Update on Bishop Tebartz van Elst – a consolation prize, but not a bad one for all that.
Word came this week that another bishop has “resigned” under the provisions of Canon 401, paragraph 2. This provides for resignation for “grave cause” or ill-health. Given that the latest resignee, Bishop Le Vert of Quimper in Brittany, is only 55 years old, grave cause seemed to be the catalyst here. In May last year Bishop Le Vert had been “allowed” by Pope Francis to suspend his governance of the diocese for “health reasons”. This is not normal procedure for a bishop who is ill but able likely to recover. In such a situation, normally an auxiliary bishop (if the diocese has one) or the vicar general would govern the diocese. In cases of chronic debilitating illness the bishop would normally resign sooner rather than later. In Bishop Le Vert’s case a retired bishop was parachuted in with full power of governance. And now Bishop Le Vert has jumped, clearly after a hefty push.
One might reasonably ask what the health issues might have been. Nothing more than stress it seems. The bishop was not popular with a powerful faction among his clergy. Given that Bishop Le Vert is a member of the Community of St Martin, one of the few elements of the Catholic Church in France that is thriving, and which is routinely labelled “conservative” (even by those sympathetic to it), one might have suspected that theological or liturgical tensions had fractures the facade of peace. If La Croix is to be believed, the tensions were in relationships, the senior clergy unhappy that Bishop Le Vert was relying more on an entourage of advisers than on them. There is a troubling pattern emerging under this papacy. One cannot dispute the papal right to remove a bishop in extremis for the good of the Church. This would normally be for heresy, continued and grave insubordination, criminal conduct or some other grave scandal. Before this there would be quiet but firm encouragement for the bishop to resign, to remove himself before he would be removed. Some, like Bishop Le Vert, take the hint. Others, like Bishop Morris, dig in their heels, drawing out an unpleasant situation until the papal hand strikes. But in Bishop Le Vert’s case, there is no misconduct. What there is, on a little closer inspection, is a bishop who did not share his clergy’s liberal outlook on worship and doctrine, and so took his advice from those who shared his outlook and whom he thus trusted more fully. This is a fairly common practice among any new head of an organization who feels himself very much an outsider in his new position. But the clergy who previously held sway resented this immensely and did not accommodate themselves quietly to the new order until things settled down. They actively resisted their new bishop, and the vicar general and some members of the bishop’s council resigned in protest. It is for this – that the bishop and the ascendant clergy in his diocese – did not agree, that Le Vert was removed. In every respect Le Vert was orthodox in theology and, to judge by photos of him in liturgical settings, far from being an ultra-traditionalist. But the screeching of the disaffected among his senior clergy has led to his effective removal. A little glance at the state of the diocese of Quimper is revealing. In 1948, the diocese had a total population of over 738,000, with over 737,000 of them Catholics, with meant that Catholics made up 99.8% of the total population within the diocese. They were served by 1,042 diocesan priests and 52 religious priests. That meant a laity/priest ratio of 637/1. By the time statistics were gathered for 2010, not long after Le Vert was appointed, after a rise in Catholic numbers from the 1970s through the 1990s, the number of Catholics fell precipitately to 722,000, while the total population grew to almost 886,000, meaning Catholics had had fallen to 81.5% of the population, and were served by a meagre 277 diocesan priests and 27 religious priests, which saw the laity/priest ration balloon to 2,375/1. An impartial and disinterested observer would have to conclude something had gone wrong to produce such a decline. What I have not yet found is the rate of Mass attendance among the total number of Catholics, but one could safely bet it is not healthy. So Bishop Le Vert took over an flagging diocese, and seemed ready to place a firm hand on the till to restore some order and vitality (something for which the Community of St Martin is notable). Vested clerical interests were not happy with this change to their comfortable status quo, and have resisted him to the point of making his position untenable in papal eyes. It would not quite so troubling if it were not for the fact that this is fast becoming common under Pope Francis. The Bishop of Limburg (Germany), another young “conservative”, was removed after a nasty smear campaign by some of his senior clergy accusing him of financial extravagance for personal benefit. Pope Francis decided that his position, also, was untenable and forcibly removed him. Bishop Tebartz van Elst blamed his vicar general for creating the situation. Two days after hearing Bishop van Elst’s personal plea, Pope Francis removed him and appointed the agitating vicar general to administer the diocese.
The Bishop of Albenga-Imperia (Italy), the Tradition-minded Mario Oliveri, had a coadjutor bishop imposed upon him by Pope Francis last year. He had been castigated by some of his clergy for accepting unsuitable candidates for the priesthood into the diocese (for being traditional, his diocese was attracting vocations). He allowed external priests into the diocese who were found to be less than exemplary from a moral point of view. It is generally accepted that the bishop merely takes too positive a view of people; no one accuses him of any personal misconduct. It is this that has probably saved him from deposition, though the imposition of a coadjutor somewhat neuters him as the bishop. Yet how many other bishops of the last 50 years (till this day) have been guilty of accepting unsuitable candidates? If they were all to disciplined not many Western dioceses would be left untouched.
The Bishop of Cuidad del Este (Paraguay), Rogelio Livieres Plano, a member of the “conservative” Opus Dei movement, was removed from office last year by Pope Francis. His diocese, teeming with vocations, had attracted some clergy with controversial backgrounds, including one who had been accused of sexual impropriety years before in the United States. This latter priest Bishop Livieres had imprudently appointed as vicar general. However, Bishop Livieres strongly maintains that the priest is innocent of the allegations levelled against him. Nevertheless, it was not the most sensible of appointments, and it became an Achilles heel. But Bishop Livieres was despised by his fellow bishops in Paraguay, not least the Archbishop of Asuncion, whom Livieres had accused of being homosexual (by which is implied activity not merely orientation). While he seems to be quite the maverick, it cannot be denied that his diocese was the healthiest in Paraguay and in fact attracting vocations from the others. His removal was centred precisely, according to the Vatican itself, on the relationship of Livieres with the other bishops of Paraguay.
These three prelates are guilty of imprudence, a failing which has been shared by thousands of bishops over the last few decades till the present. A swiftly-applied reality check may well have been in order for all of them. But removal? There is something markedly incongruous in that a pope who is actively championing the rights of diocesan bishops over and against the role of the Holy See, seeking to decentralize the Church and move much more power to the provinces, invoking collegiality as the guiding principle – this same pope is ready to remove bishops who are at odds with their clergy or their fellow local bishops. If these clergy complain loud and long enough, they can get the bishop removed, no matter his right to govern the diocese according to the laws of the Church and its doctrine. All three bishops above were pilloried first not by laity, but by clergy. All three were orthodox and attracting vocations. These are the bishops removed. Some see this as a “massacre” of conservative bishops. It certainly looks that way, especially given that clearly misbehaving clergy have been kept on in plum positions by Pope Francis. What sort of collegiality is this? How does this square with Vatican II’s on the dignity of the bishop as pastor of his own diocese? How can we expect a man with clear principles, and who is prepared to act on them, not to be opposed by some, maybe even many? St Athanasius stood as a lone voice against the nearly victorious Arian heresy in the fourth century, so much so that the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”) was coined, and as a bishop he was in exile for over 17 years, never ceasing to work for truth. With so many clergy against him, St Athanasius would today, no doubt, be removed from his diocese by the pope. If your clerical colleagues do not like you, neither does the pope, or so it seems. What sort of vicious factionalism is this going to foster? Is personality politics now to prosper? Moreover, what should we make of the pope’s move to clarify and codify his power to remove diocesan bishops last November? Fr Ray Blake, in the wake of the pope’s pre-Christmas public dressing down of his curial officials, said that working in the curia today had become a job from hell – who would want it? Given the ease with which a diocesan bishop can be removed or impeded by clerical opposition, one might take the same view of the role of diocesan bishop. Only time-servers will find it comfortable.
Lastly, the sad affair of the Charlie Hebdo massacre has led to a debate about freedom of speech. The cartoonists and other staff were victims of a heinous crime perpetrated by adherents of a vile and absolutist form of Islam. Yet the magazine Charlie Hebdo, is not without vileness of its own, with deliberately provocative cartoons designed not to offer an ironic comment on a situation, but to offend a certain section of society. How can a cartoon of Jesus sodomizing God the Father while the Holy Spirit sodomizes him be anything but gratuitous offensiveness? The magazine reflected the puerile mentality of the student activism and laicïté of the 1960s. They exercised, we have been constantly told these last few weeks, their right to free speech. It was this the terrorists attacked, and it is this we must defend. So we must be Charlie Hebdo too. Yet has absolute freedom of speech ever existed? The fact that most countries have sedition, blasphemy, slander and libel laws tells us immediately that there are limits on what anyone can legally say or write. The new crime of hate speech seeks to criminalize any speech that offends certain (but not all!) minority groups in society. Even canon law recognizes explicitly the right of individual Christians (clergy and prelates included) to their good name and reputation (#220) and criminalizes “a person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church” (#1369). Polly Toynbee, in a deeply-flawed article in The Guardian, defended the right to provoke and offend, especially when it comes to religion, which to her seems to have fewer rights than other minority elements in society. She claims “(r)eligion is gentle only when it’s (sic) powerless”. I wonder if she would extend that insight to such movements as militant LGBT’s, who now they are empowered by equality laws, seek to force owners of patisseries to make cakes supporting “gay marriage” even when it goes against their sincere conscience, and when there are plenty of other patisseries around who would do it? Toynbee claims it is “the role of a satirical magazine… to stick two fingers up to propriety.” Really? I thought satire sought to expose and ridicule hypocrisy and cant, rather than “propriety”. Such a term reveals a fixation in the same sort of Marxist-revolutionary mentality that motivated the anti-bourgeois students of the 1960s. No adolescent is allowed free reign to indulge his or her adolescent rebellion; why should Charlie Hebdo? Freedom of speech is not the issue. Freedom to offend is what they are really seeking. And that is a right no one has, nor should anyone have. What a Catholic can defend is freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. No one should be murdered or persecuted for holding different beliefs or principles. At times it may be morally and socially necessary to impose limits on the expression of an individual’s beliefs. Sometimes these limits will need to be legal. Sometimes, social pressure can effect the same result. Perhaps this social limitation was quietly at work already with regard to Charlie Hebdo before the atrocity:
The magazine’s circulation has dropped over the years. While issues with covers depicting Muhammad sold about 100,000 copies, the magazine often printed 60,000 copies and sales sometimes didn’t (sic) exceed 30,000. (Bloomberg)
30,000 in a country of 66 million. Even when insulting Mohammed (and with all the publicity that went with these stunts) they only sold 100,000. Perhaps the most effective curb on that magazine’s offensiveness will be economic. Anyway, the whole sad situation should make us think carefully about freedom and the use we make of it. Our truest freedom is to speak the truth in charity. Let us keep that in mind when people talk of the right to free speech.