The Church Already Has the Tools to Deal With Failing Bishops. But Will Anyone Use Them?

Immigration Cash Cow: Money Motivates US Bishops’ Immigration Obsession
August 11, 2018
Patrick Coffin: Making Sense of Pope Francis—Philip Lawler
August 11, 2018


The Church needs to be willing to act, and use structures already in place

By Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, Catholic Herald, Friday, 10 Aug 2018 

Students of history will be familiar with the Court of Star Chamber, which used to sit in the Camera Stellata of the Palace of Westminster, a room the ceiling of which was decorated with stars, which gave its name to the court.

The Court was a prerogative court, a committee of the Privy Council, acting under the King’s personal authority, and was designed to try people who were too powerful for the ordinary courts to touch. Thus it ensured justice for the weak and that the royal writ would run everywhere (the two were often the same), despite the power of overmighty subjects.

It also ensured the end of what were called ‘franchises’ or exclaves which enjoyed legal immunity. Star Chamber was a powerful weapon in the hands of centralising ‘New Monarchs’ such as Edward IV and Henry VII; it was abolished under the Commonwealth along with the monarchy itself. By that time it had come to be identified with monarchical overreach and arbitrary rule.

Nowadays, as I understand Canon Law, if a priest or religious misbehaves, they are to be disciplined by their legitimate superior, usually a bishop, or abbot or provincial. But if a bishop or head of religious order misbehaves, who is to discipline him? Canon 1405 gives us the answer.

Can.  1405 §1. It is solely the right of the Roman Pontiff himself to judge in the cases mentioned in can. 1401:

1/ those who hold the highest civil office of a state;

2/ cardinals;

3/ legates of the Apostolic See and, in penal cases, bishops;

4/ other cases which he has called to his own judgment.

§2. A judge cannot review an act or instrument confirmed specifically (in forma specifica) by the Roman Pontiff without his prior mandate.

§3. Judgment of the following is reserved to the Roman Rota:

1/ bishops in contentious matters, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 1419, §2;

2/ an abbot primate or abbot superior of a monastic congregation and a supreme moderator of religious institutes of pontifical right;

3/ dioceses or other physical or juridic ecclesiastical persons which do not have a superior below the Roman Pontiff.

Misbehaving Cardinals (and heads of state) can only be judged by the Pope, but lesser mortals are handled by the Roman Rota. This court, which we have all heard of, remains rather obscure in its functions, at least to most of us, but there is absolutely no reason why it should not act in a way analogous to the Star Chamber of old.

Some years ago now there was talk that the Pope was going to set up a special court to deal with Bishops who failed in their duty with regard to child protection. (This new court would presumably have taken over some of the jurisdiction exercised by the Rota.) But though this was announced, nothing happened.

Star Chamber worked because it was a useful instrument in the hands of capable and energetic monarchs like Edward IV and Henry VII. In the end, this is what makes a difference – the will to act, and the vision that lies behind that will. The necessary tools will always come to hand if the man in charge is determined enough to find them. My guess is that the Vatican system has the necessary structures in place: they just need to be activated in the case of misbehaving bishops.

In the meantime, the faithful are waiting, and as the list of bishops who have failed seemingly grows longer by the day, their patience will not last forever.


Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. On Twitter he is @ALucieSmith