Sacking a bishop isn’t as easy as people think

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (PA)

That the Vatican has “accepted the resignation of” the Bishop of Limburg – or to put it into real English, given him the sack – is highly unusual.

The Vatican always speaks in an elaborate kind of code which invites interpretation. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst will shortly be given a new assignment, we are told, and this new position will undoubtedly be something that sweetens the bitter pill of his removal from Limburg. Moreover, the new job will take care of the question of what to do with one who remains a bishop, even after he has lost his diocese. He will probably be given some quite prestigious but largely ceremonial appointment, in which the city of Rome abounds. (Something similar was done for Bernard, Cardinal Law, though not for Keith O’Brien.)

The sacking of a bishop is quite difficult to achieve if the bishop puts up a fight, as the incumbent has rights in Canon Law, and cannot simply be removed from his diocese without due process. Therefore, one assumes that what has happened here is a series of delicate negotiations which have resulted in the bishop “going quietly”.

Some people would maintain, and they may well be right, that more bishops and other clergy should be sacked by the Pope. But there are many reasons why this hardly ever happens. Think back for a moment to the case of Bishop Gaillot of Evreux, who was removed from post because he was regarded as heterodox. This hardly solved the problem: indeed, it made a martyr out of the bishop and turned the affaire Gaillot into a cause celebre, which was highly damaging to the unity of the Church.

A few bishops have up to now been sacked for financial incompetence, usually in the developing world, and the Bishop of Bling, as he will forever be known, is a European who falls into this category. Unlike with cases of heresy, financial incompetence can be proven much more easily. There will always be arguments among theologians, but accountants have a way of being precise which does not admit of dissent in any form. As with heresy, so with gross moral turpitude: it is hard to prove it without the co-operation of the accused.

The Bishop of Bling has been removed partly because of the way he had ceased to be the focus of unity in his diocese, partly because of his poor stewardship, but mainly, one feels, because this matter had come to almost universal notice, and something had to be done, and seen to be done too. A message needed to be sent out, and it seems to be this: the days of prince bishops are now over. A bishop does not live in luxury any more, he is rather a shepherd, and as such, he lives amongst his flock, and shares the sort of life that they live. He is ‘alongside’ his diocese not ‘above’ it. It was this lesson the former Bishop of Limburg seems not to have grasped, and this lesson that his removal is designed to illustrate.

Meanwhile the bishop will be meeting the Pope today. There will be, you may be sure, a lot to discuss.