How Much Financial Support Are We Required to Give Retired Bishops?

Q:  I heard our bishop say that he was entitled to “a car, a house, and a secretary” upon retirement.  He claimed that canon law provides for this.

Canon 402.2 states that a Conference of Bishops can specify the “suitable and decent support” a retired bishop can receive from his diocese.  Where can one find the relevant complementary norm or norms from the US Bishop’s Conference touching on canon 402.2?  I checked their website, but I found nothing concerning canon 402.2. —Frank

A: There are several separate issues contained in Frank’s question.  The first one, of course, is the sort of remuneration that canon law mandates—or doesn’t mandate—for a retired diocesan bishop.  Another is the role of a Conference of Bishops in determining that remuneration (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an Episcopal Conference, or Conference of Bishops, is).  Last but not least, there is the way in which Catholic clergy are expected to live, in the material sense.  Let’s take this issue apart.

To begin with, a diocesan bishop who has reached the age of 75 is required by law to submit his resignation to the Pope (c. 401.1, and see “Bishops, Coadjutors, and Auxiliaries” for more on this).  Canon 402.1 tells us that when that resignation has been accepted, a diocesan bishop retains the title of “Bishop Emeritus” of his diocese, and can retain a residence within that diocese if he so wishes, although he doesn’t have to.  (This residence provision is basically parallel to the situation of a diocesan priest who retires, which was discussed in “Can the Pastor Expel Another Priest From the Rectory?”)

It’s the next paragraph of this canon which prompts Frank’s question.  Canon 402.2 tells us this:

The conference of bishops must take care that suitable and decent support is provided for a retired bishop, with attention given to the primary obligation which binds the diocese he has served.

Let’s start at the end.  The last phrase of this sentence indicates that when the Bishop of X Diocese retires, X Diocese is responsible for his financial support.  If for some reason X Diocese is financially unable to give him “suitable and decent support,” then the Bishops’ Conference of which X Diocese is a part is expected to make up the shortfall.  In those cases where a diocesan bishop is a member of a religious institute (such as the Jesuits or Franciscans), his religious institute may wish to provide for him in retirement—but as canon 707.2 tells us, it is not required to do so, since his diocese remains bound by canon 402.2.  We took a more in-depth look at this issue in “What Happens When a Religious Who’s Vowed Poverty Becomes a Bishop?”  For the record, in 2004 the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops issued Apostolorum Successores, a Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops—and section 228, on the “Rights of the Bishop Emeritus in Relation to the Particular Church,” reiterates canons 402 and 707, as discussed above.

What can we conclude from the first part of canon 402.2, which states that “the conference of bishops must take care that suitable and decent support is provided for a retired bishop”?  Frank is presuming that this phraseology means that a Bishops’ Conference is required to formulate and implement Complementary Norms pertaining to this issue.

It is true that some canons of the code instruct Conferences of Bishops around the world to implement norms on a particular matter for the faithful living within their regions.  Canon 1251, for example, is one of them: as was discussed in the abovementioned “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” this canon indicates that each Bishops’ Conference is to determine whether abstinence from meat on Fridays is to be replaced in their region with abstinence from some other food instead.  We saw another, optional example in “When Can a Bishop Lawfully Transfer a Pastor to Another Parish?”—because canon 522 specifically gives Conferences of Bishops the authority to determine whether bishops have the option to appoint pastors for a set term of office, rather than for life.

In cases like these, the Church’s universal law is giving Episcopal Conferences the legislative power to make laws which are binding within their own regions.  These laws are referred to as “Complementary Norms,” because they provide additional legislation that must always be in accord with existing universal law—and can never contradict it.

But if you look carefully at the wording of canon 402.2, it should become clear that this canon is not instructing Bishops’ Conferences to issue binding laws for their regions—and so the Bishops’ Conferences have no authority to do this.  If an Episcopal Conference wishes to create written suggestions as to what constitutes appropriate financial support of its retired bishops, fine; but the canon does not require that they do this either.  Rather, canon 402.2 is simply instructing Conferences of Bishops to make sure that retired bishops aren’t left without “suitable and decent support” in their old age.  This is why Frank can’t find Complementary Norms issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for canon 402.2—because such norms don’t exist.

That said, in 2010 the Conference of Bishops in the US actually did publish some guidelines on what constitutes “suitable and decent support” for a retired American bishop.  These “Guidelines for the Retirement of Bishops” are still in force, and today are contained in a much larger document called “Diocesan Financial Management (A Guide to Best Practices),” issued in 2022.  Keeping in mind the particular claims made by the retiring bishop whom Frank cited, let’s look at the basics.

On page 96, we find the following (emphases added):

1.  Beginning January 1, 2011, the stipend recommended for all bishops in retirement will be a minimum of $1,900.00 per month, to be adjusted annually according to the local cost of living index. If pension benefits granted to a Bishop Emeritus already provide the minimum amount recommended for the stipend, no additional funds need to be given. If, on the other hand, pension benefits do not meet the minimum recommended amount, additional funds should be supplied to reach the recommended minimum level. If pension benefits granted to retired priests of the diocese exceed the minimum recommended for the Bishop Emeritus, the greater amount should be considered appropriate for the Bishop Emeritus.

Note the words “recommended” and “should.”  They are appropriate in this context, because a Bishops’ Conference does not have authority to mandate these rules in every diocese of the conference; it can only suggest/urge that they be followed.  Let’s look now at the next point:

2.  In addition to the monthly stipend, it is also recommended that in fraternal charity and solicitude each diocese also provide the following:
a.  Appropriate housing and board – if he so desires, and unless the Holy See has provided otherwise, appropriate housing and board within the diocese where the Bishop Emeritus last served, including the use of a private chapel and housekeeping assistance.… The diocese is obligated to provide a Bishop Emeritus with appropriate housing and board even should he choose to reside outside of the diocese.
b.  Health and welfare benefits….
c.  An office with secretarial assistance commensurate with need.
d.  Suitable funeral and burial.

The entire section 2 above is governed once again by the word “recommended,” although the last sentence of section (a) above uses the word “obligated.”  There is nothing contradictory about this: the last sentence merely reiterates what is already universal law, and is thus mandatory for every diocese on earth.  The “obligation” it references comes from Rome, not from the Bishops’ Conference.

Thirdly, we have this:

It is recommended that each diocese also provide the following benefits:
1.  Transportation including an insured automobile for his use.

Armed with this information, let’s now compare it to what Frank tells us that his retiring bishop said.  The bishop claimed that canon law gives him the right to “a car, a house, and a secretary” in retirement.  How accurate is this assertion?

For starters, we’ve just seen that no such “canon law” exists.  In fact, no specific law of any kind exists on this topic, and the Code of Canon Law does not give authority to enact such laws to Bishops’ Conferences—or to anyone else, for that matter.  That’s why the most that you’ll find in any given region of the world will be guidelines like the “Guidelines for the Retirement Bishops” we just saw, issued by the US Conference of Bishops.  “Guidelines” are suggestions, not laws, and cannot be considered legally binding.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that the Guidelines issued by the US Bishops’ Conference were laws.  Do they require every retired bishop to be given “a car, a house, and a secretary”?  Obviously not!  Nowhere will you find that a retired bishop must be given a house; rather, the requirement is simply that he be provided with housing—a pretty significant difference!  If he wants to use his pension to buy his own house, that is entirely up to him; but otherwise, if the diocese has an apartment available, or a suite of rooms (or even an entire floor) in a shared house, this could easily be argued to be “suitable and decent” as per canon 402.2.

Next, the guidelines do not indicate that the retiring bishop is to be given a car, either: they state merely that he be provided with “an insured automobile for his use,” which logically means that it is not his, and he may have to share it with someone(s) else.  Likewise, the guidelines do not say that a retired bishop must have his own secretary; they state that he is to be provided with “secretarial assistance commensurate with need,” which means once again that he may share a secretary with other church officials in the diocese.  And if a retired bishop’s “need” for “secretarial assistance” is low, the wording of the guidelines indicates clearly that he is not to be provided with more assistance than is really necessary.

Look at the way in which Frank’s bishop has managed to inflate the suggestions made by his Episcopal Conference into a far larger retirement-package than is actually stated—and how he has turned these “guidelines” into mandatory “laws” which must be followed!  This naturally brings us to canon 282.1, discussed in “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty.”

Canon 282.1 declares that clerics are to foster simplicity of life and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity.  The term “clerics,” of course, refers to anyone in Holy Orders, including diocesan bishops (cf. c. 266.1).

There’s no way to define phrases like “simplicity of life” and “semblance of vanity” in canonical terms, of course; but you don’t have to be a canon lawyer to understand what this canon mandates.  It’s pretty difficult to argue that bishops who spend hundreds of thousands—sometimes even millions!—of dollars of diocesan funds on their own residences are “living simply.”  (See “Canon Law and Bishops of Bling” for more on this.)  It’s even harder to justify such lavish lifestyles when you consider that in the once wealthy United States, over 12% of the population today are officially living in poverty.  When a retired bishop is seen by both Catholics and non-Catholics to be living in a fine house, often riding about in a chauffeur-driven car, while millions of ordinary people worldwide are struggling these days to feed their families … this is a recipe for scandal.

Sadly, there is nothing new about this.  Back in the 16th century, when Pope Leo X—a member of the über-rich Medici family, who soon after his election emptied Vatican coffers with his lavish personal spending—urged the Catholic laity to donate toward the reconstruction of  St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a certain Augustinian monk from Germany retired bishoppointed out the obvious hypocrisy.  Martin Luther was rightly condemned as a heretic for his erroneous theological positions, but his reasonable observations about the disconnect between rich clergy and poor laity helped gain him a lot of traction among the faithful:

Why does not the Pope [Leo X], whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus [Croesus], build this one basilica of St. Peter [St Peter’s church in Rome] with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers? (Thesis no. 86)

Perhaps it was their concern to avoid this very sort of disconnect that prompted the US Catholic Bishops to add this comment in their “Diocesan Financial Management (A Guide to Best Practices),” discussed above:

If it seems advisable in order to seek some degree of uniformity, the dioceses of a given region or province, in a spirit of subsidiarity, should take upon themselves the responsibility to interpret and implement these guidelines, taking into account the local economy. (Page 97, emphasis added)

In short, if the economy in X Diocese is in shambles, because unemployment is high, poverty is rife, and the faithful are struggling to survive financially, then a retired bishop’s lifestyle should not be glaringly out of sync with everyone else’s.  In this sort of situation, it only makes sense for a retired bishop to tighten his belt too, in solidarity with the laity of his diocese!

We have seen before in this space that a lot of the Church’s operational decisions are merely a matter of common sense.  (See “Can a Catholic Sue the Church in Civil Court?” for an example of this.)  It is tragic but true that far too many bishops around the world today (retired or not) seem to be blind to the contrast between their own material wellbeing, and the standard of living of the lay faithful who are supporting them.  Let’s pray for our bishops, that they may avoid this pitfall, and the scandal it may cause, when they make financial decisions that personally affect them.

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