Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo might have to wait a bit longer to be relieved of his administrative duties in the Diocese of Portland.
No new bishop can be appointed without a pontiff in office, and Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world Monday by announcing he will resign Feb. 28.
“When ‘sede vacante’ kicks in on the 28th, governance of the Catholic Church passes to the College of Cardinals,” Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in referring to the process of filling a papal vacancy.
“There are certain duties reserved only for a pope, and appointing a new bishop would be one of them,” he added.
So until a conclave of cardinals elects a new pope, the process to appoint Malone’s successor in Maine could end up getting stalled.
Benedict, 85, still has 16 days to make appointments, and if he’s looking to tie up some loose ends before leaving office, he might end up assigning some new bishops.
“It could happen,” Malone said, adding that he has no inside knowledge of whether the search for his successor has progressed far enough for the pope to make an appointment.
It’s another small example of fallout from Benedict’s unexpected resignation, which will be the first of its kind in nearly 600 years.
Catholic canon law, at least since 1917, has allowed for a pope to resign. Canon 332 states: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”
But it has been traditional that popes remain in office until their deaths. “It has been a serve-until-you-die job,” Malone said, adding that Benedict’s decision sends a positive message to future popes that it is OK to step aside due to age or health concerns. “I think it’s good for the church.”
Benedict appointed Malone bishop of Buffalo last May, about 11 months after Bishop Edward U. Kmiec was required to submit his resignation after turning 75.
Malone, 66, was installed as Buffalo bishop in August, but he continues to serve as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Portland, where he was bishop for eight years before the Buffalo appointment. The additional assignment requires that Malone travel to Portland about once a month.
Portland is one of eight Catholic dioceses in the United States awaiting a new bishop. The prelate’s seat in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, has been vacant the longest, for more than 14 months, followed by Bridgeport, Conn., at 11 months.
The vacancy in the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., began the same day, May 29, as in Portland.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, said the Vatican system of vetting prospective bishops will continue to churn during the papal transition.
Appointments might end up being delayed by a month or so, Reese said. But if the Congregation for Bishops – a Vatican body that advises the pontiff – already has done its research and come up with a recommendation, any lag time on an appointment may be minimal, he added.
“The new pope may say, ‘Fine,’ and just trust their judgment,” Reese said.