When Rome moves silently against bishops
After a bishop pleaded guilty today in an Ottowa court of possessing child pornography -- 588 images, 60 videos -- the Vatican said it will be following canonical procedures against him, resulting in "the appropriate disciplinary or penal measures".
Given that Raymond Lahey stood down as head of the Antigonish Diocese in Nova Scotia a day after after being stopped at Ottowa airport in 2009, and cannot therefore be anymore suspended from ministry, there is only one recourse left in canon law -- the ultimate sanction of laicization. Indeed, the reforms to canon law made last summer, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith added acquisition, possession or distribution of child pornography to the list of graviora delicta, were made partly to allow for a swift ex officio laicisation for Lahey.
And no one can possibly object. After all, as the Holy See said in its statement today, "The Catholic Church condemns sexual exploitation in all its forms, especially when perpetrated against minors."
But consider the fact that there will be a canonical process. In the case of two bishops removed by Pope Benedict in the past month for matters concerning lax management and doctrinal disobedience, there has been no process at all.
On 31 March the Pope "relieved" Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba, erstwhile bishop of the diocese of Pointe-Noire in Congo-Brazzaville, of the "pastoral care" of his diocese; and 2 May, he "removed Bishop William M. Morris from the pastoral care of the diocese of Toowoomba, Australia". In neither case was a canonical process followed -- because there isn't one.
"Eventually the Pope said to me: canon law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops whom the successor of St Peter nominates and removes from office", complained Bishop Morris to the Toowoomba Chronicle in the video just posted.
That makes it sound as if the Pope acts as a sort of CEO, removing branch managers who fail to make the grade. But that's not the way canon law works. Only the Pope can deprive a bishop of office, and only in response to an ecclesiastical crime—a clear offence against a defined provision of canon law. As the canonist Edward Peters explains -- if I have understood him -- bishops cannot be removed for, say, incompetence alone.
But because there is no canonical process involved, and no need, therefore, to give reasons, it is hard to know exactly why the bishops in each case have been removed. There are plenty of reported reasons -- in Bishop Morris's case, a 2006 letter to his diocese calling for married and women priests, which he says he has not advocated since; in Bishop Loemba's case, according to African media reports, it was because of chronic mismanagement -- which is precisely what Peters says shouldn't happen.
If, in both cases, a specific ecclesiastical crime was involved, it hasn't been made public. In the Morris case, not even his fellow bishops quite know why. "There must be a lot of reason in the decision the Pope has made," Brisbane's Catholic Archbishop told the Sydney Morning Herald.
No doubt there is. Such actions are never made lightly. And reading some of Bishop Morris's statements, it's not hard to see how he would have been in the Pope's sights. Yet it seems odd that a bishop convicted and admitting guilty to possession of child pornography should be subjected to a careful canonical process, whereas bishops guilty of mismanagement and doctrinal laxity should be summarily dismissed. As Phil Lawler (who would like to see more "lax" bishops sacked) asks: if bishop X, then why not Y?
Obviously laicization is far more serious than removal from active ministry -- even from episcopal office; and canon law rightly places safeguards. But still, in the case of the Australian and the Congolese bishops, isn't at least an official explanation due?