Pope Francis’ Acceptance of Archbishop Aupetit’s Resignation Carries Consequences

COMMENTARY: Who would want a position where the gossip of others leads to a downfall, even if the Holy Father protests the ‘injustice’ while accepting the resignation?

Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit arrives to lead Mass which brought together 9000 pilgrims to commemorate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, 2021 in Lourdes, southern France.
Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit arrives to lead Mass which brought together 9000 pilgrims to commemorate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, 2021 in Lourdes, southern France. (photo: Fred Scheiber / AFP/Getty)

The resignation offered by the Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, and the explanation given by Pope Francis about why he accepted it, remain “ambiguous.” But there is one definitive consequence that is not in doubt — the number of priests who refuse nominations to be bishops will increase.

Archbishop Aupetit was the subject of media reports about his “autocratic” management style and, more explosively, about a relationship he had with a woman before his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Paris in 2013. 

Archbishop Aupetit acknowledged that there was a relationship, that it was wrong but “ambiguous” — namely, that it was not sexual and consensual, but could have led others to think that it was “intimate.” Archbishop Aupetit said that he ended the relationship in 2012, when he was vicar general of Paris, and told the archbishop, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, about it at the time.

After the recent media reports, Archbishop Aupetit placed his future in “the hands of Pope Francis,” asking him to judge whether he should continue or not. The Holy Father accepted the resignation and explained his reasons why on the return flight from Greece. The explanation was “confounding,” in the assessment of one commentator, and “left many Catholics wondering what exactly [Pope Francis] was trying to say, and what had guided his decision.”

Pope Francis said that Archbishop Aupetit’s behavior was “sinful” — consisting of “small caresses and massages that he gave to the secretary” — but not sufficient cause for removal from office. Nevertheless, the Holy Father accepted the resignation because “gossip” about it made it impossible for Archbishop Aupetit to continue. 

“This is an injustice,” Pope Francis said. “That’s why I accepted the resignation of [Archbishop] Aupetit: not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy.”

So the facts — as far as we know them — appear to be t.hese.

Archbishop Aupetit, as vicar general of Paris, engaged in too close a relationship with a woman that had some marks of intimacy but was not sexual. He realized the error of his ways, ended the relationship and told the archbishop about it. All this being known, Cardinal Vingt-Trois proposed him as an auxiliary bishop the next year, and presumably briefed the nuncio in France and the Congregation for Bishops about it. The nomination went through under Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2014, the following year, Archbishop Aupetit was made bishop of Nanterre by Pope Francis, who transferred him to Paris in 2018. 

The resignation of 2021 was not because of some unknown indiscretion. It was known, but judged in the context of Archbishop Aupetit’s other apparent qualities. What changed in 2021 was that others, in the words of the Holy Father, were unjustly gossiping about it, undermining Archbishop Aupetit’s position.

The immediate consequence is that the Archdiocese of Paris needs a new archbishop, one who will be reluctant to accept the position should he have any shadows in his past. Or even if there are no shadows, who would want a position where the gossip of others leads to a downfall, even if the Holy Father protests the “injustice” while accepting the resignation?

The consequences will not only be in Paris. One senior archbishop told me that he now prays daily, alongside his long-standing prayers for vocations to the priesthood, religious life and Christian marriage, for “vocations to the episcopate.” That is, that worthy men will be nominated and accept the nomination. 

It is not uncommon to hear from bishops that good candidates are excluded because of situations rather less severe than that of Archbishop Aupetit: a priest in the early years of his priesthood crosses the line — boundary violations, in current parlance — but does not engage in a sexual relationship. He repents, reforms and goes on to exemplary service. But the fear of scandal excludes him from consideration.

The matter of Archbishop Aupetit makes it clear that the fear is real. Every nuncio took note of what the Holy Father said on the plane. If there is something in a man’s file that might lead to gossip, he will not be advanced.

Does that matter? Why not have bishops about which there is not even a whiff of impropriety? Pope Francis gave his own colorful answer to that:

“So [Archbishop] Aupetit is a sinner, as am I, as was Peter, the bishop on whom Jesus Christ founded the Church,” the Holy Father said. “Why did the community of that time accept a sinful bishop, and with sins of such an angelic nature as denying Christ! But it was a normal Church; it was accustomed to everyone always being sinful; it was a humble Church. You can see that our Church is not used to having a sinful bishop. We pretend to say my bishop is a saint.”

The Holy Father’s point is that a too-scrupulous standard would exclude people that Christ himself has chosen. In a Church with an abundance of candidates for the office of bishop, the problem is not so great. But in many parts of the Church — France would be one of them — the problem is pressing. The shortage of priestly vocations means in due course a shortage of candidates for the episcopacy, which means an inevitable mediocrity in those chosen from a shallower talent pool. Any further emptying of the pool risks fishing for fishermen among the dregs.

The other problem is on the flipside: Once nominated, will a priest accept?

Five years ago, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said that is was no longer “exceptional” for candidates to turn down the nomination, but that the number was “not great.” 

That surprised many observers. Even though no statistics are published on the matter, 20 years ago in Rome, I had already heard complaints that too many men were declining nominations, and that was before the sexual-abuse scandal of 2002.

In any case, Cardinal Ouellet said in 2019 that the number of refusals was now 30%, having tripled since he took over the Congregation for Bishops in 2010. And if the prefect is willing to concede publicly that it is 30%, it is likely higher. After all, the congregation has an interest in underplaying the extent of the problem; the more men refuse, the easier it becomes for refusal to become the norm, i.e., over 50%. 

Given what I hear — all off the record, of course, and without any means of verification — I would not be surprised if, in some parts of the Church, the number of refusals is already at more than half.

There are many reasons for refusal. Cardinal Francis George was known to identify cowardice as a chief reason. The late cardinal, who had courage in abundance, was likely right about that. Yet there are other reasons, including the genuine worry that some ambiguity from the past will lead the Church into crisis, as has now happened in Paris, to the evident regret, but with the approval, of the Holy Father.

The nuncio in France will now set to work on finding a new archbishop. His task, and that of all his fellow nuncios, has just become much more difficult.