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Note on Bp. Makaya Loemba’s loss of office

April 1, 2011

A terse statement from the Holy See Press Office reporting the “removal”* from episcopal office of Jean-Claude Makaya Loemba (diocese of Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo) cites no canons by which the action was taken and offers no factual basis upon which to ground the pope’s action, but Benedict’s move is being characterized by some as a sort of papal removal for “mismanagement”. I’d be careful about putting things that way, for it feeds the impression wrongly held in various circles that bishops are just regional managers of world-wide Catholic activities, appointed and sackable by the pope as if they were employees of a major corporation.

Canonically, what Bp. Makaya Loemba has undergone seems to be “privation” of office in accord with Canon 416. The canonical commentaries** I’ve looked at regard a bishop’s “privation” of office as being possible only in the face of guilt for ecclesiastical crimes (say, canonically illegal actions in regard to ecclesiastical property, contra cc. 1377 or 1389).

But criminal conduct is not the same thing as “mismanagement”, and it is certainly not the same thing as “weak performance”, both of which conditions might well justify upper-level management in removing a lower level administrator from his post, but neither of which—for all sorts of ecclesiological and canonical reasons— constitutes grounds for privation of episcopal office in the Church.

Only the pope hears criminal cases involving bishops (c. 1405 § 1) and penal cases are generally conducted confidentially (c. 1455 § 1), so unless either side decides to discuss the matter, the details are not likely to emerge (with good reliability, at least). In any event, characterizing Makaya Loemba’s removal from office as being based on mere “mismanagement” can leave folks with the wrong impression of the relationship between pope and bishops.

* The English word “removal” is ambiguous in this case. While “removal” is a general way to lose ecclesiastical office (cc. 184, 192-195) not necessarily implying canonically criminal conduct, “removal” from episcopal office does not, strictly speaking, seem possible under Canon 416, only privation (c. 196) seems possible, and such action implies guilt for ecclesiastical crimes. It would have been better to avoid the word “removal” if, as seems likely, “privation” was meant. The word “removal” might seem softer in English, but it actually portends rather more serious ecclesiological implications than does the term “privation”.

** Commentaries on Canon 416

C. Soler, in Exegetical Comm (2004) II/1: 896: “Privation is a canonical penalty, and therefore it is governed by the canons on penal law, as acknowledged in c. 196. . . . For bishops, the Code does not contemplate the case of non-penal removal.”

S. Giangiacomo, in Codice Commentato (2001) 393: “è vacante dal momento in cui il vescovo riceve l’intimazione della pena.”

T. Green, in CLSA Comm (1985) 343: “The final point (privation) presupposes the commission of an ecclesiastical offense for which deprivation of office is the appropriate penalty.”

Same Day Update: Okay, folks know that I think highly of the chaps who run CatholicCulture.org, but I’m afraid that this time, they missed a point I made above.

I do not, contrary to this news story, believe that, “in the language of canon law, removal [of a bishop] from office is actually a more severe disciplinary action”, and my post above simply does not say that. I said, removal of a bishop by the pope “portends more serious ecclesiological implications” than would arise from a pope depriving a bishop of office. I wrote with precision.

Because privation of episcopal office can only occur in response to a crime, a pope would be, I think, merely (if I may use that word) fulfilling his role as guarantor of ecclesiastical unity in faith and discipline in performing such an act. But if a pope were to remove a bishop from office, that would raise much more significant ecclesiological questions about the basis of his action and how such action squared with the reciprocal papal-episcopal duties inherent in collegiality and communion. It would at the very least require some careful sorting out.

That is why I question whether the journalists in the HSPO knew that the English word they used to describe what the pope did, “remove”, though it sounds “nicer” than “deprivation”, actually had more serious ecclesiological implications than would the phrase “deprived of office”, and that “removal” is probably not what the pope did in this case.

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