Council Split on Mandatory Retirement Age for Bishops

64th General Congregation
November 11, 1963

Should there be a compulsory retirement age for bishops?

This was the chief point at issue in the ecumenical council’s meeting on Nov. 11. Twelve out of 18 speakers spoke on the pros and cons of the question.

The heated exchange regarding the Roman curia during the previous assembly (Nov. 8) was almost completely ignored. Only two speakers, Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich, referred to it.

Cardinal Spellman, the first of the day’s speakers, said:

“Not a few indications lead us to believe that there are many inexact ideas being set forth on such questions as the collegiality of the bishops of the Church. The theology we all learned in the seminary teaches us that the Pope alone has full power over the entire Church. He does not need the help of others. As far as the Roman curia is concerned, it is only an executive organ of the Holy Father. Consequently it is not up to us to try to reform or correct it. We can only offer suggestions and recommendations.”

Conversations heard among some bishops — more vocal outside than inside the Council — were not in complete agreement with the Cardinal. On the first point, some were saying that the proposed international body of bishops in Rome would be consultative and not deliberative.

On the second point, it was being said by many that although reform of the curia belongs only to the Pope, criticisms of the curia in the council could be made in a form of “suggestions and recommendations.”

Cardinal Doepfner supported the remarks made by Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne at the previous Friday’s assembly. The special proposal on the collegiality of bishops — the five points of which were approved overwhelmingly in balloting on Oct. 30 — was formulated, he said, in terms which reproduced, if not in actual words, at least the substance of passages drawn from the schema prepared by the council’s Theological Commission. This seemed to be a direct reply to Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission chairman, who said that the “five points” should have been submitted to the Theological Commission before being voted upon.

As for Cardinal Frings’ remarks “about reducing the number of bishops in the curia,” Cardinal Doepfner observed, this would be in line with the schema’s suggestion that there be a reduction of “a multiplicity of auxiliary bishops in a diocese.”

All the other speakers with the exception of five spoke on the question of a compulsory retirement age for bishops. Seven favored it and five opposed it.

The most significant of the remarks in favor of retirement came from Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri, secretary of the Sacred Consistorial Congregation. It is his congregation which is chiefly concerned with the disposition of bishops and dioceses. He said:

“It is a known fact that the powers granted to co­adjutor bishops by those whom they are appointed to assist are altogether inadequate to insure the proper care of souls and the government of the dioceses. It is often necessary for the Holy See to intervene in order to extend these faculties or even to appoint an apostolic administrator. In such cases the best possible solution would be for the incumbent to resign of his own accord, since, besides safeguarding the proper care of souls and ecclesiastical administration, this generous gesture would provide him with great peace of soul and would be a new claim to dignity.”

Others to speak of mandatory retirement were Archbishop Corrado Mingo of Monreale, Italy; Bishop Alfonso de Carvalho of Angra, Portugal; Coadjutor Bishop Antonio Anoveros Ataun of Cadiz, Spain; Coadjutor Bishop Edmund Nowicki of Gdansk, Poland; and Coadjutor Abbot Egidio Gavazzi, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey in Rome.

Archbishop Mingo, 62, said that “unless the council imposes an obligatory norm regarding the resignation of bishops in special circumstances, its directives will be next to useless. The appointment of a coadjutor or an auxiliary does not automatically solve the problem. Old age tends to tie a man still more to his office and authority, and there is great danger of self-deception. It is true that there are many men who can still govern a diocese after the age of 75, but there are many more men who cannot.”

Bishop de Carvalho, 51, merely asked for modifications in the text to clarify the position of coadjutors and auxiliaries during the vacancy in a diocese.

Bishop Anoveros, 54, coadjutor with right of succession to the 85-year-old Bishop of Cadiz, suggested that the schema “lay down genuine juridical norms clarifying the reasons for resignation.”

A concrete suggestion of procedure was offered by Bishop Nowicki, 63, speaking in the name of the Polish bishops present at the council. He said, “A procedure could be that national conferences of bishops would be notified of a bishop’s condition and he would then be under obligation to resign if there were a majority vote of the national conference.”

Abbot Gavazzi suggested adoption for bishops of the procedure followed by the Sacred Congregation of Religious in dealing with an incapacitated abbot:

“He (the retiring abbot) is given a coadjutor with the right of succession, and this coadjutor is provided with full power in spiritual and temporal matters. The incumbent abbot receives all honors due to his position. But the coadjutor is unhampered in the necessary administration of his community. This solves the difficult problem of resignation.”

Those not in favor of a set retirement age for bishops were led by Fernando Cardinal Cento, the Major Penitentiary, who is 80. He was joined by Archbishop Michele Gonzi of Malta; Bishop Albert de Vito, OFM Cap., of Lucknow, India; Archabbot Benedict Reetz, OSB, of Beuron, Germany; and Bishop Peregrin de la Fuente, OP, Prelate Nullius of the Batan and Babuyan Islands in the Philippines.

Cardinal Cento said: “One consideration which often dissuades an aged or ailing bishop from resigning is consideration for his material needs. Some may fear that resignation will leave them with no place to go and no means of support. This situation could be provided for if a common fund were set up by the bishops of the world to be a source of pensions for retired bishops. The organization and maintenance of such a fund would be an effective manifestation of the collegiality of the episcopal body.”

According to Archbishop Gonzi, 78, “many persons feel that imposing an obligatory retirement age on bishops would put them in the same category as civil service officials. This would be an affront to their dignity.”

“Residential bishops should never be forced to resign,” 54-year-old Bishop de Vito said flatly. “If Bishops can be forced to resign, then they are much worse off than irremovable pastors.”

Archabbot Reetz said that there is a “quasi-marital bond” between bishops and their dioceses and abbots and their communities, both of which are consecrated for life. This principle, he said, should be enunciated clearly in the schema.

Bishop de la Fuente, 64, complained that the text “fails to make any provision for bishops expelled from their dioceses.” He urged that such prelates be “either made auxiliaries of large dioceses or assigned to some other suitable office.”

Here in brief is the gist of the remaining speeches: Bishop Johannes Pohlschneider of Aachen, Germany, urged that the relationship between residential bishops and their auxiliaries be marked by a mutual spirit of honesty and charity.

Bishop Jacinto Argaya of Mondonedo-Ferrol, Spain, complained about the system — not familiar in the United States — under which the canons of the diocesan cathedral elect the temporary administrator of the diocese when the Ordinary dies.

Coadjutor Bishop Antonine Caillot of Evreux, France, opposed the appointment of non-residential bishops to titular sees — ancient Catholic dioceses which are now extinct. He labeled the system unrealistic and “ecumenically offensive,” since many titular Sees are actually held by non-Catholic prelates. Bishop Caillot is titular bishop of Bonomia, ancient town in Lacia, which is the modem city of Vidin in Bulgaria, the seat of an Orthodox metropolitan.

Bishop Carlos de Mello, OFM, of Palmas, Brazil, asked for more detail on the relationships between individual bishops and national episcopal conferences.

In the course of the assembly, the council Fathers were given copies of the amended schema on communications media with the instructions that it would be subject to final approval by means of two votes: One on the introduction and first chapter, and the other on the second chapter. These votes were to be cast Thursday, Nov. 14.

A reliable source reported that the documents on communications media and the liturgy would be promulgated on Saturday, Nov. 30.

At the end of the morning’s session it was announced that the council Fathers were to be asked to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 12, on whether or not to refer chapter five of the schema on bishops to the new Commission for the Revision of Canon Law.

It was explained that this chapter, dealing with erection of parishes and determination of parish boundaries, appeared to be too detailed to be discussed on the council floor.

It was anticipated that both the amended schema on communications media and the proposed deferral of the fifth chapter of the schema on bishops would be passed without significant opposition.

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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