Earlier this year, as part of the effort to normalize relations between the Vatican and China, the New York Times reported that the Vatican asked one of its bishops to step down to make way for a state-approved individual. This individual had been previously excommunicated from the Church, perhaps simply for acting as a bishop without papal approval (per Canon 1382).

It seemed strange to me that someone could go straight from being excommunicated to being a bishop, so I looked up the qualifications for bishops, and found Canon 378, which says that suitable candidates "must":

1° be outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues, and possess those other gifts which equip him to fulfil the office in question;

2° be held in good esteem;

3° be at least 35 years old;

4° be a priest ordained for at least five years;

5° hold a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred Scripture, theology or canon law...

On the surface, numbers 1, 2, and 4 seem to be a bit tricky to apply to an excommunicated Catholic, except perhaps in the case of #4, if we're allowed to count years of service as a priest prior to excommunication.

However, Canon 378 goes on to say, in §2:

The definitive judgement on the suitability of the person to be promoted rests with the Apostolic See.

My question, then, is – does the pope have the ability to disregard any or all of the requirements of Canon 378 with respect to the qualifications of bishops, in order to appoint someone of his choice?

That is, should §2 be read as saying that the pope may waive the age requirement, or the years of service requirement, at his own discretion? Or does his "definitive judgement" apply only to the more subjective requirements, like qualifications #1 and #2?

I realize too that there are some circumstances in which the Pope can simply "violate" Canon Law, since he has the authority to amend it anyway, but I don't know if this is such an area.

  • The NYT article is very vague about the excommunicated bishop to be appointed? Can you find a references that gives his name and something about the circumstances of the supposed excommunication? – DJClayworth Aug 9 at 15:35
  • @DJClayworth I think this is original reporting and thus that information is not public. However, it appears that all "bishops" acting without the Vatican's approval are automatically excommunicated per Canon 1382. I've edited the question to clarify. It may be that other moral failures influenced the Vatican's original lack of approval of the ordination, but not necessarily. – Nathaniel Aug 9 at 16:09
  • As head of the universal Catholic Church, he may waive such rules as is necessary for the sake of the Church. – Ken Graham Aug 9 at 23:21
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    @DJClayworth The Pope has absolute monarchial powers. No other state that I am aware of does a reigning sovereign have such powers. I had a friend who worked in the Congregation that worked on the nomination of bishops for ten years and I know a story or two. – Ken Graham Aug 16 at 10:48
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    That goes for the Catholic Church also. "It is to be further observed that the pope's office of chief ruler of the Church carries with it jure divino the right to free intercourse with the pastors and the faithful. The placitum regium, by which this intercourse was limited and impeded, was therefore an infringement of a sacred right, and as such was solemnly condemned by the Vatican Council (Constitution, "Pastor Aeternus", cap. iii). To the pope likewise belongs the supreme administration of the goods of the Church. " (Source) – Ken Graham Aug 29 at 3:36
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The problem in the question is here:

It seemed strange to me that someone could go straight from being excommunicated to being a bishop,

They won't go "straight from excommunication to being a bishop."

To be and to act as an ordained minister, and act within the office appointed, a clergyman must be in communion with the church.

Can. 149 §1. To be promoted to an ecclesiastical office, a person must be in the communion of the Church as well as suitable, that is, endowed with those qualities which are required for that office by universal or particular law or by the law of the foundation.

When excommunicated, one is outside of the communion of the church.

Can. 316 §1. A person who has publicly rejected the Catholic faith, has defected from ecclesiastical communion, or has been punished by an imposed or declared excommunication cannot be received validly into public associations.

Excommunication is not necessarily permanent

The Catholic church offers a way to return to being in communion with The Church via the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Once that sacrament is received and communion with the Church is restored, there would be no impediment to receiving an appointment as bishop providing that the Pope is satisfied that the requirements to fulfill that office are met. He has that authority, which is summarized in the Code of Canon law.

Can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

While the Pope could waive the below requirements, it would take an extraordinary situation to make such a decision. You already cited Canon 378, but it is worth looking at the next two also.

Can. 379 Unless he is prevented by a legitimate impediment, whoever has been promoted to the episcopacy must receive episcopal consecration within three months from the receipt of the apostolic letter and before he takes possession of his office.

Can. 380 Before he takes canonical possession of his office, the one promoted is to make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See according to the formula approved by the Apostolic See.

Article 379, when you reach back to Article 149, would support the requirement of having no impediment before proceeding further. Article 380 means that the bishop, to fulfill the office, needs to make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity.

So what's an impediment? Beyond need to be in communion, there are a variety of issues that could be impediments. An impeded see is discussed here.

The Pope's authority is well summarized here. (Thanks @KenGraham).

The pope's immediate and ordinary jurisdiction
That the pope's jurisdiction is not thus restricted appears from the analysis already given of Christ's words to St. Peter. It has been shown that He conferred on him a primacy over the Church, which is universal in its scope, extending to all the Church's members, and which needs the support of no other power. A primacy such as this manifestly gives to him and to his successors a direct authority over all the faithful. This is also implied in the words of the pastoral commission, "Feed my sheep". The shepherd exercises immediate authority over all the sheep of his flock. Every member of the Church has been thus committed to Peter and those who follow him.

Short answer: The Pope can.

Can. 331 CIC: The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

The Pope has the full power over the Church. He establishes the canon law and can abolish it, in general or for one case. He is only bound to divine law, but that is no problem here.

In context of the appointment of bishops this is clearly stated in the CIC.

Can. 377 §1. The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.

The Pope should follow the requirements stated in can. 378 § 1, but is not required to. Ending a schism seems to me a very good reason for behaving in a unusual way.

By the way: I think a canidate can fulfill the requirements of can. 378 § 1 even if he was excommunicated. When he is appointed he has to be in communion again (see KorvinStarmast's answer).

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