Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Can the Pope remove bishops? Yes, but...

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 04, 2011

Twice in barely more than a month, Pope Benedict XVI has taken a highly unusual step: removing a bishop from his office. Early in April he ousted Bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba from leadership in the Diocese of Pointe-Noire in the Congo. Last week he removed Bishop William Morris from the Diocese of Toowoomba, Australia.

The Vatican disclosed these moves with only the briefest of formal announcements, offering no details or explanations of the Pope’s moves. But the available evidence suggests that Bishop Loemba was removed because of general negligence or incompetence, whereas in the case of Bishop Morris the Holy Father stepped in because of doctrinal and liturgical problems. In each case, we are told, the bishop resisted pressure to resign quietly, forcing the Pope to take decisive action.

To those of us who have been longing for a restoration of ecclesiastical order in the Catholic Church–longing to see bishops held accountable for their leadership, and for the welfare of the Church in their dioceses—these rare papal actions are welcome. We are delighted to see the Holy Father taking action to replace bishops who have proved to be unsuited for their pastoral office.

Yet at the same time—and particularly in the absence of explanations from the Holy See—these two removals raise a few interesting questions:

Question #1: On what grounds did the Pope take action?

Contrary to a widespread popular impression, the Pope is not like the chief executive of a multinational corporation, who can dismiss and replace his subordinates at will. Bishops are not “branch managers” for the universal Church; they have their own authority, which cannot be taken from them without due process—that is, without invoking the terms of the Code of Canon Law.

After the removal of Bishop Loemba, canon-law expert Edward Peters provided a brief primer on the canonical implications of removing a bishop from office. Only the Pope can take action against a bishop, and even the Roman Pontiff can deprive the bishop of office only in response to an ecclesiastical “crime”—a clear offense against a defined provision of canon law. Such canonical proceedings are confidential, so we do not know exactly what offenses were cited.

We do know this much: The Pope has the authority to remove diocesan bishops, but only under rare circumstances and for clear cause. The Pope cannot, and would not, oust a bishop from office simply because he (the Pope) felt that he (the bishop) was not doing a good job. Privation of office requires more serious grounds.

Question #2: If Bishops Loemba and Morris deserved dismissal, what about Bishop X?

Because we do not know exactly why the Pontiff chose to remove these two bishops, we cannot compare their cases with those of other bishops who might arguably be candidates for removal. Still it is only natural to ask questions.

If manifest incompetence is sufficient grounds for removal, why not dishonest administration? If a bishop can be removed for taking public positions at odds with defined doctrines, what about a bishop whose seminary is staffed by dissident theologians, or one in whose diocese liturgical abuse is the rule rather than the exception? Is it not a clear canonical offense when a bishop refuses to take action to defend the rights of the faithful to reverent liturgy and accurate religious instruction? And what about the bishops whose malfeasance led to the eruption of the sex-abuse scandal.

For nearly a decade, loyal Catholics in America have been defending the Holy See by pointing out that the Pope cannot remove diocesan bishops except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Are the circumstances of the Loemba and Morris cases really more extreme than those of the dioceses in which bishops deliberately misled the faithful, sheltered criminals, paid hush money, and signed agreements ceding the autonomy of the Church in order to avoid prosecution?

Question #3: What are the ecumenical implications?

While the Orthodox churches are edging cautiously toward Rome, Orthodox bishops remain suspicious of papal power, and jealous of their own independence. If the Roman Pontiff began removing bishops from office on a more regular basis, would he frighten away the Orthodox bishops who might otherwise be inclined toward reunion?

Or, on the other hand, might the Orthodox bishops most sympathetic to Rome be relieved to see a restoration of clear theological teaching and canonical discipline? Perhaps the best of the Orthodox Church leaders are less worried about the historical offenses (real and imagined) of Roman power than they are about the tendencies toward anarchy in the Roman Church today.

Question #4: Who’s next?

One in early April; one in early May. Should we be waiting for another announcement from the Vatican in early June? Should we be praying for it? And is there any reader who doesn't have his own favorite candidate? 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 06, 2011 4:41 PM ET USA

    I am glad to see Pope Benedict take action, but I am also glad to see his caution in not removing every Bishop who may not be up to par. The world no longer knows what discipline or obedience is, nor are they ready for it. I believe that prudence should take priority in most cases, simply because it could cause real scandal to those who do not understand. The Church will recover, but it's not going to be overnight, it must be an organic movement, from the Laity all the way to the Pope.

  • Posted by: - May. 06, 2011 4:29 AM ET USA

    Seems to me the case of Bishop Morris can be fairly readily described, even if we don't know the details: For five years, he persistently, actively, and PUBLICLY promoted at least one heretical concept. Upon receiving Rome's request that he step down--theoretically to pursue whatever calling he felt needed--he refused. When a spiritual child attempts to contravene authority that severely, the Pope would have little choice but to publicly show him the door.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - May. 05, 2011 8:20 AM ET USA

    Thank you for clarifying the questions raised by these actions in a manner so respectful to your readers, showing real curiousity but not jumping to conclusions that go beyond the limits of your knowledge, a model of journalistic independance without a predisposition against the content of the Catholic faith or the structure of the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 05, 2011 8:20 AM ET USA

    When looking back on Church history, we see the priority and importance of her mission to facilitate the salvation of souls. The Inquisition, the Index, excommunications, general councils etc. were all directed at protecting the faithful from threats. It is a sign of hope to see the Vatican is not "messing around" with these men. Further, the remarks of these former bishops after the fact suggest that the men certainly have a much different agenda than that of Christ's vicar. Watch and pray...

  • Posted by: Eagle - May. 05, 2011 7:59 AM ET USA

    The Roman Pontiff wears many hats. Most significantly, he's Archbishop of Rome, Patriarch of the West, and Supreme Pontiff. The Code of Canon Law relates to the Western Patriarchate, and the removed bishops are members of the Roman Rite. I emphasize this because removal of Roman Bishops by the Roman Patriarch is not a "threat" to other Patriarchs; rather it's the legitimate exercise of ecclesiastical discipline by a Patriarch within his own Rite.