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December 6, 2012

Slate's Explainer: A pink slip from the pope

A survey of 40 Catholic priests in the Kansas City, Mo., area indicates that Bishop Robert Finn has lost the support of his priests since he was convicted earlier this year of failing to report child abuse by a priest in his diocese. Many priests and other critics have suggested that Finn resign. If he does not, the only way for him to be removed from office is for the pope to fire him. How common is it for a bishop to be fired?

Quite uncommon. As a rule, the Vatican avoids firing bishops outright, since doing so reflects poorly on the church and implies that it was a mistake for the pope to have appointed the fired bishop in the first place. In cases of conflict between the Vatican and a bishop, the Vatican usually pressures a problematic bishop to resign before resorting to actively dismissing him.

In recent years, the most famous cases of bishops being fired by the Vatican have been cases of liberal bishops who question church doctrine. In 1995, Pope John Paul II fired Jacques Gaillot, the Bishop of Evreux in France, after Gaillot offered to bless gay couples, endorsed condom use and the abortion pill, and expressed support for the ordination of married priests. In a similar case in Australia last year, the bishop of Toowoomba, William Morris, was fired by Pope Benedict XVI five years after writing a letter to his parish suggesting that the church should consider ordaining women and married men. Pope Benedict XVI appears to have a more liberal attitude toward firing than his predecessor; he has also fired three other bishops (in Slovakia, Congo, and Italy) for financial mismanagement.

In cases like Finn's in which a bishop loses public support, the church has a history of not firing him. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who covered up extensive sexual abuse of children by priests, resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, but the Vatican continued to support him and appointed him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 2004.

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