Resignation and removal of Catholic bishops

On 5 November 2014, Il Bollettino carried a Rescriptum[1] which introduced new norms modifying the presentation and acceptance of resignation from pastoral ministry by diocesan bishops and offices of the Roman Curia by pontifical appointment. Whilst this does not change the black letter law within the 1983 Code, it emphasizes how relevant Canons should be applied, and its importance has been considered by a number of Roman Catholic commentators.

The canonical aspects are addressed by Dr Ed Peters, who observes that the new norms are presented as a papal “rescript” rather than as a papal motu proprio, which he suggests these norms seem much more like; but whatever their canonical genre they do not appear to change much law regarding episcopal resignations[2].  As might have been expected, Fr Z has provided his own annotated comments on Dr Peters’ post.

The practical implications of the rescript are discussed by John Thavis, who observes

“A single sentence in a papal document issued today may signal that Pope Francis is willing take a stronger hand in removing some bishops from office.

The one-page document deals primarily with the age of a bishop’s retirement. But it also states: ‘In some particular circumstances, the competent Authority (the pope)[3] may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.’

The power of a pope to sack a bishop has always been [presumed[4]], but here it is spelled out. It comes after Pope Francis has already removed a Paraguayan bishop from office over pastoral controversies, and accepted the resignation of a German bishop in the wake of a spending scandal. The Vatican is actively investigating the pastoral leadership of at least two other prelates, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted two years ago by a civil court on misdemeanour charges of failing to report suspected child abuse by a diocesan priest.”

The assessment of of the National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua J. McElwee is that

“Pope Francis has codified his ability to effectively fire Catholic bishops, saying that in some circumstances, he “can consider it necessary” to ask them to resign their offices.

The move . . . seems to be an attempt by Francis to clear up any ambiguity about the pontiff’s power to replace prelates around the world. While Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, have effectively removed bishops in the past, their power to do so was not previously so explicit in the church’s laws.

Wednesday’s change comes in a short edict approved Monday by Francis at the request of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Composed of seven short articles, the edict addresses the resignation of diocesan bishops and papal appointees.”

Christopher Lamb of The Tablet notes that the rescript takes on board recommendations of the Council of Cardinals, the group advising Francis on the reform of the Roman Curia also known as the “C9”.  The role of bishops and collegiality was also the theme of the Pope’s 5th November General Audience catechesis, at which he departed from his script to add “[t]he bishop is not an honorary role, it is a service.”


It is evident from the cross-referencing in Dr Peters’ post that many of the provisions with the rescript were already extant, albeit in a number of other documents some of which have benefitted from this recent clarification, e.g. “mild ambiguity under Canon 450 in regard to membership in episcopal conferences”. However, “the anomaly caused under Canon 189 § 3 (which goes to validity!) when episcopal resignations are submitted at age 75 but are not accepted by the Holy See until many months, sometimes years, later, is not addressed”.

Article 5 is perhaps the most significant, but we would observe that the document is silent on the Canon 401 §2 which is applicable in cases where a bishop is persuaded to resign from office: we noted in an earlier post that:

“given the nature of the terse announcements by the Vatican, [regarding resignation under Canon 401 §2 [5] ]  it is uncertain whether this was on account of ill-health or other reasons. Where persuasion is not effective, more formal action may be taken, but the reporting of this action does not necessarily identify the underlying reason.”


[1] Canon 59  CIC states: §1. A rescript is an administrative act issued in writing by competent executive authority; of its very nature, a rescript grants a privilege, dispensation, or other favor at someone’s request; §2. The prescripts established for rescripts are valid also for the oral granting of a permission or favours unless it is otherwise evident.

[2] John Thavis notes “A Vatican spokesman quickly underlined that today’s document contained “nothing truly new,” but was a forceful restatement of existing norms. But surely there was a reason it was issued”.

[3] Rorate Caeli blog notes that the version of Article 5 of the English version of the rescript on Vatican Information Services incorrectly translates “particolari l’Autorità competente” [singular] as “the competent Authorities” [plural], which significantly changes its meaning.

[4] In a comment on the post, Ed Peters indicates that the word should be “assumed” not “presumed” which has specific legal connotations.

[5] Normally reported on Vatican Information Service under the heading “Other Pontifical Acts”, e.g. “Vatican City, 25 February 2013 (VIS) Today, the Holy Father: – accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland, presented by Cardinal Michael Patrick O ‘Brien, in accordance with canon 401 para. 1 of the Code of Canon Law.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Resignation and removal of Catholic bishops" in Law & Religion UK, 6 November 2014,

2 thoughts on “Resignation and removal of Catholic bishops

  1. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 9th November | Law & Religion UK

  2. Pingback: Vatican – episcopal resignations | Law & Religion UK

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