Vatican – episcopal resignations

A summary of recent episcopal resignations in the Roman Catholic Church and the underlying canon law


Canon 416 (CIC) provides that “an episcopal see is vacant upon the death of a diocesan bishop, resignation accepted by the Roman Pontiff, transfer, or privation made known to the bishop”, and the measures relevant to resignation are within Canon 401:

§1. A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.

§2. A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfil his office because of ill-health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.

Canon 411 extends these provisions to coadjutor and auxiliary bishops. It has been suggested here, here and elsewhere that a separation should be made between the two causes for early resignation in Canon 401 §2 (and further classifying “other grave reason” as personal or doctrinal reasons), “as a matter of justice, so that those who do resign for health reasons are not tainted by association with those who resign for other reasons.” Likewise, care must be taken in interpreting resignations under Canon 401 §1, below, and recent events have demonstrated the need for greater clarity and transparency in this area.

Legislative changes

Early in Pope Francis’ pontificate, the Vatican announced:

Francis: Act Decisively against sexual abuse

This morning the Holy Father received in audience Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A communique released by that dicastery reads that, during the course of the audience, various issues pertaining to the Congregation were discussed.

In particular, the Holy Father recommended that the Congregation, continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops’ conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church’s witness and credibility.

The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering.” [5 April 2013]

This was followed shortly by the first Motu proprio of his papacy “On the Jurisdiction of Judicial Authorities of Vatican City State in Criminal Matters” which makes the criminal laws adopted by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State applicable also within the Holy See. In addition, the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State adopted complementary legislation which together “are a continuation of the efforts to update Vatican City State’s legal system, building upon the measures adopted since 2010 during the pontificate of Benedict XVI … [but] have a broader scope, since they incorporate into the Vatican legal system the provisions of numerous international conventions.”

On 5 November 2014, the Bollettino carried a Rescriptum 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, as outlined in our post Resignation and removal of Catholic bishops. The canonical aspects of the Rescriptum 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 these norms seem much more like, but whatever their canonical genre they do not appear to change much law regarding episcopal resignations. He notes that many of the provisions within the rescript were already extant, albeit in a number of other documents; some of which have benefitted from this recent clarification, but nevertheless, ambiguities remain.

In addition, on 8 June Pope Francis approved proposals for a new system a new system which will hold to account bishops who fail to act on clerical abuse. This gives power to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors”. These proposals included the establishment of a new office at the Congregation to take on work as a tribunal in the judgment of bishops who fail to act on abuse.

Canon 401 §1

On 18 February 2013, (i.e. between the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation on 11 February 2013 and the date on which this became effective, 28 February 2013), the former pontiff accepted the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien from the pastoral governance of the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, [Formally announced: Bollettino, 25 February 2013]. The Scottish Catholic Media Office stated “[t]he Cardinal had already presented last November his resignation in view of his 75th birthday on 17 March 2013, and it was accepted by the Holy Father with the formula ‘nunc pro tunc’ (now for later). Given the imminent Vacant See, the Holy Father has now decided to accept the said resignation definitively.”

His resignation was accepted under Canon 401 §1, although following a two-year Vatican investigation led by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Dean of the College of Cardinals announced that the Pope had “accepted the resignation of the rights and privileges of a Cardinal, expressed in canons 349, 353 and 356 of the Code of Canon Law”, although he retained the title of Cardinal, [Bollettino, 20 March 2015].

Recent developments

Further to the commencement (and postponement) of the Vatican civil trial of the former nuncio Józef Wesołowski on which we reported last week, David Gibson of Religion News Service posted “Pope Francis dumps 2 more bishops as house cleaning continues”. In this article he summarizes recent high profile episcopal resignations, Bishop Gonzalo Galvan Castillo of the Diocese of Autlan in Mexico, [Bollettino, 25 June 2015], and Archbishop Antonio Carlos Altieri of the Archdiocese of Passo Fundo, Brazil, [Bollettino, 15 July 2015]. Gibson also refers to “two U.S. bishops”, i.e. Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, both of the St. Paul and Minneapolis diocese, [Bollettino, 15 June 2015], and to a German bishop, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a.k.a. “the Bishop of bling”, [Bollettino 26 March 2014].

The article states that bishops Galvan and Altieri “both also resigned under the canon law that says a bishop “who has become less able to fulfil his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office, [i.e. Canon 401 §2 (CIC)]. That is the statute that is usually cited when a bishop has been forced to step down by Rome because of a scandal.” He adds “Galvan’s resignation was quietly noted in a Vatican bulletin.”

However, this statement needs a little unpicking: all resignations and appointments are reported in il Bollettino under the somewhat bald heading “Rinunce e nomine,” followed by a terse statement “Il Santo Padre Francesco ha accettato la rinuncia al governo pastorale dell’arcidiocesi di … presentata da … in conformità al can. 401 §2 del Codice di Diritto Canonico”.

Furthermore, as we observed in Issues facing new pontiff: III – Sexual abuse, bishops’ resignation and transparency, there is a lack of clarity in the use of Canon 401 §2 since this is a “catch-all” for both those who resign on account of ill health and those persuaded to resign for another “grave cause”. On the former, given the number of diocesan bishops worldwide, it is inevitable that a proportion of these will need to resign on grounds of health, particularly in view of the current retirement age of 75. With regard to the latter, the “grave cause” may be direct involvement in abuse, indirect involvement such as inaction to address abuse within the diocese, or an issue completely separate such as financial mismanagement or lavish lifestyle.


In most cases it not possible to interpret the reasons behind a specific rinuncia made under canon 401 §2 (CIC): the absence of a clerical designation is a strong indication that a former priest has been laicized under canon law; and the case of Cardinal O’Brien has demonstrated the importance of  the “[examination] of all the circumstances for resignations under canon 401 §1 (CIC). The announcement of the civil trial of Józef Wesołowski was notable in that it included a summary of the alleged crimes and was in English, French and Spanish as well as Italian.

Whilst the Vatican has made a number of legislative changes to facilitate the removal of bishops and archbishops, in most cases transparency remains a problem and it is necessary to rely upon Vaticanisti to highlight the relevant announcements and provide some context.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Vatican – episcopal resignations" in Law & Religion UK, 20 July 2015,

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