ROME – As the wise saying goes, “If you don’t want the answer, then don’t ask the question.” That adage doesn’t cover every situation, however, because there are also times you genuinely do want the answer, and still end up wondering why you bothered to ask.
A good case in point came Monday during Pope Francis’s latest airborne press conference, in response to the question of why he moved so swiftly to accept the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris.
It was an obvious question, given that, by now, one could assemble an entire 40-man baseball roster just from bishops whose resignations Francis has refused. (Whether even that team would still be better than my KC Royals is, alas, a conversation for another time.) The lineup would include two-thirds of the episcopal conference in Chile, as well as the current archbishops of Munich, Cologne and Hamburg in Germany.
Moreover, many of those bishops were accused of misconduct or failures related to clerical sexual abuse scandals, which, on the face of it, seem far more serious than the alleged foibles of the 70-year-old Aupetit regarding an “intimate relationship” with an adult woman. Why Francis acted so swiftly in this case – just a week after Aupetit offered to resign, and the same day the pope set out for a five-day trip to Greece and Cyprus – does, therefore, naturally beckon curiosity.
In response, Francis delivered an answer that ran to 431 words in the original Italian, without, in all honesty, really answering much of anything.
In essence, Francis turned the question around, demanding to know what Aupetit did that was so serious. While acknowledging that Aupetit may have partially violated the sixth commandment (regarding sexual morality), Francis also insisted that “the sins of the flesh aren’t the most serious sins” and underlined that we’re all sinners, including St. Peter, the first pope.
Francis claimed that Aupetit hasn’t been convicted by a court of law but rather by the court of public opinion, suggesting he’s been targeted by a sort of malicious gossip that has destroyed his good name. The pontiff said that in such a situation Aupetit could no longer govern, and concluded saying he accepted the resignation “not on the altar of truth, but the altar of hypocrisy.”
The first problem with that answer is that it seems far better suited to explaining why a pope wouldn’t accept an offered resignation, not why he would. If it’s true that Aupetit hasn’t done anything especially serious, and that his resignation will serve only the interests of hypocrisy, then why go along with it?
The whole reason the Vatican makes a fetish out of the sovereignty of the papacy, insisting that the pope is accountable to no earthly power, is precisely so that he’ll be able to resist the dictates of popular pressure. Indeed, if you take Francis’s words at face value, it almost seems to imply a sort of “heckler’s veto” on a bishop: If a crowd screams loud enough and long enough, they can get a bishop removed regardless of the merits.
Of course, one could interpret the reference to inability to govern to mean that the pope had no choice, except that it begs the related question of how Francis assesses what constitutes “ungovernability.”
Is Paris right now any more impossible to govern than the diocese of Osorno in Chile was, for instance, when Francis refused to remove Bishop Juan Barros despite an avalanche of criticism for his role in a scandal surrounding that country’s most notorious pedophile priest, with the pope at one point being caught on tape fulminating against “being led around by the nose” by a media stampede?
What about the Archdiocese of Lyon in France, where, in March 2019, Pope Francis refused to accept the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin when he faced accusations of having covered up for a sexually abusive priest? (Francis would accept the resignation a year later, after Barbarin had succeeded in having a conviction for failure to report overturned on appeal.)
Is Paris any more ungovernable now than, say, the Archdiocese of Cologne in Germany, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki and two auxiliary bishops offered to resign amid a massive abuse crisis, and where the influential Der Tagesspiegel recently demanded Woelki’s removal? In that case, Francis confirmed his confidence in Woelki while granting him permission for a six-month retreat out of the diocese, and also refused the resignations of the auxiliaries.
What about the Archdiocese of Hamburg, whose current prelate, Archbishop Stefan Hesse, was also a target of criticism in the Cologne report? Hesse too volunteered to step down, but in September Francis refused, saying he wanted the prelate to continue “in a spirit of reconciliation and service to God.”
So, is Paris really more ungovernable than any of these other places?
Given the implausibility that Paris is actually any worse off, most observers assume Francis must know more than he’s saying – that perhaps there are other skeletons in Aupetit’s closet, or there are administrative reasons why a change of leadership is needed immediately, or the pope has lost confidence in the Paris archbishop for other reasons.
Whatever the case, Francis’s answer Monday didn’t seem to provide much additional clarity. Among other things, the situation illustrates why it’s too bad papal press conferences don’t really invite follow-up questions – because if any papal answer in recent memory ever seemed to invite one, this was arguably it.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr