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December 5, 2012

Slate's Explainer: A pink slip from the pope

By L.V. Anderson
Slate.com

— A survey of 40 Catholic priests in the Kansas City, Mo., area indicates that Bishop Robert Finn has lost the support of his priests since he was convicted earlier this year of failing to report child abuse by a priest in his diocese. Many priests and other critics have suggested that Finn resign. If he does not, the only way for him to be removed from office is for the pope to fire him. How common is it for a bishop to be fired?

Quite uncommon. As a rule, the Vatican avoids firing bishops outright, since doing so reflects poorly on the church and implies that it was a mistake for the pope to have appointed the fired bishop in the first place. In cases of conflict between the Vatican and a bishop, the Vatican usually pressures a problematic bishop to resign before resorting to actively dismissing him.

In recent years, the most famous cases of bishops being fired by the Vatican have been cases of liberal bishops who question church doctrine. In 1995, Pope John Paul II fired Jacques Gaillot, the Bishop of Evreux in France, after Gaillot offered to bless gay couples, endorsed condom use and the abortion pill, and expressed support for the ordination of married priests. In a similar case in Australia last year, the bishop of Toowoomba, William Morris, was fired by Pope Benedict XVI five years after writing a letter to his parish suggesting that the church should consider ordaining women and married men. Pope Benedict XVI appears to have a more liberal attitude toward firing than his predecessor; he has also fired three other bishops (in Slovakia, Congo, and Italy) for financial mismanagement.

In cases like Finn's in which a bishop loses public support, the church has a history of not firing him. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who covered up extensive sexual abuse of children by priests, resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, but the Vatican continued to support him and appointed him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 2004.

If a troublesome bishop is getting on in years, the Vatican might just decide to wait until he turns 75 rather than go through the hassle of dismissing him. According to canon law, all bishops must offer to resign on their 75th birthday; sometimes the Vatican refuses to accept a bishop's resignation, and he continues to serve either until the Vatican asks him to leave or until he dies. Often, however, the Vatican accepts his resignation once a suitable replacement has been found.

The pope doesn't personally keep tabs on the world's bishops and call them into his office to fire them when they act up. Instead, papal nuncios — like church ambassadors to different countries — keep tabs on their regions' bishops and recommend action to the pope. Whether a bishop is fired or resigns (for age or other reasons), he isn't stripped of his titles. Being appointed a bishop is a sacrament, or a sign of God's grace, which means that no man can undo it. (The exception is when a priest decides to renounce the priesthood — say, so that he can get married — at which point he goes through a process called laicization.)

Historically, bishops haven't always been appointed (and fired) by popes as they are today. Until Pope Gregory VII began challenging the practice in the 11th century, bishops and abbots were sometimes appointed by kings, counts and other laypeople. It wasn't until 1917 that the pope's sole ability to appoint bishops was codified in canon law.

Got a question about today's news? ask-the-explainer@yahoo.com. Explainer thanks Christopher Bellitto of Kean University and Thomas Reese of Georgetown University.