Francis codifies pope's ability to effectively fire bishops

Pope Francis greets bishops at his Oct. 22 general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis greets bishops at his Oct. 22 general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has codified his ability to effectively fire Catholic bishops, saying that in some circumstances, he "can consider it necessary" to ask them to resign their offices.

The move, which the Vatican announced Wednesday, seems to be an attempt by Francis to clear up any ambiguity about the pontiff's power to replace prelates around the world. While Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, have effectively removed bishops in the past, their power to do so was not previously so explicit in the church's laws.

Wednesday's change comes in a short edict approved Monday by Francis at the request of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state. Composed of seven short articles, the edict addresses the resignation of diocesan bishops and papal appointees.

Concerning resignations at the pope's request, the edict states: "In some particular circumstances, the competent authority can consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present his resignation from pastoral office, after having made known the reasons for the request and listening carefully to the reasons, in fraternal dialogue."

The competent authority in such an instance would seem to be only the pope, who is ultimately the only person responsible for appointing bishops.

Change in the language regarding bishop firings comes after Francis suffered some criticism in September when he dismissed Paraguayan Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano.

Livieres, who was accused of mishandling a priest accused of sexual abuse and of causing friction among other bishops, later spoke somewhat angrily about his removal in a posting on his diocesan website.

Questions about the pope's power to remove bishops had likewise arisen in 2011 when Benedict forced the retirement of Australian Bishop Bill Morris, who had written a pastoral letter mentioning the possibility of ordaining women as one of several solutions to the growing priest shortage in his expansive diocese.

After many rounds of discussion between Morris and the Vatican, Morris' removal was carefully worded as a retirement and not a resignation, partly because it was unclear what power the pope had to force a bishop's resignation in such an instance.

The church's Code of Canon Law does not specifically refer to the pope's power in that regard, only saying that a diocesan bishop can lose his office when there is some sort of "privation" -- when the office is lost for some reason, likely because of the prelates' guilt of some sort of ecclesiastical crime.

Wednesday's Vatican edict also makes slight changes to when bishops serving at the Vatican are required to resign because of advanced age.

While the edict allows cardinals serving in the Vatican's curial offices to continue in their roles past the normal retirement age of 75 at the pope's request, it states that non-cardinals serving at the Vatican automatically "lose their office" when they reach 75.

Likewise, the edict states that members of Vatican congregations "lose their office" when they reach 80.

Other articles in Wednesday's edict effectively reaffirm current practice regarding the resignation of bishops. The edict, for example, restates that diocesan bishops are to submit their resignations at age 75, but that those resignations only come into effect when the pope approves them.

Wednesday's edict also states that bishops who serve in office at the national level -- as heads of committees or presidents of bishops' conferences, for example -- lose those offices when the pope accepts their resignations as diocesan bishops.

The edict expresses support for bishops who choose to resign before age 75 because of illness or other issues, saying they are "worthy of appreciation" from the church and that "the faithful are called to show solidarity and understanding for those who have been their shepherd."

Wednesday's edict states that its new norms come partly from recommendations of the Council of Cardinals, a group of senior prelates Francis has appointed to advise him in changing the Vatican's central bureaucracy. Parolin is one of nine members of the group.

Francis is expected in coming months to outline more changes based on the council's recommendations. The council next meets Dec. 9-11 at the Vatican.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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