News Analysis

Why did the Pope accept one cardinal’s resignation but not another’s?

Don't go yet: Pope Francis and Cardinal Barbarin (CNS)

Last week in Rome was the story of two resignations: one long since submitted and at long last accepted; the other, submitted and shelved on the same day. The former resignation belonged to the Archbishop of Santiago de Chile, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati. The latter came from the Archbishop of Lyon and Primate of Gaul – France’s highest ranking prelate – Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

Both men are accused of gravely mishandling abuse cases. Cardinal Ezzati is currently the subject of an investigation by Chilean authorities. Cardinal Barbarin has been found guilty by a French trial court of criminal failure to report abuse. Both protest their innocence of criminal wrongdoing.

Pope Francis’s apparently inconsistent handling of these cases – coming on the back of several other high-profile cases around the world over the past year – raises serious questions regarding not only his reform intentions and commitments, but also of policy. A candid observer cannot avoid at least considering the possibility he does not have one.

Writing for La Croix International regarding Cardinal Barbarin’s conviction earlier this month, Massimo Faggioli, the Church historian and theologian from Villanova University, suggested: “Within the Church there is a series of internal renegotiations triggered by the abuse crisis: between sin and crime; secrecy and publicity; justice and mercy; laity and clergy; Rome and the local churches.”

He continued: “The biggest and epoch-making consequence is the huge renegotiation of the relations between Church and state, in different ways in different countries of global Catholicism.”

Christopher Lamb, the Tablet’s Rome correspondent, broadly agreed. In a March 19 analysis piece, Lamb wrote: “Pope Francis’s refusal of the resignation of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin underscores how the abuse crisis is reshaping the relationship between Church and state.” He explained the decision to keep Barbarin at least nominally in his see as the result of Roman reluctance to “being seen to pick and choose between the judgments of the civil authorities”.

Faggioli and Lamb are both right. There remains, however, a fact for which their analyses do not account: namely, that Pope Francis had given himself an out. He need not have found himself in this spot. He need not have brought us here.

In 2016, Pope Francis introduced new legislation, touted as a typically pragmatic and “Franciscan” work-around, ostensibly designed to bypass the cumbersome process of removing negligent bishops by means of full ecclesiastical trial. The apostolic letter motu proprio, Come una madre amorevole (“As a loving mother”), provides for the investigation, suspension and eventual removal of bishops for mere negligence. “The diocesan bishop or eparch can only be removed if he is objectively lacking in a very grave manner the diligence that his pastoral office demands of him,” the document reads, “even without serious moral fault on his part.” It further states: “In the case of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults it is enough that the lack of diligence be grave.”

The legal framework of Come una madre is established in very broad strokes, leaving wide latitude for interpretation and implementation. It provides for the investigation of complaints, and it couches the new powers in terms that are respectful of, though by no means deferential to, the rights of local ordinaries (and Religious superiors). Basically, it gives the Pope and competent Congregations within the Roman Curia the legal wherewithal to suspend or remove bishops who have failed in the exercise of their duty to care, even and especially when their failures are not criminal.

Pope Francis and other leading churchmen have repeatedly emphasised the paramount importance of the duty to care, and the non-negotiable character of commitment to sound governance, especially insofar as the safety of minors is concerned.

On the very first day of the recent abuse summit, Archbishop Charles Scicluna told journalists gathered for the daily briefing: “[Come una madre] is actually more about the removal of ineffective leadership, rather than punishing leadership that is not up to standard.”

In 2017, Cardinal Barbarin told Le Monde that his handling of cases had not been up to scratch, in essence claiming he had no adequate guidance and no idea what to do on his own. “I realise today,” France’s senior churchman told Le Monde in 2017, “that my response at that time was not up to the challenge.”

Pope Francis could have removed Barbarin then and there. Ezzati’s resignation has been on Pope Francis’s desk since May last year.

Even without the provisions in Come una madre, any pope could say to any bishop at any point that it is time for him to go, and that he will be going, one way or another. If the bishop agrees to resign, they may then announce they had mutually agreed that bishop so-and-so’s leadership, sadly, had not been adequate in specific regards, and that it was time for bishop so-and-so to step aside, for the good of the Church.

That would send a message, indeed – one even Catholic bishops could not fail to hear and take to heart.