Q: What can we do, as lay faithful, to remove bad clergy from office? My guess is probably nothing. It’s hard to believe we are completely powerless under such extreme circumstances. Theologically, I understand why. But, doesn’t canon law ever consider a situation when the bishop (or Pope) is so bad that the faithful can take some action against them to remove them?
I don’t expect there is anything … but I’m sure many readers would like confirmation if they suspect they know the answer already. –Emily
A: These days there are a lot of frustrated Catholics around the world, who are rightly appalled at what is currently happening at the hierarchical level within the Church, and wish that they themselves could do something about it. Some of the individual issues that are relevant to Emily’s question have already been addressed in previous posts in this space—but other aspects have not, and merit a closer look. Before directly tackling the issues which Emily raises, however, let’s do a quick overview of this scandalous situation, and try to sum everything up.
Emily is talking, of course, about the current upheaval in the Church after the recent discovery that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, D.C., had for years been sexually abusing seminarians of his archdiocese—and had also repeatedly molested at least one underage boy. In and of themselves, these revelations would have been horrifying enough! But what has exacerbated them even more is the disclosure that this was going on for years, while everybody knew about it—and (with a couple of exceptions) McCarrick’s fellow bishops and other clergy said/did nothing, preferring instead to assist, by their silence and inaction, in covering it all up.
And while the Catholic faithful were still struggling to digest all this new and shocking information, they were stunned yet again on August 22, when former Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, revealed that he had on multiple occasions reported McCarrick’s conduct to the Vatican, but his messages were evidently intercepted by various figures in the Secretariat of State before they could reach the desk of Pope Benedict XVI. Viganó asserted that when Pope Benedict finally found out, he imposed canonical sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick (who by that point had already retired):
[H]e was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance. (The full text of Archbishop Viganó’s statement can be read in English here; this passage is from page 3.)
It would appear that finally, some sort of punishment was meted out to the elderly McCarrick, after so many years of outrageous misconduct (of which there is ample corroborating evidence, by the way). But Archbishop Viganó stated that after Pope Francis was elected, McCarrick was
… now free from all constraints, had felt free to travel continuously, to give lectures and interviews …. he had become the kingmaker for appointments in the Curia and the United States, and the most listened to advisor in the Vatican for relations with the Obama administration. (page 8, emphasis in original)
Viganó explained that he had himself discussed McCarrick’s past with Pope Francis, who “did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time, and he immediately changed the subject” (page 7).
In short, Archbishop Viganó—whose reputation for integrity was already well known when he was battling corruption in Vatican City, well before he was sent to the United States as Nuncio—has told the world that Pope Francis is personally involved in the cover-up of McCarrick’s sexual abuse. Viganó then draws his final conclusions with the precise logic of a mathematician:
At the Angelus on Sunday, August 12, 2018 Pope Francis said these words: “Everyone is guilty for the good he could have done and did not do … If we do not oppose evil, we tacitly feed it. We need to intervene where evil is spreading; for evil spreads where daring Christians who oppose evil with good are lacking.” If this is rightly to be considered a serious moral responsibility for every believer, how much graver is it for the Church’s supreme pastor, who in the case of McCarrick not only did not oppose evil but associated himself in doing evil with someone he knew to be deeply corrupt. He followed the advice of someone he knew well to be a pervert, thus multiplying exponentially with his supreme authority the evil done by McCarrick. And how many other evil pastors is Francis still continuing to prop up in their active destruction of the Church!
In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them. (pages 10-11, all emphases in original)
And as we all know, Pope Francis was promptly asked by a journalist for a response to these explosive accusations, and said this:
I read the statement this morning. I read it and sincerely I must tell you, and all those who are interested: read it yourselves carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this. I believe the memo speaks for itself, and you are capable enough as journalists to draw your own conclusions. This is an act of trust: when some time has passed and you have drawn conclusions, perhaps I will speak. But I ask that you use your professional maturity in doing this: it will do you good, really. That is enough for now.
This is where we are currently at. Needless to say, there are elements of this story which seem historically unprecedented! Countless lay Catholics—in the U.S. and elsewhere—are understandably confused and outraged. But what, if anything, can they do about it? Let’s take a look at what canon law has to say about the various aspects of this sorry situation in the Church today, starting with the former Cardinal McCarrick.
From 2001 to 2006, Theodore McCarrick was both the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. and a member of the College of Cardinals (see “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals” for more on what these titles mean). Prior to heading this archdiocese, he had been Bishop of Metuchen and then Archbishop of Newark (both in New Jersey). It has now become painfully clear that for decades, McCarrick routinely pressured the seminarians of his dioceses to engage in homosexual sex with him. It shouldn’t be surprising that there is no canon in the Code of Canon Law explicitly condemning this sort of behavior; some actions are just so mind-numbingly evil that it should be perfectly obvious to anyone with a shred of common sense that they are grievously wrong. Instead, the code describes the manner in which diocesan bishops are supposed to act in positive terms: canon 378.1 n. 1, for example, tells us that in order to be a suitable candidate for the episcopate, one must be outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues.
With specific regard to seminarians, canon 259.2 states that the diocesan bishop should frequently visit the seminary in person, to oversee the spiritual and academic formation of the students. The canon adds that bishops are to inform themselves about the vocation, character, piety and progress of their seminarians, with a view to conferring on them the sacrament of Holy Orders. And when it comes to their ordination, canon 1029 asserts that only those seminarians are to be ordained who have sound faith, are motivated by the right intention, are endowed with the requisite knowledge, enjoy a good reputation, and have moral probity, proven virtue and other appropriate physical and psychological qualities.
If you contrast the way that the bishop-seminarian relationship is supposed to work with the way it was actually being handled by McCarrick, it goes without saying that he should have been removed from office instantly. But as Archbishop Viganó tells us in his public statement (pages 4 and 5), letters sent to the Holy Father over the years were evidently being intercepted by a number of different officials in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, who thus prevented him from knowing what was really going on in McCarrick’s dioceses.
(Incidentally, anyone who is surprised by this obviously has no idea how the Vatican works! Take a look, if you can bear it, at the simply hellacious cases of child-rape that went on for decades in Verona, Italy’s Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf. When it was finally reported to the Secretariat of State, nothing was done—and one of the priest-offenders was transferred to a similar school in Argentina, where he continued raping even more deaf-mute children for years to come.)
As was discussed with regard to a different case in “How Do I File a Canon Lawsuit?” the Pope can’t take action to resolve a problem regarding a bishop, if nobody tells him that the problem exists. It would appear clear from Viganó’s account that for years, Pope Benedict XVI was being kept in the dark about McCarrick—and this is, unfortunately, quite easy to believe. But as Viganó describes (pages 2 and 3), Benedict finally found out and sanctioned McCarrick as already mentioned above, “in 2009 or 2010.” Note the first item on the list of sanctions: “the Cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living,” in order to prevent him from continuing to molest the men studying for the priesthood there. This is by far the most important sanction on Viganó’s list—as it was not merely a means of punishing McCarrick, but was intended primarily to protect the seminarians of Washington from further sexual abuse.
When diocesan bishops/archbishops and high-ranking Vatican officials chose to turn a blind eye to the conduct of McCarrick, they were putting the physical safety of future priests at risk. This is an aspect of the situation which perhaps is not getting enough attention. Our priests of tomorrow were being deliberately endangered by the hierarchy of today. Needless to say, diocesan bishops/archbishops whose priorities are so skewed that they consider it more important to avoid “rocking the boat” by objecting to a fellow bishop’s sexual predations, than to be concerned about seminarians who were literally in physical danger from a predatory superior, are in the wrong line of work.
There is a canonical procedure in place for the removal of a bishop from his diocese; some aspects of it were addressed in “Can a Pope be Removed From Office?” All the procedural niceties can be summed up, however, in one sentence: the final decision on removing a bishop from his ecclesiastical office can be made by the Pope alone. Otherwise, if a Pope declines to act, a diocesan bishop can remain in charge of his diocese right up until his death—and there isn’t much that anyone else on earth can do about it.
And with regard to removing the Pope himself from office, the column just mentioned discusses this prospect at length—but in short, there exists no procedural mechanism of any kind that would permit the Pope’s office to be forcibly taken away from him. In a nutshell, the Pope is Pope, until he either dies or voluntarily resigns. Period.
All that being said, it is somewhat misleading to conclude that “the Catholic faithful can do nothing.” There are a couple of important things that Catholics can do:
1.) An important task, and one that many Catholics have already undertaken, is to make sure that the Pope is in possession of all the facts about the conduct of a particular bishop or about a specific situation. We saw from Archbishop Viganó’s letter that for some years, former Pope Benedict was apparently not aware of the heinous accusations against then-Cardinal McCarrick—but once he got the true story, he took action. And just a couple of months ago, Pope Francis did an even more dramatic about-face himself, regarding the details of a sex-abuse cover-up in Chile which he had wrongly thought that he understood. The fallout in the Church in Chile is still ongoing; and as the situation bears some similarity to the current confusion in the U.S., it warrants some discussion here.
For years, Fr. Fernando Karadima sexually abused children in the diocese of Santiago de Chile. When his church superiors found out, they did absolutely nothing—prompting the victims to make their accusations public in 2010. The following year a proper canonical investigation took place, in which Karadima’s guilt was established and he was finally removed from priestly ministry. It became perfectly clear to everyone that many priests and bishops in Chile had known for quite a while that this abuse was going on … and had simply looked away.
Several years after that, Pope Francis appointed a priest named Juan Barros as the new Bishop of the Chilean diocese of Osorno. A tremendous uproar immediately ensued, because Barros had been a close friend of the abuser Karadima, and was thus one of those obviously involved in the cover-up of his actions over the years. But instead of backing down, Francis attacked Barros’ accusers, describing their accusations against Barros as “slander” and insisting repeatedly that he had no evidence that Barros had been involved in any cover-up of Karadima’s abuse.
When the protests by Catholics in Chile showed no signs of dying down, Pope Francis finally sent a reliable clerical outsider to Chile in order to do a full investigation of the whole situation—and the report which Francis received showed that his appraisal of the situation in Chile was totally backwards. The Pope had actually been attacking the innocent and defending the guilty, and had promoted to the rank of bishop a man who was deeply involved in hiding the sexual abuse of minors within the Church.
Pope Francis then wrote a letter in which he admitted that he had been completely wrong:
I confess that this causes me sorrow and shame …. With regard to myself, I recognize, and I would like you to convey this faithfully, that I have made serious errors in the assessment and perception of the situation, in particular through the lack of reliable and balanced information. I now beg the forgiveness of all those whom I have offended and I hope to be able to do so personally, in the coming weeks, in the meetings that I will have with representatives of the people interviewed.
What is perhaps most interesting here is the unspecific reference to “the lack of reliable and balanced information.” It would seem that Pope Francis had been depending on certain people to give him an accurate assessment of the situation in Chile—and they had instead presented a version of events that was totally false. Francis’ supposedly “reliable” advisors on this matter had been anything but!
One can only wonder whether something similar has been happening with regard to Pope Francis’ assessment of McCarrick and the other American bishops in his circle, and his negative appraisal of the words of Archbishop Viganó. If the Pope’s advisors are deliberately feeding him false information, it would make sense that he has wrongly concluded that Viganó is a troublemaker, and that those whom Viganó has accused are innocent victims. It would explain why the Pope has failed to accept the resignation of Washington, D.C.’s current Archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl—which Wuerl already submitted a couple of years ago, when he reached the age of 75 (as required by canon 401.1). As frequently happens, Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation has not yet been accepted by the Pope, and so he continues to hold his office until Francis decides otherwise. If Pope Francis has surrounded himself with duplicitous counselors who convinced him that McCarrick was falsely accused, that Wuerl and many other American bishops truly had no idea of the accusations against him, and that Viganó’s accusations are false and motivated by vindictiveness or some such thing … this might explain what the Pope is doing, or not doing, in this whole sorry, sordid mess.
This is not to suggest that if Francis is indeed depending on bad information from untrustworthy advisors, the Pope bears no responsibility—far from it! But it may possibly explain what on earth is going on. And if/when it finally dawns on the Pope that black is really white, and that good is really bad … well, he’s in for a shock. This leads us to the second thing which Catholics can do:
2.) All Catholics can and should be praying for a resolution of this chaotic situation in accord with His will. It may not look like it, but God is in full control, and must be allowing this to happen to the Catholic Church for some purpose—a purpose which is unknown to us, but perfectly obvious to Him.
Those Catholics who are instead deciding for themselves “what the Church needs,” and are so anxious for Pope Francis to go are overlooking one very important point: at the moment, all of those cardinals who have evidently been covering up sexual abuse are still in office, and remain members of the College of Cardinals. This means, of course, that if another conclave were held right now, all of them would have a vote in electing Francis’ successor! Ironically, the only man who thus far has been stripped of his rank as cardinal—Theodore McCarrick—wouldn’t have been able to participate in another conclave anyway, as he is well over the age-limit of 80 and was thus already ineligible to vote. (See “Canon Law and the Upcoming Conclave,” written before the conclave of 2013, for more on this.)
Before anyone objects that “Archbishop Viganó himself called on the Pope to resign,” it’s worth rereading his exact words: “Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.” Viganó knows full well that if Francis alone were to resign his office, while the offending cardinals retained theirs, this would solve nothing—in fact, the next Pope they elected could be someone far worse! What Viganó is instead suggesting is much more radical than “just” the resignation of Pope Francis: he is urging that the entire cadre of offenders resign en masse, together with the Pope.
Note that at the moment, there are no indications that any cardinal is planning to do this voluntarily. On the contrary, the number of members of the College of Cardinals who have engaged in cover-ups has actually increased in recent months: one of those Vatican officials directly involved in concealing sexual abuse in the school for deaf children in Verona mentioned above was recently elevated to the rank of cardinal himself.
What’s needed at this point is not canon law, but faith that God can and will draw good out of a seemingly hopeless situation—because He continues to guide the Church even when it seems to be foundering. Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this at his final papal audience, before his resignation took effect:
I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but His. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is He who guides it, surely also through those whom He has chosen, because He so wished. This has been, and is, a certainty which nothing can shake. For this reason my heart today overflows with gratitude to God, for He has never let His Church, or me personally, lack His consolation, His light, His love. (emphasis added)
And whatever God deigns to allow to happen in the Church is whatever is best—and it will, in some way that is unclear to us today, give Him great glory.
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