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Popular misconceptions, II

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2013

With the caveat that we can’t possibly keep up with all of the mistakes being made by reporters in their rush to cover the papal resignation and the coming conclave, here are a few more corrections of errors that have cropped up in multiple reports. Once again I encourage readers to treat every new report with caution, and sensational reports with outright skepticism. To separate the wheat from the chaff, keep checking this site.

  • The papal conclave will not be moved forward to a date earlier than March 15. The idea of an earlier conclave may be appealing, since the cardinals have had plenty of warning and time to assemble in Rome. But canon law forbids it. As canonist Edward Peters points out, accommodations can be made when canon law is unclear, but not simply when the law proves inconvenient. The rules for a papal conclave are clear: 14 days must lapse after the Holy See becomes vacant. We know exactly when the vacancy will occur, on February 28. So the conclave cannot meet before mid-March. These rules could be changed, but only by Pope Benedict XVI, who remains, until his resignation, the supreme legislator for canon law.
  • And while we’re on the topic of canon law, it is not improper to refer to a Pope’s “resignation.” It is true that ordinarily a “resignation” must be submitted to some higher authority, and for that reason some commentators prefer to use the term “abdication.” But the English translation of the Code of Canon Law refers to “resignation,” and specifically states that a papal resignation does not have to be submitted to, or accepted by, anyone in order to become effective. Of course the English translation of the Code is unofficial, so this debate may remain open.
  • The Vatican did not impede efforts by Cardinal Roger Mahony to clear up the sex-abuse scandal in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times has unearthed one case in which Cardinal Mahony complained about the Vatican’s tardy response to a request to laicize a particular priest. It is true that many bishops found the Vatican slow to act in such cases. But individual bishops did not need authorization from the Vatican in order to remove a priest from a parish assignment or report his activities to local police. Negligent bishops and sympathetic journalists have tried for years to pin the responsibility for the sex-abuse scandal on the Holy See, but the record shows that diocesan bishops regularly failed to use their own proper authority. The records of the Los Angeles archdiocese which were recently made public show that this was the case with Cardinal Mahony.
  • While the Vatican certainly could operate more efficiently, the top priority for a new Pontiff is not to display the sort of management expertise that might be obtained in a good business school. Bill Keller of the New York Times, a self-described “collapsed Catholic,” has collected suggestions from management consultants, on the premise that the Catholic Church is a multi-national corporation. The Church does have a corporate identity in various places; a diocese is incorporated under the relevant laws of the jurisdiction. But the universal Church is not incorporated as a single body. More to the point, the Church is not a business enterprise. Efficiency may be desirable, but the first priority is always the salvation of souls.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 20, 2013 3:50 AM ET USA

    I read Bill Keller's article. It is so full of errors that he has earned the right to call himself "collapsed." He points out that his "experts" agree that the pope should act more as a rock star, an Obama as it were. He should appoint a "compliance officer." We now refer to this person as a prefect. Wouldn't the Keller's of the world go crazy if we called him the head of the Papal Inquisition again? No, I don't think that Keller would revel much in the "Old Church," with all its "hardliners."

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