "bishop" were sometimes used as interchangeably at this time. Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007, 34.

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