How many bishops has Pope Benedict persuaded to resign?
If the only news you read comes from popular commentators in the secular media, you might think that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning because he could not make any progress in fighting corruption within the Church. Those who follow Catholic news carefully know better.
In our news coverage yesterday we called attention to remarks by a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps, who credited Pope Benedict with a cleaning up the ranks of Catholic bishops. Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendia said that the Pope has quietly demanded the resignations of many bishops. The Spanish archbishop made this eye-opening claim:
This Pope has removed two or three bishops per month throughout the world because either the accounts in their dioceses were a mess or their discipline was a disaster.
Two or three bishops a month! That number seems impossibly high. There are thousands of bishops in the world, and every month brings a certain amount of turnover in their ranks. But most of the resignations reported by the Vatican press office come with convincing explanations: in most cases the bishop has reached the canonical retirement age of 75.
Archbishop Maury Buendia went on to say that in a few cases, when bishops refused to step down willingly, the Holy Father removed them from office. Here he is on solid ground. In April 2011 the Pope removed Bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loembe from the pastoral care of the diocese of Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo; in May of that year he removed Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia. Last year he removed Bishop Francesco Micciché from the Diocese of Trapani, Italy; and Archbishop Robert Bezak from the Archdiocese of Trnava, Slovakia. In these cases there was no particular effort to disguise what had happened: these prelates were removed from ministry against their own wishes. Still, that list accounts for two or bishops per year, not per month. Archbishop Maury Buendia seems to be guilty of gross exaggeration.
Nevertheless it would be a mistake to dismiss the Spanish prelate’s claims too quickly. Nearly every month the Vatican announces that the Pope has accepted one or more episcopal resignations under #401(2) of the Code of Canon Law: the provision that allows for a bishop’s resignation if he has become unsuited for his office “because of illness or some other grave reason.” In most cases, no doubt illness really is the reason. But how many bishops have been persuaded to resign for “some other grave reason?”
Even among the bishops who have reached canonical retirement age, the Pope may have done some selective pruning. A prelate is required to submit his resignation upon reaching his 75th birthday; the Pontiff is not required to accept it, and often Pope Benedict has left bishops in office for months before eventually choosing their successors. But in other cases the resignation was accepted with alacrity. Archbishop Rembert Weakland was just a few weeks past his 75th birthday when he was replaced as Archbishop of Milwaukee; for Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles, only a few days elapsed. Just this week the Pope accepted the resignation of Edinburgh’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien nearly a month before his 75th birthday.
Since the Vatican posts only bland, pro-forma announcements in every case, we may never know how many bishops have left office earlier than they might have wanted. But even if the number falls well short of “two or three bishops per month,” it is not insignificant. Nor is Bishop Maury Buendia the only observer who has noticed the trend. Last June the Italian journal L’Espresso provided a list of all the bishops who have apparently been ushered out of active ministry, including a dozen during the current pontificate.
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