A single sentence in a papal document issued today may signal that Pope Francis is willing take a stronger hand in removing some bishops from office.
The one-page document deals primarily with the age of a bishop’s retirement. But it also states: “In some particular circumstances, the competent Authority (the pope) may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.”
The power of a pope to sack a bishop has always been presumed, but here it is spelled out. It comes after Pope Francis has already removed a Paraguayan bishop from office over pastoral controversies, and accepted the resignation of a German bishop in the wake of a spending scandal. The Vatican is actively investigating the pastoral leadership of at least two other prelates, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted two years ago by a civil court on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse by a diocesan priest.
A Vatican spokesman quickly underlined that today’s document contained “nothing truly new,” but was a forceful restatement of existing norms. But surely there was a reason it was issued.
In recent months, several Vatican officials have emphasized that church law envisions the possibility of a bishop losing his office for abuse or negligence in ministry. Specifically, some officials have said bishops need to be held accountable for their mistakes in the handling of sex abuse cases.
A note: Over at his canon law blog, Dr. Edward Peters says that “Roman requests (demands?) for episcopal resignations are occurring much more often these days,” although they did not begin with Pope Francis. Peters said the fact that this is occurring without any recognizable canonical process raises serious questions.