The Secret Examination of Candidates for New Catholic Bishops, 2002

The secret examination of new Bishops

The papal Nuncio, in a document headed «sub secreto pontificio», sets out about one hundred questions to be asked about a candidate for the prelature. CRÓNICA has gained access to this document.


CRONICA, El Mundo, Sunday 3 November 2002 – Number 368

The form bears the coat of arms of the Spanish Nunciature, a six-digit serial number (N. 2099/09) and a heading including the words «Sub secreto pontificio». The document concerned, to which CRÓNICA has obtained access is the highly confidential examination used to assess applicants for ordination as bishop. «Reverend... has been proposed to the Holy See for the post of Bishop», reads the introduction. « We would be grateful if you would answer the following questions, as comprehensively as possible, on this man. This document will remain subject to pontifical secrecy, binding you to maintain the greatest confidentiality on the matter, on pain of mortal sin. In order to preserve secrecy, please return this questionnaire with your response, and do not keep a copy». Signed Mons. Manuel Monteiro de Castro, Apostolic Nuncio

It presents a list of questions, divided into 13 sections, on such intimate matters as the “physical disability and symptoms of hereditary illnesses” of candidates for the mitre. It asks about the «faith (sic), hope and love», the three theological virtues, the «obedience, humility and piety» and also the candidate’s position on «women’s ordination, sexual ethics and priestly celibacy».

Only a few organisations, such as the Church, could ask these questions, without being accused of an assault on the right to privacy or to honour. «As long as the questionnaire is not used for any other purpose, and is not divulged, there is no illicit invasion of privacy. The procedure is covered by article 6.1 of the Religious Freedom Act, exempting religious confession », explains the professor of Ecclesiastical Law at Complutense University (Madrid) and former director general of Religious Affairs, Dionisio Llamazares. The Spanish Nunciature sends the questionnaire to half a dozen people in the diocese that requires appointment of a bishop, who know the candidate very well. Normally these are priests or religious brothers or sisters, although a very committed lay person may be included. If the reports are entirely favourable, the applicant will be included on a shortlist of three that the Nuncio sends to Rome, where they are then subject to the placet of Cardinal Rouco Varela. Otherwise the shortlists are passed to the Vatican Congregation of Bishops, chaired by his friend, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. 

In theory, any priest may become a bishop, but only some will achieve the position. All those who do will be very competent, older men (over 50), members of diocesan curias, or canons, orthodox and with friends in the Spanish episcopal elite and in the Roman Curia. Some cardinals and archbishops in post will have the authority to select or appoint their auxiliary bishops. The present bishop of Palencia, Monsignor Palmero, was given the mitre by the emeritus Cardinal of Toledo, González Martín, for whom he acted as secretary for 20 years. 

Sometimes a lobby system applies. This was the case in Valencia, where 19 of its members were catapulted into the episcopacy: Carles, Ureña, Cañizares, Vilaplana, Reig, Gea, etc. In the majority of cases, Cardinal Rouco picks the shortlist from his own particular friends and preferences. Sometimes the Nuncio, Monteiro de Castro, uses his powers, especially to fill vacancies in small dioceses. 

In such cases, the papal ambassador writes to his contacts: «Beloved in the Lord: For the purposes of appointment to the diocese of..., I would be very grateful to you if on the reverse of this page you would write the names of possible candidates from which a short list may be drawn up to fill the position of episcopal minister in this diocese, giving the reasons for your choice».Signed: Mons. Manuel Monteiro de Castro. Apostolic Nuncio.

If the responses from those questioned are favourable, the applicant will be included in a shortlist of three that the Nuncio then sends to Rome./ IÑIGO IBÁNEZ

If the responses from those questioned are favourable, the applicant will be included in a shortlist of three that the Nuncio then sends to Rome./ IÑIGO IBÁNEZ


These are some of the questions sent to half a dozen of those close to the applicants for the position of bishop, asking them about the candidate’s qualities. 

1. INFORMATION ON THE INDIVIDUAL. Behaviour, capacity for work, family relationships, physical disabilities and any symptoms of hereditary illnesses.

2. HUMAN QUALITIES. Intellectual, reflective and practical abilities. Temperament and character. Internal balance. Judgement. Sense of responsibility. 

3 . HUMAN, CHRISTIAN AND PRIESTLY FORMATION. Does he demonstrate the following human, Christian and priestly virtues: intelligence, sense of justice, integrity, probity, objectivity, faith, hope, love, obedience, humility, piety? Does he celebrate the Eucharist, read the Bible and practice Marian piety on a daily basis? 

4. BEHAVIOUR. Does he have ethical attitudes? Can he form friendships? Does he maintain respectful relationships with State authorities? 

5. INTELLECTUAL FORMATION AND CAPACITY. Continuing formation in ecclesiastical subjects. Knowledge and awareness of current problems. Knowledge of other languages. Published articles or books. 

6. ORTHODOXY. Sincere communion with the teaching authority of the Church (the Magisterium). What does he think about women’s ordination, sexual ethics, and in particular the teachings of Humanae Vitae? To what extent is he loyal to the traditions of the Church? Is he committed to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the papal teachings that arose from it?

7. DISCIPLINE. Loyalty and obedience to the Holy Father, the Apostolic See and the hierarchy. Respectful acceptance of celibacy for priests. Respectful observance of all the general and particular norms relating to worship and Eucharistic celebration. Does he wear long vestments or similar? 

8. PASTORAL QUALITIES AND EXPERIENCE. What abilities and experience does he have in pastoral ministry? Is he trained and able to speak in public? Does he hear confessions? Does he encourage religious vocations? Is he committed to the missions, ecumenism and formation of the laity? 

9. QUALITIES OF COMMAND. Attitudes of service and of a father. Initiative. Capacity to lead. Capable of motivating and integrating collaborators. Able to analyse and plan. Is he capable of dialogue? Is he interested in the problems of the Church, at a universal and at a local level?

10. ADMINISTRATIVE SKILLS. Respect and husbanding of Church resources. Ability and keeness for administration. Ready to consult experts when necessary to resolve specific problems. 

11. PUBLIC APPRECIATION. Is he valued by his colleagues, his people and by the authorities?

12. GENERAL APPRECIATION. In your opinion, does he have the qualities to be an incumbent or auxiliary bishop? What type of diocese would suit him best: urban, industrial, rural, large, medium or small?

13. OTHER INFORMATION. Give the names, addresses and positions of other people (priests, religious brothers or sisters, or lay people) who may have the judgement, impartiality and discretion to respond to this questionnaire.

Translated by Joanna Waller


Are bishops, parish priests, theologians, etc. still bound by the ‘oath of fidelity’ if they come to realise that the arguments against ordaining women are invalid?

No, they are not. In that case, the oath ceases ‘ab intrinseco’ [from within] at least with regard to the ordination of women.

Catholics who are not academically trained may fear that bishops who have promised not to promote the ordination of women as a condition of their admission to the episcopacy, will not be able to change their position once they realise that the ban against women priests is based on faulty evidence.

Bishops, priests and theologians, however, know from their study of moral theology that a promise, even if made under oath, ceases to be valid if substantial error affected their knowledge regarding the object of the promise, or if an error affected the purpose of the promise (e.g. what is good for the Church), or if the promise was made under fear, or if the object of the promise has become impossible or harmful.

The promise ceases ab intrinseco, as Thomas Aquinas taught:

'Whatever would have been an impediment to the making of a promise if it had been present, also lifts the obligation from a promise that has been made.'

Scriptum super IV libros Sententiarum dist. 38, q.1, sol. 1 ad 1; D. M. Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Freiburg 1936, vol. II, 'De Voto', pp. 326-348.

- John Wijngaards