As World War II came to a close, and the Free French government of Charles DeGaulle took the reins of power in Paris, a controversy arose about what to do with those French bishops who had collaborated with the pro-fascist Vichy regime. DeGaulle and the stoic ministers of state might have been willing to let bygones be bygones, but Catholic members of the Resistance were insistent. At least some of the worst offenders needed to be deposed.
To Roman eyes, the bishops – and indeed the Nuncio – could not be faulted for dealing with the legal government of the day. However odious the regime of Marshal Petain, it had been constituted legally. But, the new nuncio, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXII, grasped that more was involved than legal niceties. In a discussion with Andre Latreille, of the French Interior Ministry, he admitted “that odium plebes (hatred by the people) could be an argument against an offending prelate” according to Latreille’s notes from the meeting. Negotiations were largely conducted in Rome, not Paris, bypassing Roncalli and using the French ambassador to the Holy See, Jacques Maritain, as the chief negotiator. Maritain had a profound personal friendship with Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini, the Sostituto and future Pope Paul VI.
On July 27, 1945, seven French bishops were removed from their office by Pope Pius XII. This was not entirely unprecedented. In 1800, Napoleon perceived the need to restore relations with the Catholic Church. “Tell the Pope that I want to make him a present of 30,000,000 Frenchmen,” the First Consul exclaimed. In negotiating the Concordat of 1801, the principal difficulty was that France had two competing hierarchies, those who had been named by the King before the Revolution and mostly living in exile, and those of the Constitutional Church set up by the Revolution without Roman approval. The Concordat reorganized the episcopate, lowering the number of bishoprics and Pope Pius VII demanded that all bishops resign and he would then appoint new bishops from the list of both the royal and the revolutionary bishops. 48 bishops complied but 37 refused and Pius VII responded by declaring their sees vacant. New bishops were installed.
Both the 1801 and the 1945 removals of duly installed prelates represented an exercise of Roman authority unknown in earlier times. Generally, this is not a good idea. But, generally, the Church is not facing the kind of crisis it faces today. The revelations about Cardinal Angelo Sodano’s efforts, and the efforts of others, to protect Father Maciel, and the news last night that Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos actually congratulated a bishop for not reporting a priest’s crimes to the civil authorities, show that it is time to get out the big broom again. This time, it is not France that needs a house-cleaning, it is the Vatican itself. In both cases, the odium plebes is ample justification for an otherwise extraordinary act. The Vatican moves cautiously, but in the current crisis, only bold action, responsible action, will suffice.