The empty seat: What happens when a bishop is reassigned?

CHARLESTON — Bishop Robert J. Baker’s transfer to the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala., has some people scratching their heads about what happens in South Carolina. It’s business as usual with a few minor changes.

When a bishop is assigned to a new diocese or retires, he automatically becomes administrator of his former see until he is installed in the new one —  but he no longer has full executive powers, according to Canon law.

“At the point he is notified of his transfer, all official offices like vicar general cease to be. The only one canonical office that stays in this period is judicial vicar,” said Msgr. Charles Rowland, judicial vicar for the diocese. “The bishop can use the men he had in these various positions and he can delegate to them but he cannot create positions.”

Bishop Baker’s duties as administrator of the Diocese of Charleston end on his installation as bishop of Birmingham on Oct. 2.

“On Oct. 2 we will have a diocesan representative at his installation to attest that the oath and installation has taken place,” Msgr. Rowland said. “That means if a bishop has not been named on Oct. 2 the see becomes vacant.”

If the Vatican has not appointed an administrator for South Carolina, then the College of Consultors for the diocese will be called together to elect one. This has to be done within eight days of the transfer.

The College of Consultors is appointed by a bishop to assist in the administration and governance of the diocese. In Charleston, that board includes Msgrs. Rowland, Martin Laughlin, Joseph Roth, Christopher Lathem; Fathers Steven Brovey, Edward Fitzgerald, Joseph Hanley, Richard Harris, Benedictine Father Karl Roesch, and Franciscan Father Paul Williams.

The temporary administrator can perform only in an administrative capacity and cannot undertake Episcopal functions such as ordaining priests or deacons unless he himself is a bishop.

“He must make no agreement that would impede the freedom of the incoming bishop,” Msgr. Rowland said. “He can do nothing that would jeopardize the patrimony of the diocese.”

Any Catholic priest in good standing from anywhere in the world can be selected as the diocesan administrator, as long as he is 35 years of age and has not been nominated for the vacant see, Bishop David B. Thompson said.

According to Canon 425, it should be “a priest who is outstanding in doctrine and prudence.”

While many may speculate, only the consultors will decide.

Bishop Thompson experienced that process when he retired. Canon law requires all bishops to submit their resignation to the pope at age 75. Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop Thompson’s resignation approximately three months after he submitted it, but it did not take effect until the new bishop was appointed.

The diocesan consultors, under the chairmanship of the late Msgr. Robert Kelly, met and elected Bishop Thompson as the diocesan administrator. He maintained that role until Sept 29, 1999, when Bishop Baker was ordained and installed.

It was 13 months from the time Bishop Thompson submitted his resignation until a new bishop was appointed.

In the Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop David E. Foley retired May 10, 2005, and the diocese has been vacant since. According to Father Richard E. Donohoe, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, the 27-month wait between bishops was one of the longest since the 1800s. The reason was because the Vatican announced that Bishop Foley’s resignation was one of the last to be approved by Pope John Paul before he died. The announcement was not published by the Holy See, however, so the bishop remained until May 10, 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation, Father Donohoe said in a telephone interview with The Miscellany.

Bishop Thompson said the transition between bishops should not affect normal operations in the Diocese of Charleston.

“The canon law of the church provides for the vacancy. So its an ordinary process for our church,” he said. “Sede vacante nihil innovetur, which translates ‘when the see is vacant there are to be no changes.’ That means no major changes. The administrator manages the status quo.”