The Power of the Keys & the Synod

This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

Most of the bishops gathered in Rome for the Synod on the Family do not serve in the diocese for which they were first ordained a bishop. None of the eight American delegates serve in the diocese for which they were first ordained. So, for example, when Cardinal Daniel DiNardo was installed as the coadjutor Bishop of Galveston-Houston in 2004, the nuncio read a papal bull appointing him as the new coadjutor bishop and releasing him from his bonds to the diocese of Sioux City where he had previously served as bishop. In the early Church, bishops were not translated from one diocese to another. The innovation came about as the Church grew, and some larger dioceses needed more seasoned leadership when a vacancy occurred. And while many sermons and much theology analogizes that a bishop is wedded to his diocese, the Power of the Keys permitted the pope to remove prior bonds when re-assigning a bishop from one diocese to another.

In 2013, when it became clear that Pope Francis intended significant reforms of the Church, I wrote an article advocating for a return to the ancient practice of not translating bishops from one diocese to another. It seemed to me that this would be one way to squeeze a lot of the careerism out of the Church. A man being named the bishop of Norwich, Connecticut, to cite my home diocese, would know that he would be wedded to the people there for all of his life, his decisions would be taken with a view towards having to live with those decisions, not whether the decision would make his resume for a larger and more important diocese more spiffy. Yes, the nuncio and the Congregation for bishops would have to undertake more due diligence in selecting candidates for large, complex dioceses, and there would be a risk that the wrong man would be selected. Still, it seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that the risks were outweighed by the value on restricting the careerism. There could be exceptions, but they would have to be rare, and there could be no exceptions for the first five or ten years, to really affect the kind of change I thought would be beneficial.

I sent the article I had penned to some friends who happen to be bishops and one of them replied, “Yes, ideally, your proposal would be the norm. But, why would we deny ourselves the best candidate for a given post simply because he happens to be a bishop somewhere else? The good of the Church often requires the current practice.” I do not doubt what my learned and holy friend said.

Some bishops in the aula are titular bishops, that is, their post comes with the archiepiscopal dignity, but they do not govern a particular area. They are assigned a titular see, usually a diocese that existed once but does not any longer. The idea is that a bishop must have jurisdiction over a place, and that a diocese that no longer exists in fact, nonetheless exists somehow in the mind of God and in the life of grace. So, for example, when Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia was named as Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, he was ordained as the titular Archbishop of Oregon City. That archdiocese, one of the oldest in the U.S., was transferred to Portland, but you still pass Oregon City on the way to the airport. Archbishop DiNoia has no jurisdiction in Oregon City as it exists today.

Other former dioceses such as Bardstown, Kentucky and Walla Walla, Washington, remain titular sees: Earlier this year, Bishops James Massa and Witold Mroziewski were appointed auxiliary bishops in Brooklyn, New York, and Massa was ordained as the titular Bishop of Bardstown and Mroziewski was ordained as titular Bishop of Walla Walla. In such cases, the titular see is a fiction that preserves a theological truth, but allows the Church to get on with business. Once, it backfired. In 1995, Pope John Paul II removed Bishop Jacques Gaillot from the governance of his diocese of Evreux in France and named him titular Bishop of Partenia, which was once a diocese in what is now Algeria. +Gaillot took the idea of a virtual diocese to the newly emerging world of virtual reality and created the website where you can still go to learn about +Gaillot, his career and his writings.

Most of the bishops in the aula have also had an experience of having to send to Rome for permission to laicize a priest. It is rare, but far from unknown, for a young priest, having gone through anywhere from five to eight years of training nonetheless gets to his first parish and finds himself falling in love with one of his flock. Rome can dispense him from his vow of celibacy so that he can get married. He remains a priest and can, in extremis, hear a penitent’s confession and absolve the penitent’s sins, indeed, in extremis, he is obligated to do so. He is still a priest because sacraments cannot be revoked. But, so that the Church can uphold its rule on a celibate clergy, and to avoid any potential for scandal, the Church dispenses the priest from his vow of celibacy. To be clear, the vow of celibacy is different from the marital vow, but how many sermons have we heard linking the two?

One of the questions before the synod is whether or not some similar provisions can be extended to the lay faithful who find themselves divorced and civilly remarried, a practice that continues in the Orthodox tradition. As I understand the Orthodox practice, a second marriage is not a sacramental marriage. In some meaningful sense, the person remains sacramentally bound to his or her first marriage. The thought occurs that this first union does perdure in meaningful ways: A person’s marriage may have failed, but the person who moves on has been changed, perhaps not ontologically by that first marriage, but changed in real and significant ways. But, for the good of the Church and for the good of souls, a second non-sacramental union is permitted. The Latin Church does not utilize the Orthodox precept of economia in our teachings, but I would submit that in the cases above, of translating bishops from one diocese to another, of appointing titular sees to auxiliary bishops and curial officials, and in laicizing priests who desire to be wed, the Latin Church practices economia in fact. The situations are not identical but analogous.

I am sure that when the practice of translating bishops, or naming titulars, or laicizing priests began, there were objections, many of them thoughtful and sound. I think the synod fathers and the pope should make sure that if we make any changes in our current praxis regarding the divorced and civilly remarried, it be clear that this praxis is not tantamount to Catholic divorce. Certainly, in speaking with my Orthodox friends, they understand that the penitential second marriage is nothing at all like its civil equivalent which, obviously, has no penitential aspect to it. And, in speaking to my Catholic friends, there is no doubt that our current praxis takes a toll on family life when mom and dad cannot go to communion with their children because of a prior, sacramental union.

These analogies do not decide anything. But, they should make the loudest and most certain opponents of any change, the group I am now calling Team Javert, a little more reluctant to simply dismiss the possibility of finding a way to help these families who have been afflicted by a failed first marriage. Team Valjean needs to make the case for any change, and that case has to be theologically sound, deeply mindful of the current praxis of our Orthodox brothers and sisters, but mindful, too, of our different Western traditions. Some additional provision for the divorced and remarried may still be, as a matter of prudential judgment, a bad idea for the Church to take at this moment. But, what no one can reasonably deny is that the Church is often willing to make allowances, to entertain fictions even, for the good of the Church and for the good of souls. The Lord Jesus entrusted the power of the keys to Peter for a reason. Perhaps, this is the reason, because ministry requires the power to bind and to loose if it is to be both effective and true to the mind of Christ and to the heart of God, the Father of Mercies.

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