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In March, Pope Francis removed Daniel Fernández Torres from his bishopric of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. According to Fernández, his removal came without formal explanation and without due process. 

The bishop readily conceded that he had been out of step with his Puerto Rican colleagues on several issues: his refusal to cosign a statement on the obligation to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus; his failure to send seminarians to the Interdiocesan Seminary of Puerto Rico; and his liberal approval of the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. But these are hardly reasons to remove him from office. It is possible that not all of the issues involved in the case are known to the public. But what is known raises legitimate concerns. For removing a bishop from his diocese, absent serious doctrinal or moral matters, has grave theological consequences.

Does the pope have the authority to carry out this kind of expulsion? Such an action is juridically and theologically possible because the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), in its dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus, taught that the bishop of Rome has immediate, ordinary, and universal jurisdiction (potestas suprema, ordinaria et immediata) over the entire Church. Indeed, the council anathematized those who would deny such jurisdiction in the strongest possible terms: 

If anyone says that the Roman pontiff . . . has not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in those that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world, or if anyone says that he has only the principal part and not the absolute fullness of this supreme power, or if anyone says that this power is not ordinary and immediate over each and every Church or over each and every one of the pastors and faithful, let him be anathema. 

The phrase “immediate, ordinary and universal jurisdiction” was contentious at Vatican I precisely because it appeared to arrogate all juridical authority to the bishop of Rome. Was the authority of the local bishop now crushed and undermined by universal papal jurisdiction? One conciliar bishop pointed out the dire ecumenical implications: Care should be taken because the Eastern Orthodox reject as heretical any system where the pope acts as an absolute monarch without limitation. 

Prior to the vote on this sensitive issue, Bishop Federico Zinelli, a member of Vatican I’s theological commission, delivered a long speech intended to calm the fears of those concerned about overweening papal power. Zinelli’s brief was that there exist clear limits on papal authority. The authority of a bishop is not derived from the pope—and papal jurisdiction is necessarily limited by both natural and divine law, including the dictates of Scripture, tradition, and conciliar definitions. Zinelli encouraged trust in the Holy See, which would “use its authority to protect, not destroy, the power of bishops.” 

Pastor aeternus was ultimately approved by the council, but the issue of papal jurisdiction did not disappear. Soon after Vatican I ended, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany, argued that the council had made Catholic bishops not vicars of Christ but mere agents of the pope. They were essentially “branch managers” rather than successors of the apostles. 

In 1875, the German bishops issued a rejoinder to Bismarck’s charge, claiming that they were not mere bureaucrats under the pope’s thumb. Their response, still important in Catholic ecclesiology, reads in part: 

It is in virtue of the same divine institution upon which the papacy rests that the episcopate also exists. It also has its rights and duties, bestowed by the ordinance of God himself, and the Pope has neither the right nor the power to change them. It is a complete misunderstanding of the Vatican decrees to believe that because of them “episcopal jurisdiction has now been absorbed into the papal” and that the Pope has “in principle taken the place of each individual bishop. . . .”

As is clear, the German bishops made a strong plea for the divinely revealed character of the episcopal office, an office that cannot be theologically or juridically subsumed into the papacy. Pius IX confirmed their declaration, calling it “brilliant teaching.”

Despite the clarifying comments of Zinelli and the German episcopacy, the issue of immediate and ordinary jurisdiction has remained controversial, even down to our own day. For example, in 2010, a Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical body (the Group of Farfa Sabina), stated, “This understanding of the universal jurisdiction [of the pope] is therefore a major—if not the major—obstacle to a rapprochement between the Catholic Church and other churches.” Why is this the case? Because if taken in a strict sense, such direct and immediate jurisdiction fails to recognize the legitimate, if relative, autonomy of other churches. 

We have briefly reviewed the issue of papal/episcopal jurisdiction in order to think about Pope Francis’s removal of the bishop of Arecibo. If the bishop was removed merely for the reasons that have been publicly acknowledged—those minor issues separating him from his Puerto Rican colleagues—then the pope seems to have lent credence to Bismarck’s criticism of Vatican I: that the papacy has overridden the legitimate authority of the episcopacy.

Of course, it is doubtful that Francis has any interest in buttressing Bismarck’s interpretation of Vatican I. But if the German chancellor is to be theologically (and not simply verbally) refuted—and if other churches are to accept Rome’s traditional understanding of the papal-episcopal relationship—then some transparent and theologically precise explanations of this strange case are surely in order. 

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. 

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