The Holy See announced last week the resignation of Bishop Harrie Smeets of the Diocese of Roermond in the Netherlands.
While the Vatican’s Aug. 10 bulletin didn’t give any reason for the 62-year old stepping down, Bishop Smeets previously released a letter to his diocese, announcing that he would be stepping back from ministry for health reasons, following his diagnosis of a brain tumor in 2021.
Smeets’ health, the diocese has since confirmed, has been in decline for some time. While the bishop had continued to travel and visit parishes, his ability to celebrate daily Mass suffered, and he has required more and more rest as his condition has deteriorated.
The bishop’s health has now deteriorated to the point where he is no longer able to receive visitors, the diocese has confirmed.
While Bishop Smeets is in the prayers of his diocese, his situation is unusual because when he announced his decision to step back from ministry, in an July 9 letter, Smeets did not actually announce he would be resigning.
Instead, Smeets attempted to declare that his episcopal see was impeded — a canonical legal status meaning the bishop was prevented from governing his diocese by external circumstances, but would remain the diocesan bishop.
“This decision does not mean that I am stepping down, but that I am taking a significant step back,” Smeets wrote, as he cited the relevant canon law for an impeded see.
“I will remain your bishop until the end of my life, but my illness prevents me from fulfilling that duty.”
The Holy See did not accept Smeets’ decision. Instead, after speaking to the apostolic nuncio, Smeets opted instead to resign.
But what is an impeded see, exactly? And what happens when a bishop is unable to fulfill the obligations of his office?
The Pillar explains.
Ok, so what’s an impeded see?
The Code of Canon Law states that “An episcopal see is understood to be impeded if by reason of captivity, banishment, exile, or incapacity, a diocesan bishop is clearly prevented from fulfilling his pastoral function in the diocese, so that he is not able to communicate with those in his diocese even by letter.”
Three of those criteria — captivity, banishment, and exile — concern circumstances imposed on the bishop from outside, while the fourth, personal incapacity, allows for a particular indefinite circumstance preventing the bishop from functioning.
The key test of incapacity, according to the law, is the total inability of the bishop to communicate with his diocese, even by letter, if that is the only option open to him.
While a bishop who is in exile or imprisonment might not be able to be present in his diocese and perform all the daily liturgical and governing functions of his office, if he is able to communicate at least infrequently with the Catholics of the diocese, he can provide for the diocese by delegating much of his daily duties and authorities to an available priest.
That wouldn’t necessarily be the case for a bishop suffering from some other kind of personal incapacity, however — if a bishop fell into a coma, for example. In those cases, canon law provides a kind of episcopal line of succession for the emergency governance of the diocese, unless the Holy See steps in to make other provisions.
A similar governing line of succession exists for case where a bishop resigns from office without a successor or administrator being named by Rome — in Smeets’ case, after his resignation was accepted, without cause given or other provision being made, a diocesan administrator was elected by the cathedral chapter to take temporary charge of Roermond.
All four possible causes for an impeded see have in common that the impediment is temporary — or at least not obviously permanent. That Smeets’ condition is seemingly permanent is likely the reason the Vatican disputed Smeets’ decision to declare himself impeded by a brain tumor.
While a bishop might become medically impeded for a time, perhaps by being in a coma, the expectation or at least hope would be that the bishop would eventually recover and resume his ministry. The same expectation is true of exile or imprisonment; the Church would being from the presumption that circumstances might change.
In Smeets’ case, as he announced in his own letter to Catholics, his diagnosis is terminal and his decline irreversible.
In such cases, canon law states that “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”
But how ‘impeded’ does a bishop have to be, and who decides, anyway?
Well, there are no perfectly clear answers, and the reality is every impeded see is really an individual judgment on individual circumstances.
Canon law envisions several situations in which a bishop might be temporarily or indefinitely prevented from leading his diocese in person. But unlike some systems of civil government, it is not the case that every time a bishop undergoes surgery or faces some other temporary impediment, someone else assumes temporary governance of the diocese.
On the other hand, even in cases where the bishop is obviously unable to be physically present in his diocese and apparently unable to communicate freely, he might still continue in office.
Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced earlier this year to a 26-year prison sentence for opposing the regime of Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega.
Last month, Álvarez was briefly let out of prison, in the expectation that he would agree to go into exile — but he did not, and instead returned to prison days later.
During his months of incarceration, Álvarez has yet to release any letters to his diocese, nor has appeared to place any acts of governance or publicly delegate his authority to another. He is certainly unable to fulfill many of the basic responsibilities of the diocesan bishop, both liturgical and administrative.
Yet Álvarez has not declared himself to be impeded, nor has the Holy See stepped in to do so, either — at least yet.
Canon law does not specify how long the bishop has to go without communication before the see becomes impeded — making the condition effectively a matter of judgment in individual cases. It is also the case that, while the law describes the inability to communicate with the diocese “even by letter” the absence of letters from Álvarez does not mean he is totally unable to communicate.
The bishop has been able to receive a very limited number of visitors in prison, including members of his family and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua. It’s unclear whether this limited contact with the outside world is enough to allow Álvarez to remain legally “unimpeded,” but apart from Álvarez himself, it’s not clear who would make the determination.
Curiously, canon law does not actually specify who is empowered to make the judgment about the impeded character of a diocese, though most canonists would argue the local metropolitan archbishop, in this case Cardinal Brenes, could weigh in. But even if others might have that prerogative, the Holy See is always free to act, and could choose to declare a diocese impeded at any point.
Looking at other examples, Rome has traditionally been very reluctant to declare a see impeded.
In the years following the Second World War, Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty was arrested, tortured, convicted of various offenses at a show trial by the Communist government and imprisoned for several years in his country.
Yet Mindszenty remained the Archbishop of Esztergom, and officially the primate of the Church in Hungary, well after his release into exile, and even past the normal episcopal retirement age of 75.
Editor’s note: This article originally stated Bishop Smeets’ letter to his diocese was dated Aug. 8/9, not July 8/9. The Pillar regrets the error, and those responsible have been disciplined.