Resisting Papal Overreach: The Story of Bishop Isidore Borecky

Would there be historical precedent if Bishop Joseph Strickland were to refuse to acknowledge his deposition if Rome should proceed with that step?

Everyone by now has heard the news that Pope Francis, on the recommendation of the U.S. papal nuncio and the visitators, is expected imminently to request the resignation of Bishop Joseph Strickland. In an interview done two months ago with John-Henry Westen, I explained why I believe the good bishop should not only refuse that request, but also refuse to acknowledge his deposition if Rome should proceed to that dire step. Why do I argue this?

According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, “the apostles’ office of nurturing the Church is permanent and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles” (Lumen Gentium 20). Moreover, 

The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates,” heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church. (LG 27)

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Finally, even though a bishop governs only the portion of the flock of Christ entrusted to him, he nevertheless has a responsibility to and for the Catholic Church as such: “Each of [the bishops], as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church… For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church” (LG 23).

In short: a bishop is a bishop because Jesus Christ has made him a high priest of the Church and a successor of the apostles. He is not a “vicar of the pope,” that is, one who stands in for the pope like a branch manager beholden to Vatican, Inc., but a vicar of Christ in his own diocese, receiving his episcopacy from God at the pope’s delegation. A bishop is a bishop because Jesus Christ has made him a high priest of the Church and a successor of the apostles. He is not a “vicar of the pope.”Tweet This

Barring a just cause for the grave step of deposition—historically used for cases of heresy or other notorious crimes—the bishop remains a bishop by divine institution and authority. Nor can he be faulted for addressing and assisting the faithful who dwell beyond the borders of his own diocese even if he has no immediate pastoral care over them, for in bearing witness to Christ and the sacred deposit of faith, he is simply doing his job, according to his discernment of what the times demand.

The reader may well ask: “Is there any precedent for such resistance?”

Let me tell you the story of Isidore Borecky (1911–2003). Born in Ukraine, he studied for the priesthood in Lviv and in Munich between the wars, and was ordained on July 17, 1938. He then worked in Canada for ten years until Pope Pius XII appointed him Apostolic Exarch of Apostolic Exarchate of Eastern Canada. Ten years later, he was appointed Eparchial Bishop of the newly-created Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto until his retirement on June 16, 1998. He was a father of the Second Vatican Council, and, as the founding bishop of his eparchy, much beloved.

So far, so good. But you see, he was supposed to stop being bishop when he reached the “mandatory retirement age” of 75. At least, that’s what Rome thought. Bishop Borecky, however, refused to retire, saying that this rule applied to the Latin church and not to the Eastern churches, that he was exempt from it, and that he would remain in his office until he died. “We have, as the Ukrainian Catholic Church, to fight for our rights,” the bishop told a reporter. The Vatican eventually appointed a successor, Roman Danylak (1930–2012), but Borecky refused to acknowledge him as the new bishop.

The cited news article continued:

The dispute has immobilized and divided the eparchy, which has about 100,000 members as well as 125 priests, most of whom are married. Some laypeople and priests, along with Borecky, stayed away from Danylak’s consecration as bishop…. For his part, Danylak did not attend the celebration of Borecky’s 45th anniversary as bishop in June…. The dispute between the two bishops appeared to come to a head in a letter June 28 from the Vatican. It affirmed that Danylak has “all rights and duties” in spiritual and temporal matters. It said Borecky “retains only the prerogative of a liturgical character,” and that his decisions about the eparchy were “void of every judicial effect.” The letter came at the request of Danylak after both he and Borecky issued letters to the eparchy claiming authority over its affairs.

The Vatican letter was from Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. He said the pope had given Danylak the authority over the eparchy and pointed out that Borecky “has already completed his 81st year of age.” Borecky countered in an Aug. 5 letter to Silvestrini, “I have taken the position, based on advice, that there is some question” whether Vatican II’s “resignation requirement” applied to bishops appointed before the council, especially an Eastern-rite bishop…. “Unfortunately, I did not have the courtesy of a direct communication from Your Eminence either advising me of the appointment of the apostolic administrator or outlining the specific reasons which would constitute the ‘serious and special reasons’ for the appointment,” wrote Borecky.

I was told by an elderly gentleman living in that eparchy that more of the clergy supported Bishop Borecky. (Those who are interested in reading some articles from the midst of the events may consult The Ukrainian Weekly of Sunday, January, 1993 and Sunday, February 7, 1993.)

How did the story end? As an entry on Danylak notes, after six years of standoff Bishop Lubomyr Husar of Lviv “negotiated a resolution whereby Borecky retired and Danylak was reassigned to ‘special responsibilities in Rome,’ resulting in the vacancy of the Toronto eparchy effective June 24, 1998. Bishop Cornelius Pasichny of Saskatoon was appointed the new bishop on July 1 of that year.” Bishop Borecky stuck to his post till 87, and died five years later. Although he didn’t die in office, he relinquished it of his own volition, as befits the dignity of a successor of the apostles.

“This is all very interesting,” you may be thinking, “but after all, the Borecky case was a dispute between a prelate of an Eastern Church sui juris and the Bishop of Rome, so of course there was more room for such a protest. There isn’t really any lesson here for us Latin Catholics, since the pope is the undisputed head of our own rite-church.”

There’s some truth to that point; and yet, let’s not forget the text that hyperpapalists appeal to more frequently than to any other (indeed, more frequently than they appeal to Scripture or to dogmatic teachings from earlier councils, but I digress):

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. (Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3)

What this Ukrainian bishop did was certainly contrary to a narrow or positivistic reading of that passage in Vatican I, and yet he did it nonetheless, convinced that he was defending prior and legitimate rights, rooted in apostolic succession, that papal authority is required to respect, regardless of its primacy. Is it not possible that the Church has, for a long time, been overlooking the inherent dignity of the episcopal office after two ecumenical councils (Vatican I and II) that have both overemphasized the papal primacy in relation to other elements of ecclesiastical life, or formulated it in a way that has allowed erroneous extrapolations

Many speak of “the spirit of Vatican II,” but there is also a “spirit of Vatican I.” Indeed, it may be argued that every influential council emanates or fosters a spirit, and this can be good, bad, or a mix of the two depending on whether or not it aligns with the letter of the Council’s teaching and pastoral intentions. The spirit of the Council of Trent was overwhelmingly good, for it became the animating force of the Counter-Reformation that pushed back Protestantism and revitalized the Church in Europe and well beyond. The spirit of Vatican II was overwhelming bad, for it became the animating force of a Counter-Counter-Reformation that systematically undermined the handing-on of the Faith, exemplified in the attempt to replace (in an abuse of papal authority) the Roman Rite canonized after Trent as the lex orandi corresponding to the Roman Church’s lex credendi with a modern papal rite diluted by Protestant, modernist, and secular influences. 

The spirit of Vatican I, however, was decidedly mixed: on the one hand, ultramontanism raised the dignity of the Apostolic See and recognized the authority of the common father of Christians at a time when the Catholic Church was everywhere under attack and the faithful needed a shining beacon to look to; on the other hand, a tendency to absolutize papal monarchy and infallibilize papal statements took hold throughout the Church, paving the way for an increasing pastoral passivity among bishops and a thoughtless, almost mechanical obedience in their flocks.

This strange evisceration of hierarchy and infantilization of the faithful was, of course, unsustainable, and a tidal wave of opposing errors submerged the Church after Vatican II, in which bishops frequently ignored traditional teaching emanating from Rome (of the many examples that might be cited, recall John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientiae, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, and Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum) and the laity, egged on by those renegade bishops, claimed exemptions of conscience from any teaching they preferred not to follow, if indeed they still bothered to practice.

We have come full circle now, with a progressivist pope who nevertheless employs ultramontanist tactics and surrounds himself with curial and episcopal sycophants who have quite suddenly rediscovered, after decades of dormancy, an almost latreutic devotion to the supreme pontiff, while the orthodox are few in number and beleagured. It is in this precise context that we must understand the possibility and indeed the necessity of some bishops digging in their heels to say—whether it be to politically-motivated demands for resignation, manifestly ideological depositions, the schismatic Synodal Way, the heretical rewriting of catechisms, or the ongoing demolition of matrimonial morality: 

Non possumus. Non licet. We cannot do it. It is not allowed.

Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres is the most obvious model for what may be the expected outcome for Bishop Joseph Strickland. Sadly, Bishop Fernández Torres lost his opportunity to stand firm against papal overreach, as Bishop Borecky had done, and, indeed, as Cardinal Slipyj and Cardinal Wojtyła had done decades earlier. But in picking a fight with “America’s Bishop,” Rome may finally have overplayed its hand.

[Image: Bishop Isidore Borecky (left); Bishop Joseph Strickland (right)]


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