Francis introduces law to remove negligent bishops

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, June 12, 2016

On June 4, Pope Francis made two important reforms to Holy See policies. The first was the introduction of a new law making it easier for the pope to remove bishops who mishandle sexual-abuse cases, and the second was the announcement of a new Vatican department dedicated to “laity, family and life.”

Both of these moves had been expected for some time, and had been under discussion by Francis’ advisory body of nine cardinals who were recently in Rome for their 15th meeting.

The pope’s reforms, however, are not simply about creating new departments and processes. At their heart is a call for conversion; to change the church’s direction to make sure that everyone can experience the loving embrace of God’s mercy. Still, as Francis told priests last week, “Unless our structures are vibrant and aimed at making us more open to God’s mercy and more merciful to others, they can turn into something very bizarre and eventually counterproductive.”

It is in this vein that the pope and his advisers have been involved in trying to overhaul the Roman Curia, the church’s central administration. For an institution that thinks in centuries, this is naturally a slow process — small steps forward are whar we are seeing now.

The new laity and family body, for example, will be led — as is usual — by a cardinal, but senior positions are to be occupied by laypeople representing different parts of the globe. Not a radical change but a step in the right direction.

Similarly, Pope Francis’ reform of procedures to remove bishops who mishandle abuse allegations does not reinvent the wheel, but nonetheless remains quite important. For years, victims’ advocates have been calling for bishop accountability. While canon law already allows for bishops to be removed for “grave” reasons, the new directives explicitly state that this can include being negligent over abuse.

It then outlines a process whereby the Vatican will investigate cases and present their findings to the pope who in turn will be assisted in making his final decision by a team of canon lawyers — likely to be cardinals and bishops.

Will this make a difference? In the end its success, as Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins said following the release of the initiative, “can only be judged on visible results.”

Results are something Francis is trying to achieve, especially when it comes to combatting human trafficking. Under his papacy, the Holy See has been actively involved in global efforts to tackle a scourge that, according to the latest figures, has enslaved more than 45 million people worldwide.

At the end of May, a summit of judges and legal experts took place in the Casino Pio IV — situated in the Vatican gardens — to discuss the matter. In his address to the conference, Francis said that the church must not be afraid of getting political when it comes to tackling big problems such as human slavery. He quoted Paul VI remark that “politics is one of the highest forms of charity.”

On numerous issues — migrants, climate change and poverty — the pope has shown his willingness to step into the political realm. His refusal to sit on the sidelines has earned him fans.

His strategy seems to be to find points of agreement, rather than conflict, and to be willing to take risks in order to have dialogue. This is part of his plan to go out to the peripheries — be they geographical or existential. Recently, for example, he met with a group from the Institute of Jainology in London, followers of Jainism, an ancient Indian religious philosophy that stresses non-violence and a deep concern for nature.

“We all love mother Earth, because she is the one who has given us life and safeguards us,” the pope told them. “I would also call her sister Earth, who accompanies us during the journey of our existence.”

Francis’ trip to Sweden in October might be described as another visit to periphery, particularly because he is travelling there to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Vatican recently released more details of the trip, which will include a joint Catholic and Lutheran service in Lund Cathedral and another joint event in an arena that can hold up to 10,000 people in the city of Malmö (Francis will also celebrate Mass for Sweden’s Catholics while he is there).

Next week, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, will present a new document on the relationship between Catholicism’s hierarchical and “charismatic,” or spirit-inspired, traditions. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, responsible for recommending episcopal appointments to the pope, will be present.

This is an interesting moment for such a document, given Francis’ continued willingness to confound expectations. Yet that should not be all that surprising, given the fact that the pope chose St. Francis of Assisi as his namesake. St. Francis represents the charismatic church, while popes traditionally are thought to represent the hierarchical, official church: they teach, judge and govern.

By bringing these two strands of Catholic tradition together, Francis continues to challenge preconceptions about the office of the papacy.


  • pope francis
  • family life
  • clerical abuse
  • curial reform

Related Articles