Judging and firing bishops and due process in the church

National Catholic Reporter

Thomas Reese | Nov. 28, 2014 Faith and Justice

When people do not like their bishop, they often call for the pope to fire him and appoint another. Such requests have come from the right and the left in the church. The right has asked for the removal of bishops it considers unorthodox while the left has wanted to remove bishops who lack pastoral qualities. In recent years, many have demanded the removal of bishops who have not responded adequately to the sexual abuse crisis.

In Catholic theology, a bishop is considered the vicar of Christ in his diocese. He is not the vicar of the pope or simply a branch manager in the multinational corporation called the Catholic church. As a result, theologians and canon lawyers get nervous when Catholics talk about the pope firing bishops.

In ancient times, bishops were sometimes judged by provincial or regional councils of bishops who could depose them. As time went on, these judgments were appealed to Rome, which acted as an appeals court rather than a corporate central office.

Civil authorities (emperors, kings and nobles) might also intervene against a bishop, although the church usually fought such interference.

On the other hand, people sometimes complain when bishops are removed. Most recently, conservative Catholics have objected to the removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Apostolic Signatura and the removal of Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano from his diocese in Paraguay. Earlier, liberals complained about the removal of Bishop William Morris from his Australian diocese.

It is important, however, to distinguish between the firing of a bishop from an office in the Roman Curia and removing a bishop from his diocese.

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