“Hire and fire”?

The resignation of a cardinal was almost unimaginable until the pontificate of Pope Francis. Now with Giovanni Becciu already the third purple bearer has lost his title. Why does Francis deal with cardinals differently than his predecessors??

Actually, cardinals are nothing special at all in the Catholic Church. Cardinals, unlike bishops, are not consecrated, but only appointed, and they do not necessarily have to perform classically defined tasks. Canon law talks about standing by the pope and addressing important ies [Can. 349 CIC].

The greatest responsibility a cardinal has is to cast his vote for a new pope at the conclave. As a job description, however, that would be a little poor, since decades sometimes pass between papal elections.

What a cardinal actually does is left entirely to the authority of the pope. Cardinals usually hold offices in the Vatican or sit as bishops in the world's most important dioceses. The appointment of a cardinal is also called "creation", the pope creates – creates – his "creatures". It is up to him how to deal with these appointments.

Other selection criteria

Pope Francis apparently selects his cardinals according to different criteria than his predecessors: Francis places more value on deserving priests who don't even have to be bishops before being appointed, but who are engaged in important tasks for the people and the church.

At the last consistories in 2018 and 2019, for example, Francis appointed Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, and Michael Czerny, an undersecretary responsible for refugee work, as cardinals – and shortly before that he ordained them bishops. Moreover, Francis does not necessarily look to dioceses such as Berlin or Paris for his appointments, but makes bishops from remote parts of the world cardinals, such as Tonga, Scandinavia or the Central African Republic.

Since the appointment of a cardinal, in contrast to the ordination, is not subject to divine but to ecclesiastical law, a pope has complete freedom of action here as to whom he makes a cardinal, and theoretically also as to whom he withdraws this office again. An ordination to the priesthood or bishop cannot be revoked according to Catholic belief, but since cardinal is an honorary title, even the unusual step of stripping the title is up to the pope.

Only one renunciation in 20. Century

Throughout the 20. In the twentieth century, however, we find only one cardinal who renounced his office, the French Jesuit Louis Billot (1846-1931). Billot was an avowed supporter of Action francaise, a far-right French nationalist and monarchist group that the Vatican believed sought to interpret and exploit Catholicism for its own ends. Billot therefore came into open conflict with his "employer," the then Pope Pius XI., and, after what must have been a heated conversation with the pope in November 1927, asked for entlang from the College of Cardinals.

In most history books, this story is found only as a side note. All the more striking, then, that Pope Francis has so far stripped three cardinals of their titles in his seven-year tenure to date, respectively. the rights, duties and privileges associated with it.

in 2015 to Scottish Archbishop Keith Patrick O'Brien, in 2018 to Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and now in 2020 to the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Giovanni Angelo Becciu. – O'Brien and McCarrick have made headlines over allegations of sexual abuse.

Accusations were made against Cardinal O'Brien in 2013 that he had behaved inappropriately toward seminarians. Two years later, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh admitted his misconduct in an open letter: "My sexual behavior has fallen below the standard expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal". He then asked Pope Francis to be relieved of his rights and duties as a cardinal.

Theodore McCarrick accused of abuse

Making even more headlines in 2018 was the story of Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of the U.S. capital of Washington, who was also accused of sexual abuse but, unlike O'Brien, never admitted guilt. From a purely hierarchical point of view, McCarrick is the only one who can be called a "former cardinal".

Although in 2018 he officially asked the pope to be relieved of the rights and duties of cardinal (as did Billot, O'Brien, and Becciu), unlike the other cardinals, McCarrick was also dismissed from the clergy in the spring of 2019 by decision of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Mr. McCarrick's" appointment as cardinal is thus de facto made null and void. While canon law states that an ordination cannot be revoked, he has nonetheless been legally dismissed from the clergy, making him the first and only cardinal to date to lose his title because of sexual abuse.

The current case of Cardinal Becciu, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is not about sexual misconduct, but about a financial scandal in the Vatican. The Holy See does not officially give reasons for the withdrawal. In Vatican circles, on the one hand, there is talk of misinvestments in the hundreds of millions in connection with a real estate deal in London, but other sources also speak of Becciu having enriched family members.

Unlike McCarrick – and just like O'Brien – however, Becciu is not officially stripped of the status of cardinal, only of the "rights and duties" that come with it.

Pope is more outspoken about honorary titles

Francis is thus more outspoken in dealing with both the appointment, but also the withdrawal of the title of cardinal. But it also raises the legitimate question: why "only" these three?? There are also other senior church officials who have come under particular criticism for allegations of sexual abuse or covering it up.

The just-retired archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Cardinal Barbarin, or the Vatican's former chief financial officer, Australian Cardinal George Pell, for example. Pell even went to jail for a time in Australia over the allegations against him, but has retained his cardinal title there as well. – Here, one could speak of the principle of "giving the accused the benefit of the doubt". Pell has rested his Vatican posts but has always maintained his innocence and was acquitted by Australia's highest court this spring. The same is true of Barbarin, who recently failed to prove in court that he covered up sexual abuse.

One can thus summarize that the cardinals under Pope Francis – in contrast to their predecessors – can no longer be one hundred percent sure of carrying the highest honorary title of the Catholic Church for life, but that an "impeachment" is by no means done lightly, and the Pope reserves this step only for cases of full conviction of serious misconduct.

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Christina Cherry
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