Saturday, August 19, 2023

Bishops May Not Be Forced to Resign at Age 75

New Book VI of the Code of Canon Law safeguards justice in the Church |  Rhode Island Catholic

It is known that, in the Church, Catholic bishops must resign when they reach the age of 75 according to current canon law, recalls Fr. Hunwicke on his Mutual Enrichment blog. 

Everyone knows it, but it's not true, he concludes.

For decades Fr. John Hunwicke was an Anglican pastor and lecturer in Latin, Greek, literature, and theology, as well as a scholar at the Anglo-Catholic Pusey House in Oxford. 

In 2011 he converted to the Catholic Church and became a member of the Anglican Ordinariate created by Pope Benedict XVI. He was ordained a priest the following year at the Oxford Oratory.

In a short article entitled “Resignation?,” Fr. Hunwicke explains that Canon 401, which governs the resignation of bishops, does not say that they must resign when they reach the age of 75, only that they are “requested” (rogatur, in the original Latin text) to do so:

Canon 401 §1: “The diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.” 

Accordingly, Fr. Hunwicke suggests that a bishop, “after much prayer and consultation,” could announce that “he has decided not to do it yet.”

American canonist Edward Peters has also repeatedly pointed out that the drafting history of Canon 401 emphasizes the non-binding nature of episcopal resignation at age 75. 

The initial draft stated that bishops “must” (debent, in Latin) present their resignation at this age, but the final wording specifies that they are simply “requested” to do so.

Therefore, there is “a clear tendency to reduce the level of obligation for diocesan bishops to present their resignation at a certain age.” 

It is also a sign of “the way in which the respect for the divine mission of the bishop is reflected in the legislation,” so that “one would expect that Rome would not be too quick to accept episcopal resignations submitted solely for reasons of age.”

On the other hand, the insistence is greater in §2 of the same Canon, in which “a diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of  ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested - enixe rogatur, and not simply rogatur – to present his resignation from office.”

If this presentation of resignation is not obligatory, but left to the discretion of the bishop himself, the obligation to present such a resignation when one reaches the age of 75 should be given even less consideration, since, as noted above, the wording clearly indicates an even lower degree of obligation.

Fr. Hunwicke also emphasizes the contradiction that exists in this area when it is assumed that the bishop of a diocese is no longer able to lead it at the age of 75, whereas the Bishop of Rome, who leads the entire Church, may remain in office as long as he deems necessary. 

“You might have thought that the burdens and responsibilities of the latter were greater than those of the former,” suggests the priest.

He also points out that the current custom that all bishops present their resignation on their 75th birthday “encourages journalists to speculate on how much the Pontiff disliked a particular bishop, as indicated by the speed with which his resignation was accepted.”

Finally, he felt that “there was something very proper” in the traditional practice of “in expecting a bishop...[to be] 'wedded' to his Particular Church, to carry on until death,” with the possibility of asking for a coadjutor bishop if he needs help.