‘Judging and Firing Bishops’: A Response to Thomas Reese

Canonical Consultation


Jennifer Haselburger

Today, the online version of the National Catholic Reporter published a commentary by Father Thomas Reese, SJ, titled ‘Judging and Firing Bishops and Due Process in the Church’. You can read it here. In his commentary (prompted, no doubt, by the recent rescript clarifying the resignation process for bishops), Father Reese expresses concern that ‘When people do not like their bishop, they often call for the pope to fire him and appoint another’. Reminding us that bishops are not CEOs but rather the vicars of Christ (not to mention the successors to the Apostles), Father Reese argues that such removals should not result from caprice but rather follow an established process with recognized procedural protections in place. While I agree with many of the points that Father Reese makes, including his general call for due process protections, I disagree with his assessment that the absence of the protections that he lists indicate a ‘paternalistic church that believes it always knows what is best for its children’. I would respectfully argue that Father Reese’s position on ‘people who do not like their bishops’ is equally paternalistic, especially considering the very serious issues that have led to some of the removals that have occurred in recent times.

Let me be the first to admit that at this time last year, I would have (and did) articulate the same skepticism towards removing bishops that Father Reese expresses in his article. It is very difficult to reconcile Catholic theology with the idea of removing a bishop when he has earned, rightly or wrongly, the disfavor of his people. One only has to think of the situation of Archbishop Joseph Rummel and his desegregation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to understand why bishops ought not to be subject to removal based on popular opinion.

Yet, there are certainly times when a bishop cannot be permitted to continue in office. Father Reese offers a number of examples of bishops who have resigned or been forced to resign, including Cardinal Bernard Law, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg (the so-called ‘Bishop of Bling’), Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, Bishop Thomas O’Brien (involved in a fatal hit-and-run), and Bishop William Morris of Australia (theological positions). I put together a similar list, exclusively of American bishops, that included Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo, Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, and Bishop Fernando Isern of Pueblo. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reminded me of Bishop Robert Sanchez of Albuquerque, Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach, Bishop Kendrick Williams of Lexington, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee.

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