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The Pope’s arbitrary actions belie his call for ‘synodal’ governance

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 09, 2022

By removing a Puerto Rican bishop from office, without citing any cause or ordering any investigation, Pope Francis has moved into uncharted waters.

The Roman Pontiff appoints bishops, and the Roman Pontiff can remove them; that much is not in dispute. But ordinarily no cleric is stripped of office without some canonical process. Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres was not even accused of any legal or canonical crime, much less given “due process.”

Once again the Pope, who is the supreme legislator of the Church, can make his own rules. But today’s announcement is unprecedented and unsettling. By dismissing a bishop the way the chief executive of a multinational corporation might dismiss a branch manager, Pope Francis has made nonsense of his own frequent calls for “collegial” and “synodal” government.

There have been a handful of cases in recent years in which the Vatican has asked a diocesan bishop to resign, after an investigation in which the prelate has been found guilty of some serious misconduct. (Most such cases have involved sexual abuse—either by the prelate himself or by clerics under his supervision.) A decade ago, Pope Benedict XVI forced Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia, to resign early, after a two-year investigation triggered by the Australian bishop’s advocacy for the ordination of women.

Bishop Fernandez, however, refused to resign, explaining that he did not want to become a party to what he sees as an injustice. So in effect he was fired.

What was his offense? The Vatican, as usual, offered no explanation. The dismissed bishop reports that he was charged on two counts: a lack of “communion” with his brother bishops in Puerto Rico; and disobedience to the Pope, because he did not travel to Rome to explain himself.

Bishop Fernandez replies that he could not travel to Rome last year, because of Covid-era restrictions. If he did not have a vaccine passport—which seems likely, since he defended Catholics who resisted vaccination—then that explanation rings true, and the charge of “disobedience” is unsustainable.

As for the alleged lack of “communion,” it is true that Bishop Fernandez had disagreements on policy with his brother bishops. He refused to sign a statement describing Covid vaccination as a duty; he resisted sending his seminarians to an interdiocesan institution; he strongly objected to legislation banning “conversion therapy” for homosexuals. But none of these disagreements involved breaking communion with other bishops. In no case did he even suggest a break from the universal Church; in no case did he teach something contrary to Catholic doctrine.

Quite the contrary, in fact. In his vigorous defense of the family, Bishop Fernandez seemed much more anxious to defend traditional Catholic teaching than his brother bishops in Puerto Rico. If that is the reason for his removal, then the Pope’s expressed desire to “hagan lio [make a mess]” has entered a frightening new phase.

In Germany, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the president of the episcopal conference, is urging Pope Francis to act quickly on the resignation of Cardinal Rainier Woelki of Cologne. Although Bishop Bätzing does not say what action he wants the Pontiff to take, he seems clearly to be hinting at a quick acceptance of the resignation of Cardinal Woelki—who just happens to be one of the minority of German prelates objecting to the “Synodal Path” and its call for radical changes in Church doctrine and discipline. Meanwhile in Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who has also offered to resign, remains in office at the Pope’s behest, with the full support of the episcopal conference he once led.

Run down the list of bishops who have been accused of misconduct and forced to resign, and you may notice that a disproportionate number could be classified as “conservative” or traditionalist in their sympathies. Or take the opposite perspective, and look at the list of prelates who have been retained in office or even promoted during the current pontificate, despite evidence of misconduct, and notice the preponderance of progressives. The Pope’s campaign for reform in the Church is strongly conditioned by his desire for his type of reform.

One more thought: Catholics do not deny the universal authority of the Pope. But Orthodox Christians question the extent of that authority, and fear the arbitrary use of papal power. While Pope Francis speaks often of synodal government, the Orthodox churches have lived synodal government for generations, and firmly believe in the proper authority of all bishops as successors to the apostles. The Pope’s handling of Bishop Fernandez bespeaks a very different approach, and could be a significant setback to the ecumenical cause.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Mar. 12, 2022 1:16 PM ET USA

    With his solid record of a non judgmental "my way or the highway", the so-called synod will be a grand progressive success.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Mar. 12, 2022 8:18 AM ET USA

    Yes. So we pray daily for his conversion and our own.

  • Posted by: Sciamej4805 - Mar. 11, 2022 8:18 PM ET USA

    You said it all. Our Holy Father is not on the right path with our beloved Church and the People of God! too much confusion and disarray.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 11, 2022 3:38 PM ET USA

    Cardinal Hollerich, who was appointed Relator General of the concluding meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2023, recently said that the Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a sin is false, and there is no pushback from Rome. In contrast, Bishop Fernandez who strongly objects to legislation banning conversion therapy for homosexuals gets thrown under the bus. No, I refuse to state, "who am I to judge?" I do not find it hard to connect the dots.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Mar. 10, 2022 5:12 PM ET USA

    Those Catholics who simply desire to see the Church led according to the Faith handed down to us seem to have no recourse once the levers of power are seized by the wicked. Can this really be Christ’s intention for the governance of His church?

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 10, 2022 12:50 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the in-depth analysis of a very troubling action by Francis. On the brighter side, this abrupt removal shed a spotlight on a wise, brave, and faithful Bishop. Perhaps the Lord will bless His Church in near future with Cardinal Daniel Fernandez Torres?

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Mar. 09, 2022 7:14 PM ET USA

    Phil last year you urged Archbishop Cordileone to take public action against Nancy Pelosi because of her public support for abortion rights. However, the archbishop was wise enough to read the clear signs coming from Rome and dropped the issue. Bishop Fernandez has not been so wise. He has been too vigorous in defense of traditional Catholic teaching and is isolated from his brother bishops. Bishops need to avoid the danger of crossing Pope Francis. Now the pope is likely to replace bishop Fernandez with his type of bishop. The diocese of Arecibo is likely to be poorer for the exchange.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Mar. 09, 2022 6:34 PM ET USA

    I'm more dumbfounded day by day with the state of our church. We can now divide ourselves as either Zanchettists or Fernandites. Do your heads swim daily at Catholic Culture? I truly thought that I could rely on the validity of the sacraments regardless of the state of grace of the celebrant, but the baptist has disabused me of that idea. I have nothing but sinking feelings for the state of the church hierarchy starting with the pope.