Comment Opinion & Features

Pope Francis got it right on Cardinal Barbarin


Pope Francis did the right thing in refusing to accept the resignation offered by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons after his conviction by a French court of not properly handling a sexual abuse case by one of his priests. Barbarin is appealing and his appeal has a rather good chance of succeeding, as the prosecutor in the case argued against bringing Barbarin to trial in the first place, and all of Barbarin’s co-defendants were acquitted.

The Holy See has learned from last year’s fiasco in Australia, where Archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted of a cover-up in a decades-old case. Archbishop Wilson did not want to resign until his appeal was heard, but was subject to immense pressure to do so. When he did, the relief from the Vatican was palpable. But then the appellate court acquitted Wilson, ruling that his conviction was due in part to an anti-clerical frenzy. So in the Wilson case, a secular court has acquitted an archbishop, standing up to anti-Catholic bias, while the Holy See has, in effect, deposed him based on the same now overturned verdict. That was not going to happen again in regard to Lyons; Pope Francis will wait for the appeal to be heard.

The proper course in both cases is for the Church to note whatever evidence – or lack thereof – is established by criminal or civil proceedings, and then to judge the bishops by its own canonical procedures, revised by Pope Francis in 2016 in the legislation Come una madre amorevole. To date those procedures have apparently not been used; they should have been in both the Wilson and Barbarin cases.

That all being said, the person most disappointed by the Holy Father’s decision was probably Cardinal Barbarin himself. He clearly wanted out, and when his resignation was declined, he managed to get the Holy Father to permit a leave of absence. And therein lies a great difficulty in the discipline administered to bishops.

A bishop guilty of sexual abuse himself is subject to the same restrictions on ministry as any priest, including – as the McCarrick case demonstrated – dismissal from the clerical state altogether. Being forbidden to exercise public ministry, or any ministry at all, is no doubt a severe penalty for any priest who values his priesthood and believes his vocation to be a gift from God. His daily inability to exercise what flows from his identity is no small matter.

But for bishops guilty of poor oversight, negligence or deliberate cover-up, a just penalty is more difficult to establish. It is unlikely that he has committed a canonical crime, nor is he a danger to minors. The suitable penalty for one who has exercised his office badly is to deprive him of his office. And that is generally what is done, either by inviting a resignation, or by the Holy See removing the bishop from office.

What is the problem with that? Many bishops are eager to retire anyway. They are generally of an age when their contemporaries are long retired, and the life of a retired bishop – free now to preach retreats, to write, to do pastoral work without the burdens of office – is attractive.

Certainly, Cardinal Barbarin’s last few years in Lyons have been anything but pleasant; a resignation would permit a quiet exit from public life and the whole mess would be dumped into the lap of his successor.

The issue of bishops’ resignations is based on the worldly model of officials who seek office and dread removal from it. While episcopal ambition is well known, for most bishops the office – even if it once held great appeal – grows burdensome with the years. It is more common to hear bishops look forward to retirement rather than to remain.

No one welcomes public disgrace, and surely Cardinal Barbarin would not welcome being known as the archbishop who had to resign his office. But most of the critical things said and thought about Cardinal Barbarin have long been said and thought. To walk away from it all must seem at least a good thing for the bishop, and a relief for the diocese.

Canon law does foresee that a bishop who judges that he can no longer effectively serve his diocese ought to resign. It does not foresee that the bishop himself might wish to go because it is often the easier path. The punishment thus does not fit the crime; the punishment is a welcome relief. And if presented as a selfless sacrifice for the good of the diocese, it may even be seen as noble.

Many criticised Pope Francis for not accepting Cardinal Barbarin’s resignation, that somehow the Holy Father let him get away with it. But the Holy Father was actually tougher with the Lyonnais cardinal; he refused to let him get away from it.