Commentary: The Vatican gap between theory and practice

Pope Francis greets bishops. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Pope Francis greets bishops. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

.- Yesterday Pope Francis issued a new letter motu proprio entitled Imparare a congedarsi, or “Learning to take your leave.”

Pope Francis made only some minor adjustments to canon law concerning the retirement of bishops, specifically those serving as papal representatives in diplomatic posts and in Curial offices.

Legally speaking, not much changed. Imparare is a tidying up exercise. All bishops are now asked to submit their resignations at the age of 75, which become effective when they are formally accepted by the pope. Previously, those in certain positions saw their positions lapse de iure upon their reaching a certain age.

While the document is ostensibly about retirement, and going gracefully, in fact it clears the way for Vatican officials to carry on in their posts past the age of 75.

In itself, there is nothing novel about bishops in important or sensitive roles carrying on past the age of retirement. It is common practice that diocesan bishops in major sees have their resignations accepted nunc pro tunc, or “now for later,” effectively keeping them in post indefinitely. Similarly, few Curial cardinals are expected to depart from service promptly on their 75th birthdays. Harmonizing the law, so that it effectively applies to everyone in the same way, is not exactly revolutionary.

What is odd about the motu proprio is that, for a document supposedly about retiring with grace, it spends rather more time talking about those who are staying on. Indeed, under Pope Francis, this exception is becoming the norm.

Despite the Pope’s stated preference for single five-year terms in the Curia, an ever-growing number of key Vatican officials are carrying on well past their terms. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who heads the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, has served 11 years in that office, and turns 80 next month. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, is 77, and Cardinal Ravasi at the Pontifical Council for Culture turned 77 last year.

The progressive Archbishop Piero Marini has been head of the International Eucharistic Congresses for 10 years and turned 76 a few weeks ago. Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, the erratic Dean of the Roman Rota, is nearly 77. Those who are expected to retire with grace at the end of their terms, like Cardinal Müller, are so exceptional as to be newsworthy.

Given that this is the opposite of what the Pope has called for, the situation is something of a mystery. Imparare a congedarsi is clear that carrying on past an age limit is supposed to be “exceptional.” The Pope wrote that anyone being kept on is not being done a “favor” or being thanked for services rendered. Instead, such individuals are being asked to see important projects to their finish, or bridge a difficult period of transition. In theory, this makes excellent sense, and is the reason many officials of different ranks have previously been kept on past 75.

Yet it’s hard to see this rationale at work in all cases. Msgr. Pinto, for example, has been the subject of considerable criticism for his public outbursts against the four so-called “dubia cardinals” (technically his superiors), and his recent attempts to abolish the right of appellants before the court of the Roman Rota to chose their own lawyer (he wanted to assign lawyers personally from his own list of preferred advocates) ended in a humiliating climb-down after it was pointed out he was violating basic legal freedoms and endangering the Holy See’s concordat with the Italian Republic. Pinto has even had a “pro-dean” installed under him, essentially a successor in waiting, yet he remains in office now in his sixth year.

As with several of the Franciscan reforms of the Curia, the distance between theory and practice is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, or explain. Despite the clear and praiseworthy possibilities offered in yesterday’s motu proprio, there seems little “exceptional” about some of those being kept in office long past retirement age.

Ed Condon is a canon lawyer working for tribunals in a number of dioceses. On Twitter he is @canonlawyered. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Catholic News Agency.

Tags: Roman Curia, Catholic Commentary, Ed Condon, Imparare a congedarsi