With the mass resignation of 34 Chilean bishops, we have reached the decisive moment of the Francis pontificate. How Pope Francis responds to this unprecedented gesture will determine how history judges him. Obviously, these dramatic resignations test the pontiff’s commitment to resolving the sex-abuse crisis. But there is even more at stake.
The resignations switch the focus of public attention from the Chilean hierarchy—which had clearly failed in its duties—to the pope. The Chilean bishops explained that they had decided to put their future “in the hands of the Holy Father and will leave it to him to decide freely” which prelates should step down. Now, which bishops will the pope dismiss, and which (if any) will he allow to remain in office?
Presumably some of the Chilean bishops are innocent of the “grave negligence” uncovered by the pope’s belated investigation. For now, they share in the general humiliation. Will they be exonerated? And will those who have been guilty of outright dishonesty (the pope cited the “destruction of compromising documents”) be identified and denounced? Or will the pope merely accept some resignations, and decline others, without public explanation?
When Francis was elected, the Catholic world was clamoring for accountability in the handling of sex-abuse complaints. The pope signed orders creating a tribunal to judge bishops accused of neglect—but then, after months of inaction, dissolved that body, explaining that existing mechanisms already allowed for disciplinary action against bishops. Yet in the Chilean case, those mechanisms were not used; instead the pope took action unilaterally. So there still is no indication that the Vatican has a working system for holding bishops accountable.
A bishop’s resignation, quietly accepted, does not establish his guilt or innocence. On the contrary, to allow the Chilean bishops to step down without comment would cast an unfavorable light on those unfortunate prelates who have a perfectly valid reason—such as ill health—for an early resignation.
The mass resignations in Chile also leave unresolved the status of one powerful prelate at the center of the scandal. Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, who had already resigned from his post as archbishop of Santiago (having passed the normative retirement age of 75), remains a member of the Council of Cardinals, the body that advises the pontiff. Cardinal Errazuriz did not take part in last week’s discussions in Rome, nor did he join in the mass resignation. Yet he has been accused of seeking systematically to suppress information about sexual abuse, and to discourage Vatican officials from listening to victims. How long can he remain among the pope’s closest advisers, while other Chilean bishops bear the brunt of the scandal?
Taken by themselves, then, the dramatic resignations resolve nothing. Marie Collins, who last year resigned in frustration from the pope’s special commission on sexual abuse, responded to the Friday resignations with a weary tweet: “Chile: No resignation from Cardinal Errazuriz? No removal from the C9? No bishop removed—all allowed to resign. Really nothing changes.”
Along with accountability, concerned Catholics wanted transparency in the Vatican’s handling of abuse cases. So far, there is no transparency in this case. The Vatican released a short, mild letter from the pope to the Chilean bishops, holding back a longer and more candid message, in which the pope provides a more detailed indictment of the bishops’ behavior. (The latter message quickly leaked to the media, but leaks—as Vatican officials should know—are not a means of encouraging transparency.) We don’t even know whether Pope Francis demanded resignations, or whether the Chilean bishops decided to resign en masse as a way of tossing their problems back onto the pontiff’s desk.
Were they pushed, or did they jump? In his longer letter the pope indicates that some bishops should be removed, and adds, “I insist, it’s not enough.” It seems unlikely that every member of a nation’s episcopal conference would agree to resign without prompting. And it is evident that Pope Francis was angry about the “lack of truthful and balanced information” he had previously received from Chile. But it was not only the Chilean bishops who bore responsibility for creating the crisis. As the pope has acknowledged, he himself was “part of the problem,” and he too was, and is, on trial in the court of public opinion.
Like so many other sex-abuse complaints, the scandal in Chile can be traced back for decades: to 1985, when bishops heard the first complaints about Fr. Fernando Karadima. Those complaints were suppressed until 2010, when reluctant bishops finally took action against the popular priest, and in 2011 Karadima was condemned by a Vatican tribunal. It was after that verdict—after Karadima had been sentenced to a life of prayer and repentance—that Pope Francis promoted one of Karadima’s close associates, Bishop Juan Barros, to a diocesan see. When that promotion drew protests in Chile, and Barros offered to step aside, the pope doubled down, saying that the complaints against the bishop were “unfounded allegations of leftists.” More recently, on his visit to Chile in January, the pontiff went still farther, characterizing the charges against Bishop Barros as “calumny” and claiming that he had never received solid evidence of wrongdoing. Soon it emerged that the pope had received a detailed complaint against Barros, hand-delivered to him by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Apparently he had not taken it seriously.
Without question, Pope Francis was given inaccurate information by the Chilean bishops; he had ample reason to be angry with them. In his unpublished letter to the bishops, he revealed that his investigators had found evidence of dishonesty, of covering up abuse, of transferring guilty priests from one diocese to another. But can the pontiff have been unprepared for this sort of episcopal dishonesty? Was this not the same pattern that had emerged fifteen years earlier, when the scandal erupted in the United States? Throughout his pontificate, Francis has regularly acted as if he had not been fully briefed on the sex-abuse problem.
Pope Francis has been consistent in his calls for a decentralized, synodal approach to Church governance. But this solution to the Chilean crisis—the resignation of an entire episcopal conference, apparently at the pope’s bidding—looks anything but collegial. The CEO of a multinational corporation might ask for resignations from all his vice-presidents, but for the pope to take such an action suggests an understanding of papal authority quite removed from the role of the “first among equals,” the bishop who strengthens the brethren in faith.
Management style aside, we have reason to be uneasy about the pastoral focus of a pontiff who, in the public version of his letter, urged the Chilean bishops to continue working for a “prophetic Church, capable of putting at the center what’s important: the service to her Lord in the hungry, the imprisoned, the migrant, the abused.” Surely that service to the needy is an intrinsic part of the Church’s mission. But the prophetic service of the Church must also be mindful of the Lord’s reminder that man does not live on bread alone.
Philip Lawler is author of Lost Shepherd and program director at the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.
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