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On the removal of bishops

Twice in the last three months, Vatican Information Service has announced something which, for the last decade, Vatican officials have said was not actually possible: The pope has removed bishops from the pastoral care of their dioceses.

I have mixed feelings on these announcements.

On March 31, VIS reported that the Holy Father had removed his brother bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba from the pastoral care of the diocese of Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo. On May 2, it was announced that he had removed Bishop William M. Morris from the pastoral care of the diocese of Toowoomba, Australia. In neither case was the relevant canon cited which would indicate the actual conditions under which the bishop was ‘removed’.

Bishop Bill has been getting lots of press, both supportive and critical. There has been virtually nothing else on Bishop Jean-Claude. This is the first disappointment – a Caucasian Anglophone bishop gets removed and there is all sorts of coverage, but an African bishop gets the same and… nothing? Really? I know there can be lots of reasons for this: access to internet media, maybe it is all being reported in French, maybe there just is not support for Bishop Jean-Claude as there was for Bishop William, etc. But it still looks bad.

The reasons noted in press outlets for Bishop Jean-Claude’s removal include “mismanagement problems (not moral ones) and tensions in his diocese” – by which is apparently meant tensions with his presbyterate. If every bishop with management problems were removed, we would see this kind of thing a lot more often. This is something that commentators on both left and right picked up on: mismanagement alone is not sufficient for the removal of a bishop, according to canon law. In a global corporation, maybe that would be the case, but this is the Church. So maybe it’s the issue of tensions with the presbyterate – we saw in the case of Cardinal Law that he was not asked to go until his priests declared ‘no confidence’ in his leadership, no matter how many protests from the laity and other ministers.

For the last decade of the sexual abuse crisis, amid calls for the Pope to do something more direct, we have constantly heard that he cannot simply remove malfeasant bishops, that a process must be followed. And then this, where he appears to do just that. But I think partially it is that he appears to do that – and probably this is an inaccurate report by VIS. Both EWTN and Ed Peters, both decidedly right-of-center on ecclesiastical issues, comment on this, so put to rest any accusations of this being a ‘liberal’ complaint.

This is an issue from at least two directions. First, a bad process always leads to a bad decision, even if the actual outcome is a good one. This is moral theology 101 – the ends do not justify the means. So, either there was a better process in place (seems likely) and it was just poorly communicated (still part of the process), or it was a bad process from start to finish.

Second, and more importantly, bishops are not middle management, carrying out their tasks vicariously authorized by the pope – at least, in theory (theology) and in law. In practice however, and in popular Catholicism, this is exactly what they are. The problem here is, if this is what they are, then the Holy See is liable for lawsuit on abuse claims based on the idea that the pope is the supervisor of the bishops. The Vatican’s defense in recent cases was precisely based on Catholic ecclesiology that the bishops are not branch-managers of a global conglomerate. However, if they can be appointed and removed at will by the ‘central office’ then, legally, that is exactly what they are – and the Vatican itself becomes liable for their actions while in office.

With the case of Bishop William “Bill” of Toowoomba, which has generally been focused on a 2006 pastoral letter in which the bishop mused on creative alternatives to the priest shortage in his diocese:

Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. As has been discussed internationally, nationally and locally the ideas of:

  • ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;
  • welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;
  • ordaining women, married or single;
  • recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.

We remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.

The obvious problem point is “ordaining women, married or single”. At least, it should be obvious. Since 1994 and the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the popular understanding is that “we cannot talk about ordaining women anymore”. This is not exactly accurate, as the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate, or as deaconesses, is not excluded and is still very much debated. (I am currently reading an interesting book by Bishop Gerhard Müller who argues that this document meant to exclude the diaconate as well, however).

Many people are not aware that the CDF, under Joseph Ratzinger, a year later issued a Responsum ad Dubium stating, “This teaching… has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” – probably because this claim was repudiated by various theologians expert in the infallible magisterium of the papacy as “not fitting the criterion” to make it such. Some of this was confusion between ex cathedra teaching (which this clearly is not) and the more ambiguous claim to infallibility because it is an exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium. Much however is based on the argument that the exclusion of women from ordination is not a matter of faith or morals, but of ecclesiastical discipline, and therefore not eligible for “infallible status”.

The rest are valid and viable ideas, to differing degrees. Canon 277.1 obliges all clerics to “observe perfect and perpetual continence … and therefore are bound to celibacy”, but the same canon (277.3) allows the diocesan bishop to establish more specific norms or dispense with this requirement. This is used regularly for deacons, and for priests who are former Orthodox or Anglican priests or Lutheran pastors. Clearly, as a discipline, clerical celibacy is not part of the deposit of faith, is neither irreformable nor infallible, and a (theologically and pastorally, if not politically or prudently) reasonable option for discussion.

Ecumenical dialogue has as one of its goals the recognition of orders and ministries – we can certainly pray for the day when either we can honestly recognize in the orders of these other churches the full understanding of ordained ministry we see in our own, as we already do with the Orthodox and other ancient eastern Churches. And we hope for the day when those ministries are exercised together in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Fundamentally, though, the question comes down to this: If the Holy Father can “remove from the pastoral care of a diocese” bishops whose fault is less serious than shielding pedophile priests, why can we not do the same for those who do?


Bishop Don Bolen

He got the call on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 2009. “The Holy Father would like you to be bishop of Saskatoon.”

It is significant then, that his ordination as bishop take place today, on the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 2010.

Bishop Don Bolen at his ordination

In between these two events, I had the privilege of being the bishop-elect’s student in Rome for his half of a course on Methodism and its dialogue with the Catholic Church. I even wrote up a short blog article about the class and my first encounter with Msgr. Bolen, here.

I had offered some first impressions at the end of that blog. Over lunch on his next-to-last day in Rome, Father Don mentioned that someone had directed him to my blog about him, and he suggested that perhaps I should revisit my impressions now that we had gone through an entire class together. Fair enough.

The people of Saskatoon are blessed among Canadians. That is all there is to it.

Bishop Don Bolen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Most bishops have no training or formation to become bishop, not really. They see how their bishop acts, think what they would do, and that’s about it. Bishop Bolen spent years on the Vatican desk covering the dialogues with the Anglicans and the Methodists, where episcopacy and authority, indeed ecclesiology in general, are the major issues of discussion. What better formation than to be a theologian-pastor studying the highest level conversations about what it means to be a bishop, ecumenically, especially when Ratzinger is Pope and Kasper is President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity? Granted, it is one thing to engage in discussion about the episcopacy, and another to live it out, but what an opportunity!

So that’s the leadership aspect. What about teaching? At the end of our course, (team taught by Bishop Don and the Rev. Dr. Trevor Hoggard, the Methodist Representative to the Holy See) several of us had concluded this was one of the most valuable courses offered, in terms of both method and content. It was pretty straightforward: Get a solid introduction to the Methodist church from a Methodist pastor/theologian, get a thorough overview of the dialogue from the Catholic perspective, and culminate in a mock-dialogue with actual participants from the international dialogues, complete with Anglican observer.

The celebration of his ordination as bishop in Saskatoon was attended by several ecumenical leaders locally, and by a delegation from Rome that included Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the PCPCU,  Fr. James Puglisi, SA, Father-General of the Friars of the Atonement and Director of the Centro Pro Unione, Very Rev. David Richardson, ChStJ, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See, and others.  I have included a link to the pictures that the diocese has put up about the event, including a slide show.

His motto is “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy” and his coat of arms and biographical information are here. Weslyan hymns specifically chosen by the bishop were a central part of the ordination liturgy, as was an ecumenical prayer service that looks to have been very well attended.

Being bishop is no easy task and my prayers are with this newest of Canada’s episcopate. Coming from a diocese that has not seen a ‘normal’ transition of episcopal leadership since before I was born, I can especially appreciate what it means for a local church to find a shepherd that makes such a good fit, and I hope the coming years are fruitful and filled with the Spirit.

It’s a Small (Catholic) World After All

I think John Allen, Jr. said that if you stand in the same place in Rome long enough, you will meet every Catholic you have ever known, or at least someone who knows them.

Nancy left for home on Thursday after three weeks here in Italy, and I spent the next day sleeping to recover from vicarious jetlag! As Sunday approached I had not yet decided where I would be worshipping in my quest to pray in as many of Rome’s different churches as possible (without becoming just a liturgical tourist). So when Donna asked me to deliver some propaganda for Lay Centre events to the “Caravita”, the oratory of St. Francis that Nancy and I had been to a couple weeks ago, I agreed, still thinking I should be going somewhere new.

The Spirit works in little ways too.

When I arrived at del Caravita, I looked around for someone to ask about the material – where to put it, if we could announce the events, etc. As I watched two people seemed to be the “go-to” folk, one was a woman clearly preparing to serve as lector, and the other a tall, thin, bald guy who seemed to know everyone. So, i approached him with, “you seem to know whats going on around here, who would I talk to about this?” He offers to introduce me to the lector, “Cindy”, who would know. Here’s a transcript:

Me: Hi, my name is AJ Boyd, and I’m from…

Cindy: Oh my God! You’re AJ! I’m Cindy… Me: [Shocked expression] Cindy: …Woodin!

Me: Oh that Cindy!

Cindy: So you’re at the Angelicum right? Are you in Don’s class [indicating tall, thin, bald guy]?

Me: No, I just met him.

Cindy: He’s teaching a course on Methodism, and he’s just been named bishop of Saskatoon

Me: That’s Don Bolen?! I didn’t recognize him! I am taking his class… it starts tomorrow.

Ok, so it was more comical in real life. Cindy is a college friend of one of my parishioners from St. Brendan, and when I decided to come to Rome, she decided to put the two of us in touch. Cindy and I had been exchanging sporadic emails since July, and just had not yet met in person. She has lived in Rome for 20 years as part of the Catholic News Service Vatican Bureau.

Monsignor Don Bolen recieving the Cross of St. Augustin from Archbishop Rowan Williams

Monsignor Don Bolen is the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and former staff of the Anglican/Methodist desk at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Over Christmas break his election as bishop was announced, which I followed and even posted on Facebook. He’s teaching the second half of our course, Methodism and its Dialogue with the Catholic Church. He was the presider and homilist for the Sunday Eucharist, and was clearly loved by the people who had known him there from his time in Rome.

First impressions – after one mass and one class – is that the people of Saskatoon are blessed among Canadians. Home of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, it seems like a great fit, and any diocese would welcome a bishop who is so genuine, humble, intelligent and obviously a gifted ecumenist. A good preacher and teacher too!

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