Recent cases make it imperative that the Vatican reviews its treatment of bishops who are regarded as out of line, whether over moral, financial or doctrinal matters. Present procedures are seriously defective.
The Pope has authorised a leave of absence for the controversial Bishop of Limburg in Germany, following allegations that he misused church funds in the building and furnishing of his new luxury residence. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst was called to Rome for an interview, and a commission of German Catholic bishops is examining the complaints against him. He could face dismissal – not unlike the treatment of Bishop Róbert Bezák of Trnava, Slovakia, who was removed from office by Pope Benedict last year and whose transfer next month to a Redemptorist monastery near Verona has just been announced. Where the cases differ is that lay Catholics were solidly on the side of Bishop Bezák, the allegations against whom were not made public, while public opinion has turned against Bishop Tebartz and the accusation against him is all too obvious. But until their cases have been submitted to due process, it cannot be assumed that either of them is guilty of anything. That, unfortunately, is not how things work. Bishops may be successors of the apostles and Vicars of Christ in their own diocese, but they have fewer rights under Canon Law than parish priests.
When Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba in the Australian outback was dismissed in 2011, he was firmly told that, as bishops were appointed by the Pope, they could be dismissed by the Pope; there was no appeal, and the Pope did not have to give reasons. The case caused grave scandal for the Catholic Church in Australia although his fellow bishops, after some uncertainty, eventually backed the Vatican’s actions – afraid perhaps of being tarred with the same brush. Bishop Morris, who is still in good standing in the Church, says he has not been given an explanation or details of any allegations, though it is plain that his troubles began when he appeared to question the teaching that women could not be ordained as Catholic priests. A retired Queensland Supreme Court judge, William Carter QC, looked into the case and concluded that Bishop Morris had been “denied the right to be heard; he has been treated unfairly. He had not been provided with any evidence to support the case against him nor was he given any opportunity to respond to or correct known errors of fact and generalised assertion … One could not imagine a more striking case of a denial of natural justice.”
It is no coincidence that Bishop Bezák also says he does not know what he is accused of, nor has he been given an opportunity to defend himself. The Church must treat bishops according to natural justice: arbitrary dismissal is a mark not of the Gospel but of tyranny. It also undermines collegiality. A bishop cannot freely express his opinion on matters large or small if he faces the sack if the Vatican does not like what he says. In such circumstances collegial consultation, which Pope Francis says he is keen on, becomes meaningless.
No bishop should face punishment for expressing his honest opinion; and if accused of something, whatever it is, he must have every opportunity to defend himself.