La Croix International [France]
December 10, 2021
By Robert Mickens
An ill-timed announcement and the pope’s baffling explanation of why he decided to remove the leader of one of Catholic Church’s most important dioceses
All he had to do was wait five days.
And then, after returning from what ended up being an extremely important December 2-6 visit to Cyprus and Greece, he could have easily made the official announcement.
Instead, Pope Francis shocked almost everyone when he decided to relieve Michel Aupetit from his duties as Archbishop of Paris on the very day the papal trip began.
It fell like a bombshell.
And because it dominated headlines throughout Europe and the world, it nearly torpedoed one of the pope’s main objectives for making the trip to the two Mediterranean countries — to prod leaders of the Old Continent into finally addressing their deplorable refusal (or inability) to forge a coherent and compassionate policy on immigration.
But worse than stepping on his own message before he even stepped off the plane in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, the pope ensured that he would have to publicly explain — during the customary press conference at the end of the trip — his reasons for accepting the 70-year-old archbishop’s resignation five years before the ordinary retirement age.
Aupetit had returned “his office” to the pope’s hands just ten day earlier after the French magazine Le Point reported that he’d had a consensual relationship with an adult women in 2012, a year before he was named an auxiliary bishop of Paris.
Francis seemed surprised and unprepared
Aupetit, a former physician who was ordained at age 44, admitted the affair had been inappropriate. But he denied it was sexual. However, the magazine also said he had alienated people during his time as archbishop by his autocratic style of governance.
Francis who appointed Aupetit to Paris in 2018, had to know journalists would query him about his sudden decision to relieve the archbishop of his duties during the in-flight press conference on his December 6th return to Rome.
But when the question came up, the pope seemed irritated that someone had actually dared to ask it.
And, worse, he appeared to be unsure how to answer.
What followed was one of the most bizarre and problematic explanations this pope has offered for anything in his nearly nine years in office.
“Regarding the Aupetit case, I ask myself what he did that was so serious that he had to resign. Someone answer me, what did he do?” Francis said, pushing his microphone before the face of Cecile Chambraude of the French daily Le Monde.
The reporter seemed surprised that he would turn the question back on her. After all, she wasn’t the one who decided to relieve the archbishop of his duties, the pope was!
And the rest of his answer became even more… strange.
The pope’s response
“Before answering I will say conduct an investigation, okay? Conduct an investigation because there is a danger of saying he was convicted. Who condemned him? Public opinion, gossip… we don’t know…something…. If you know, then say so. Otherwise, I cannot answer.
“And you won’t know, because it was a failing on his part, a failing against the sixth commandment, but not total, (but) of small caresses and massages that he gave the secretary. This is the accusation.
This is a sin, but not one of the most serious sins, eh. Because the sins of the flesh are not the most serious. The most serious are those that [have more to do with] ‘angelicality’ [angelicalità] — pride, hatred. These are the most serious.
“Therefore, Aupetit is a sinner, as am I…I don’t know if you believe you are too; perhaps (pope says to the journalist)… as Peter was, the bishop on whom Jesus Christ founded the Church.
“How did the community of that time accept a sinful bishop, one that had sinned with much ‘angelicality’, as it was to deny Christ! Because it was a normal Church, it was used to feeling that it was always sinful, everyone. It was a humble Church. We can see that our Church is not used to having a sinful bishop. We pretend and say: “My bishop is a saint”. No! this little red cap…we are all sinners.
“But when the gossip grows and grows and grows and takes away a person’s fame… no, he will not be able to govern because he has lost his reputation. Not because of his sin, which is sin – like Peter’s, like mine, like yours – but because of people’s gossip.
“That is why I accepted the resignation, not on the altar of truth but on the altar of hypocrisy.
Shifting the blame?
Let’s be very clear: Pope Francis did not just allow Michel Aupetit to resign, he actively removed him from his post as Archbishop of Paris.
And there is a reason he did so, even if he has not admitted it publicly.
A number of Church sources have told me that not long after the pope named Aupetit as head of this historically important diocese on December 7, 2018, he realized that he may have made a mistake.
Within months — if not weeks — of the appointment Francis is said to have privately voiced regret at his choice, especially because of Aupetit’s inflexible way of publicly handling hot-button moral and bioethical issues currently being debated in secular France.
Then came the complaints about the archbishop’s top-down managerial style and his alienation of priests and other Church personnel.
It became more and more clear that Aupetit was never going to get a red hat, at least during this pontificate, so it became a question of how to get him out of Paris. By returning his office to the pope, as it were, the archbishop provided the pope with the solution.
Francis could have said simply told the journalists on his plane that he and Aupetit came to the conclusion that Paris was not a good fit for the former medical doctor.
Not just the archbishop’s reputation on the line
Of course, there may be other reasons why the pope decided Aupetit could no longer stay in office. And, out of discretion or a desire not to embarrass the archbishop, he’s decided not to say so publicly.
Instead, he said the archbishop could no longer govern because gossip — not any sin (or mistake) of his own — had ruined his reputation. So in the face of that gossip — on that “altar of hypocrisy”, as the pope called it — Francis accepted the resignation.
There is a problem with this explanation. If this is now the standard for relieving bishops of their duties, we could see scores of dioceses suddenly lose their espiscopal leaders.
All it would take is an organized campaign, with the help of the media and members of the clergy, to spread accusations (gossip) to discredit the local ordinary. Do we really want to go down that road?
Archbishop Aupetit’s is not the only reputation that has been called into question. The pope said — mistakenly, it seems — that Aupetit was giving caresses and massages to his secretary.
While the Vatican quietly removed the word “secretary” from its official transcript of the pope’s words on the plane, it has not stated if it has received information on whether the archbishop was involved with a secretary.
If not, it owes an apology to any and all secretaries that may have worked for Aupetit.
But if so, the Vatican — not the journalists — needs to open an investigation on the alleged actions, which could have been unsolicited and predatory.
Something for the French Church
The pope was also asked about the devastating report issued two months ago by France’s Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), which looked at the situation of pedocriminality over the past 70 years.
Francis said he had not read the report or spoken to the French bishops about it, which seems strange since he met with bishops during “ad limina” visits that took place after its publication.
Nonetheless, the pope cautioned about too facilely accepting the report’s findings, even though the French Episcopal Conference (CEF) and the Conference of Men and Women Religious in France (CORREF) did accept its findings.
The comments cannot be seen as especially helpful to the morale of French Catholics, whether they are bishops, priests, religious or lay people.
Those who are dedicated and actively engaged in the Church have worked hard to face the reality of the past and present and move courageously towards the future. They could greatly benefit from a more heartfelt endorsement from the pope.
Francis cannot undo the damage his ill-timed announcement of Aupetit’s “resignation” did in deflecting attention from his trip to Cyprus and Greece, but he still has time to help boost the credibility and morale of Catholics in France.
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