There is a new Sheriff in Town
Last year I asked the rhetorical question: “Is there a new sheriff in town?” in response to the news that Pope Francis had suspended Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburg, Germany, because of questions about his finances and ostentatious lifestyle. The bishop later resigned his see. My answer was yes. At the time I speculated that Francis would act slowly and with charity, but would move decisively if he felt the circumstances merited action. Recent events seem to confirm this.
On Monday, September 29, the Vatican announced that the Pope had removed Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, Bishop of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The reasons for the removal are unclear. Bishop Livieres had made a number of controversial decisions, including withdrawing from the national seminary in Asuncion and establishing his own. His relations with his fellow bishops are strained, and he has gone so far as to publicly call the metropolitan archbishop, Bishop Pastor Cuquejo of Asuncion, a homosexual. (See here or here and search the word “homosexual.”) In a very questionable act of judgement, he incardinated a priest, Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, in his diocese over the objections of his bishop in the US, where Fr. Urrutigoity had been accused of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct. (The case of Fr. Urrutigoity is complicated and spans two continents and involves the SSPX as well as the Diocese of Scranton. A long albeit somewhat rambling description can be found here.) Bishop Livieres first made Fr. Urrutigoity the director of his new seminary and then appointed him vicar general of the diocese. However, a statement from the Vatican has confused matters, with Fr. Lombardi saying that Fr. Urrutigoity was “discussed” but this was not “the principal problem”. For an analysis of this statement by Grant Gallicho, a blogger at Commonweal who wrote the above articles about Fr. Urrutigoity, see here.
The reaction in the blogosphere has been interesting. The coverage from Commonweal is cited above. John Allen at Crux makes a few thoughtful comments relating this case to the larger issue of the Pope’s relationship with Opus Dei—Bishop Livieres is a member of Opus Dei. Sandro Magister weighs in heavily on the side of Bishop Livieres, publishing an English translation of an extensive apologia that the bishop had posted on his diocesan website. Sandro Magister plays upon the fact that the Vatican has not been forthcoming in its reasons for dismissing Bishop Livieres, and frames this article as the first step in his defense. The National Catholic Register discusses the unease which this dismissal has generated; further evidence of this can be found in many of the comments to the article, some of which see a liberal conspiracy against orthodox Catholics at play. Fr. Z annotates a press report from CWN but is remarkably temperate. He is worried that there is no obvious canonical grounds for the dismissal, but forcefully makes the point that appointing Fr. Urrutigoity was a big mistake. He also notes that when discussing the relations between the bishops in Paraguay that different rules apply to analyzing their rhetoric: what would be considered heated and intemperate in North America is par for the course in Argentina/Paraguay/etc. However, he overlooks the fact that the Pope is Argentinian and so able to assess this from within the cultural context, and he overlooks the fact that calling the archbishop a homosexual is probably viewed as intemperate everywhere. A number of detailed links about the Diocese (all in Spanish) were posted at Accion Liturgica. The story has been tracked, though with evident bias, since this summer at a blog entitled The Eponymous Flower. There the bishop is lauded for his defense of traditional liturgy and Catholic orthodoxy against all forms of modernism and liberation theology. (This also figures into the Bishop’s apologia given above.) Rorate Caeli generally defends the decision of the Pope, tying it directly to the Bishop’s support for Fr. Urrutigoity, which they regard as indefensible. They are concerned about unequal treatment between liberal and conservative bishops, but argue that if traditionalists are to persevere, they must be beyond reproach.
A big and at the moment unanswerable question is what this news portends for Bishop Finn of Kansas City. Last week the National Catholic Reporter broke the news that the Pope had ordered an apostolic visitation of Bishop Finn by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Canada. Bishop Finn has been subject to sustained criticism and calls for his resignation as a result of his handling of a sexual abuse case in his diocese. He has the dubious distinction of being the only American Bishop convicted for his role in covering up a case of child abuse by one of his priests. Bishop Finn has his defenders: see for instance, this post at Catholic Culture. But even they are wondering what this visitation means. Coming on the heels of the summary dismissal of Bishop Livieres, this news strongly suggests that the Pope has serious reservations about Bishop Finn’s leadership (apparently this was the key question asked by Archbishop Prendergast) and suggests that the Pope is prepared to act decisively once he digests the report.
There is one major difference between these two cases that seems to have been overlooked by most commentators. The Pope was sufficiently concerned about Bishop Livieres to act publicly: the news of the visitation to his Diocese was made public back in July. On the other hand, the investigation of Bishop Finn was intended to be confidential; it only became public because some of the parties questioned by Archbishop Prendergast leaked this information to the NCR. I infer from this that Pope Francis had serious concerns, but felt that they were less grave and should be investigated privately. It would be worth discussing the propriety of making the news of this visitation public—I am of mixed mind though I think in the end I support the decision of NCR to do so. However, I am very much aware that this is colored by my generally low opinion of Bishop Finn and if this comes up in the commboxes, please interrogate your own position before questioning the positions of others.
The Pope has clearly shown himself willing to act decisively in the case of bishops he believes are failing in their responsibilities. In the case of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst it was clear that the Pope felt he had failed in his pastoral responsibilities. In the case of Bishop Livieres, the reasons are less clear and I hope that the Vatican makes a more definite statement as to why he was removed. It is good for the Church as a whole, I think, if bishops know that if they screw up, there will be consequences, up to and including dismissal. However, they need to understand clearly where the lines are drawn. Fear, uncertainty and perceived capriciousness would do nothing to promote the kinds of leadership and collegiality that Pope Francis seems to want from his brother bishops.