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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?

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