ASK FATHER: Consecration of bishops when there is no Pope

From a reader…


If Francis were to (God forbid) die tomorrow, how would that affect the rules concerning episcopal consecrations?

I saw a comment on this blog saying the SSPX could likely use sede vacante periods to slip by the issue. I personally question that. I do believe in states of necessity, but that still doesn’t jive with what the statement seemed to imply. Canon Law can be changed, you can find loopholes, but it doesn’t die.

Interesting question.

If I am not mistaken… and I hope someone will correct me if I am wrong… in the case of the death of the Roman Pontiff, episcopal appointments are suspended until they are reconfirmed on the election of a new Roman Pontiff. [UPDATE: It seems I was wrong about this. It does now happen that in the sede vacante period bishops are consecrated. It happened in the time between JP2 and B16 for example. However, i used the Catholic Hierarchy site to if between the death of Paul VI and election of JP2 there were consecrations and… found a gap for the period in the data entered. The same thing happened when I checked between the death of J23 and P6… and P12 and J23….]

I know of one case in which a priest was to be consecrated bishop and then Pope Paul VI died, which canceled the consecration.  He was not, subsequently, reconfirmed and he was never consecrated as a bishop.

It could be that this involves the fact that, during sede vacante periods, all the offices of the Roman Curia are suspended (with a couple exceptions, such as the Penitenzieria Apostolica which deals with internal forum issues).  That would mean that, sede vacante, there technically is no Congregation for Bishops.  [That doesn’t mean that the doors are locked and people don’t go to work.]

As for the SSPX, sede vacante would not be a “loop hole” permitting the consecration of a bishop.  If anything, it would be the opposite.  If I am right, it would absolutely be the wrong time to do it.  [Moreover, I am assured by a priest friend in the SSPX that, were there to be considered another consecration – which would likely only be for the sake of the survival of the SSPX – they would exhaust every avenue with Rome to obtain a mandate before hand.]

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  1. eamonob says:

    This actually made me think of Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri novel.

    *Spoilers below, beware if you haven’t read it, which I highly recommend you do *

    A group of humans is stranded on another planet with no communication with earth for decades. However, they have a bishop with them. He was able to ordain priests and consecrate other bishops and eventually they did so without even knowing who was Pope back home. Obviously this was a case of necessity, but I always thought it was kind of cool because they could keep the sacraments alive. Kind of like how the Japanese Catholics kept the faith alive for generations but had no sacraments.

  2. Nighthawk says:

    All that the SSPX would accomplish by attempting to consecrate bishops sans mandate while Rome was sede vacante is delay the excommunications by a few weeks at most.

  3. Steve L. says:

    I don’t think this is the case, for two reasons.

    First, in history, before the modern media, it would be impossible for news of a pope’s death to reach remote areas in a timely fashion. Once the papal mandate went out, there would be no pope to issue an order to retract it. Also, think of the confusion if someone who wished a man not to be ordained came forward with fake-news to stop the ordination. How long would it take to verify? If there were some change envisioned due to the possibilities of technology, then surely the code of canon law would clearly annul a mandate on death of the pope. I can find no such provision in the law explicitly given.

    Second, in practice, this seems not to occur. According to the website, on the date of election of Pope Benedict (2005), a bishop was ordained; this event could have been cancelled, but impossible to have been rearranged. I also imagine the newly elected pope would have been busy with Other Business to confirm such a matter that day. Another bit of evidence: four days before Pope Francis was elected, two men were ordained bishops.

  4. TonyO says:

    episcopal appointments are suspended until they are reconfirmed on the election of a new Roman Pontiff.

    As the update indicates, this language is could be slightly ambiguous and could use some tightening up: When a pope appoints a bishop, is there something in canon law that would seem to nullify the appointment by the death of the pope? In saying “appointments are suspended”, perhaps it would seem that what might be meant is that the activity of appointing new selections is put on hold. Further, the language in the law suggests (without being conclusive) that the appointed priest should go ahead and get consecrated: for example,
    382 §2. Unless he is prevented by a legitimate impediment, one promoted to the office of diocesan bishop must take canonical possession of his diocese within four months of receipt of the apostolic letter if he has not already been consecrated a bishop; if he has already been consecrated, within two months from receipt of this letter.

    The only canon I could find that might possible speak to blocking consecrations when the pope dies is this:

    Can. 335 When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded, nothing is to be altered in the governance of the universal Church; the special laws issued for these circumstances, however, are to be observed.

    But applying it here is rather difficult, and I offer 3 reasons: (A) someone taking over a diocese alters the governance of a local church, not the universal Church.
    (B) If someone has been appointed a titular bishop, and the pope dies, consecrating him does not alter the governance of the Church (local or universal), because he does not govern a see.
    (C) Some bishoprics can have a man elected to office: Can. 377 §1. The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.. and
    Can. 178 The person elected who has accepted an election which does not need confirmation obtains the office in full right immediately; otherwise, the person acquires only the right to the office…. 179 §5. Once notified of the confirmation, the one elected obtains the office in full right unless the law provides otherwise.
    I would suggest that once a pope has confirmed the election, his subsequent death would not impede the elected man from taking the office which is his right. (Of course, if there is some other law that I could not find, that might fill operate with the phrase “unless the law provides otherwise”.)

    In looking at the dates of consecrations, it would seem necessary to look well beyond the date of the election of the new pope, since (it seems very likely) the new pope would not be getting around to confirming new bishops (or re-confirming previous appointments) within several – perhaps MANY – days. It would not surprise me if a new pope doesn’t re-start the appointments process for a month or two – e.g. until he puts his own stamp on the process, if he wants to make any changes. And then it would typically take a new appointment at least a few weeks after being notified to set up the consecration. So, if the former pope’s death actually nullified earlier appointments, we would expect to see a delay in consecrations of anywhere from 3 weeks after the election of the new pope (at very minimum) to maybe as much as 3 months, for new appointments to be consecrated. (Yes, there could be “emergency” consecrations that the new pope specifically wants done immediately, of course.)

  5. James C says:

    Indeed, Bishop Fellay said the same thing in an interview this year. They are prepared to consecrate more bishops without mandate if years down the line there is no other way to ensure the survival of the SSPX, but that is a last resort.

    Let us pray (not to Pachamama or the Indigenous Grandmother Spirit) that the state of emergency that exists in the Church today subsides by then and it won’t be necessary.

  6. JamesM says:

    The word “could” seems to do a lot of work in that comment. The SSPX could send an astronaut into space. There are all sorts of things they could do.

    With all the problems in the Church today, I think we have real problems to concern ourselves with rather than getting bogged down in speculation.

  7. dmcheney says:

    Yes, in modern times (all I looked at), it is common for already named bishops to be consecrated or installed after the death of the Pope and before the next is elected.
    My understanding is for those who are in the process of being named (but not yet approved), the process starts over when the new Pope is elected.
    When John Paul II died, there was a very large number of bishop changes announced the day before he died and a few more on the day he died. I assume that was everyone that had been approved but was waiting on paperwork kinda stuff.
    With Benedict XVI it was a much easier process since the date was known well in advance.
    John Paul I was a unique case in that his death was not anticipated and he had been in office such a short time that few changes had been approved.

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