New Beginnings & Bonkers Bishops

I had intended to begin writing earlier this week and I had a few ideas. But the Pope’s announcement made thinking, let alone writing, about anything else seem fairly absurd, so I shall save my witterings on firearms for another time.

It’s been an interesting week to be a canon law student. For a few months now we have been told, more than once, about what it was like to study canon law in the years following Vatican II, before the new code of canon law was finished; how everything was being learned in the moment. We are going through much the same thing now. We have exhausted the number of ways we can say that we do know that the Pope can resign.

Now we are left with more questions the more we think about it. What do you call an emeritus Pope? What colour does he wear? Will he say mass in public? Can he preach? Will he have a titular See and a roman church? Can he publish? Does he need an imprimatur? All of these things will have to be addressed, either before Benedict resigns or as the first order of business for his successor. Interesting days ahead in the lecture hall.

But we have already had some interesting lessons to learn from past.

Canon 187 says that anyone can freely resign an ecclesiastical office, though for it to be valid they must be sui compos. This sets up an interesting catch 22 in which, if you’re nuts, you can’t resign. This point was illustrated rather colourfully throughout the middle of the 19th century.

In 1859, James Duggan was named bishop of Chicago at the tender age of 34. He eventually left office 21 years later. Earlier than expected perhaps, but also ten years after he was sent to a purpose built convent in St Louis because he was ‘hopelessly insane’.

And I do notDuggan mean the modern definition of mental illness where he was a bit blue, said some sad things, pushed his dinner away and didn’t take his mood medication. I mean proper, talking to the furniture, eating his slippers and moo-ing at his curia bonkers.

Since there was no penal process in canon law for removing a bishop for being bats, and since he couldn’t resign, not being in his right mind, Chicago had a coadjutor bishop for ten years, whom Duggan easily outlived, being as healthy as the horse he often thought himself to be. Eventually the decision was taken to elevate the See to an archdiocese, allowing Rome to appoint a successor over Duggan’s head.

So whatever we feel about the Pope’s clearly fragile health, we can be grateful he is wise enough to know his own situation, whatever it is, and do what he discerns to be best.

The sentiment from world leaders and media talking heads, who frankly never cared what Pope Benedict said during his reign, is that he is a principled, dignified, humble leader doing something historic and noble. All true.

Many of us in the Church have been wrestling with mixed emotions. The Pope is unquestionably looking unwell. He has certainly acted with dignity and with the greatest care for his office and the whole Church. At the same time, many of us felt as though our parent had resigned. Ill health and age change them, limit them, but it doesn’t lessen our respect for them or the ties that bind us.

When the Pope dies, the funeral mass and other rites offer us a moment of release and, to employ a piece of post-modern, crypto-feminist psychobabble: closure. In this case we have to somehow rend our spiritual certainty and emotional attachment from Benedict, allow it to float free for a time and then let it settle on the next man to emerge on the balcony. Of course we will do it, and of course we all trust that the Pope is right to do what he is doing, he’s the Pope. For now. But it’s harder then it has been.


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