Cleaning up the Mess

By John Langan
The Tablet [Britain]
October 25, 2003

Huge damage to the Church has been caused by the sexual abuse scandals. How is the Catholic Church in the United States coping?

ONE of the most common themes in American social and political life is the call to reform, the demand that someone finally “clean up the mess”. Now that we are almost two years and millions of words into the great sexual abuse crisis of American Catholicism, we may be at an appropriate point for assessing where we are in this process and what could count as a plausible and positive resolution of the crisis.

A minimal response is to argue that the problems have involved a small number of “bad apples” and are best resolved by comparatively minor corrections in the way the Church works. The offenders are to be expelled from the ministry; those in authority who protected and concealed the offenders are to be reprimanded or retired; more restrictive regulations are to be put in place. But the institutional Church, its culture, and its way of proceeding do not need to be reformed. For the crimes and sins of individuals and the errors of judgement of officials and leaders should not provoke us to blame the Church as a whole. In fact, given the theological stance of the present Pope, it is extremely unlikely that anything of fundamental importance will be or can be changed while he is in office.

Voices have been heard from Rome and from elsewhere in the Catholic world suggesting that the whole crisis is either a product of the American media or the result of failures in American culture, which seems to wobble from the puritanical to the licentious and back again. It has even been claimed by Catholic neo-conservatives such as George Weigel that the crisis is the result of increased levels of dissent in the Church after the Second Vatican Council and that it is best resolved by a firmer insistence on orthodoxy. Church authorities are understandably drawn to a strategy of localising and minimising the crisis.

What stands in the way of the minimal response, however, is the fact that the current crisis involves three interlocked sets of issues. These are, first, the legal, financial, and pastoral problems created by the extensive sexual abuse of minors by priests in many dioceses across the country; secondly, questions about church governance and personnel which the mishandling of these cases has brought to the centre of concern within the Catholic community; thirdly, doubts about the credibility and the effects of Catholic theology and practice with regard to sexual morality and gender roles, doubts which have been agitating the Catholic community in the United States since the 1960s. Accumulated resentments about the second and third levels of conflict have intensified and expanded the demands for repentance and change which were originally focused on the episcopal policy of treating the priests involved in the sexual abuse cases in a way which protected both the privacy of criminals and the reputation of the Church.

The anger and disappointment of those who have made considerable sacrifices to follow Catholic teaching and to sustain the Church and its works are deep and intense. These feelings are especially strong among educated professionals, who are embarrassed and humilitated by the gap between the performance of the Church and the standards which govern other major institutions of American society. The claims of the clergy to superior competence and knowledge in moral matters have come to seem hollow to many of the most faithful, and not merely to dissidents.

Underlying all these issues are the cultural differences between the historic style of Roman Catholicism, which has been monarchical, secretive, centralising and authoritarian, and the preferred self-image of contemporary America, which is democratic, transparent, pluralistic and pragmatic.

Dealing with the most immediate issues involves the bishops in trying to accomplish seven distinct tasks.

The one which was given central attention at the June 2002 meeting of the US bishops in Dallas was the development of a consistent, legally correct, morally sound, and enforceable policy for handling cases in which priests have sexually abused minors. Such a policy has had to pass the distinct standards set by the American public and by the Vatican, which required the bishops to provide more protection for accused priests. There continues to be serious doubt about whether the “zero tolerance” policy provides adequate protection for the rights of priests accused of abusing minors.

The second task, which has filled the headlines, especially in Boston, is to defend the Church and its personnel in a variety of legal settings. Here the emphasis is primarily on defending the bishops and others who were involved in decisions to reassign paedophile priests and not on defending the priests who were accused of abuse.

The third task is to pay for the legal settlements and the judgements in a way which does not further alienate the laity and which minimises damage to those programmes which are essential to the Church’s core ministry and to its service of the poor and the dependent.

The fourth task is to sustain the morale of the clergy through the entire process; this is especially difficult because in many cases there is a stark opposition between the need of the Church to distance itself from the accused and the interests and careers of individual priests, and because public opinion is overwhelmingly and justifiably with the victims.

The fifth task is to make up for the loss of priests who have been found guilty of abuse or who are judged unsuitable for further ministry; this has to be done while the clergy continues to shrink in numbers and to age, and it has to be done without taking on marginal candidates who may compound the difficulties of the situation.

The sixth task is to achieve reconciliation with the victims and their families. This is a moral, psychological and spiritual process which goes well beyond agreeing to the terms of a financial settlement; but in the American setting it is unlikely to be achieved without a generous financial settlement.

The seventh and concluding task is to restore the bonds of trust between the leaders and the led, between the pastors and the flock.

Achieving all these objectives, some of which pull in opposing directions, requires leadership of a high order, something which seems to be in short supply in the current American hierarchy. The most prominent role has fallen to the newly installed Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, a Franciscan who has had to deal with similar crises in Fall River (Massachusetts) and Palm Beach (Florida). His contribution has been to give a much lower priority to the second task, the defence of the bishops, than his predecessor Cardinal Law, who was under serious attack himself. He has given effective priority to the sixth task, reconciliation with the victims and their families. This shift in emphasis has made it possible to begin to hope for progress on the restoration of clergy morale and of popular trust, the fourth and seventh tasks.

The widespread failure of Catholic authorities in handling these cases of sexual abuse does, however, raise more general questions about the way in which authority is currently conceived and exercised within the Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) summoned by Pope John XXIII and concluded under Paul VI provides the context within which all serious Catholic theological reflection on church authority now works. The Second Vatican Council presents a creative but in some ways unstable combination of two views of authority in the Church. On the one hand, it reaffirms the existing pattern of monarchical control centralised in the papacy and in the bureaucracy of the Roman Curia and exercised locally by individual bishops. On the other hand, it introduces the notion of collegiality, which implies that the bishops exercise a shared responsibility for the teaching and practice of the universal Church. This did not turn the Church into a democracy, and it was not intended to do so. Rather, it was intended to renew within the Church a view of authority closer to New Testament practice and to present the bishops as successors of the apostles who shared authority with Peter.

In doing this, the doctrine of collegiality, it was hoped, would provide the basis for a legitimate pluralism of local initiatives and theological viewpoints, of liturgical rites and legal structures. It would move Roman Catholicism somewhat closer to the decentralised style preferred by Eastern Christians, both the Orthodox and those Eastern groups which have been in union with Rome; and it would make the central authorities in Rome more responsive to local needs and challenges as these are understood in the more than 2,000 dioceses of the Church.

John Paul II has consistently proclaimed his continuing commitment to the positions and ideals of the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as a bishop. But it is no secret that as his pontificate has gone on it has become harder and harder to present alternative points of view on significant questions, and that in particular the synods of bishops held every three years in Rome have been managed in such a way that virtually nothing that offends dominant groups in the Curia could be discussed openly. Appointments to the episcopate have generally, though not always, shown a strongly conservative trend, sometimes with disastrous results as in Austria and the Netherlands. This pattern has combined with the hierarchical structure of the Church to produce a style of ecclesiastical leadership which looks upwards and Romewards for decisive approval and which is extremely reluctant to run the risk of engagement with movements and ideas which may be significant indications of pressing local needs and aspirations but which are not favoured by the dominant curial group.

The papal interpretation of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council has stressed authoritarian structure and continuity with previous teaching rather than encouraging the spirit of openness and dialogue which many, both inside and outside the Church, had seen as the council’s transforming contribution. Church authorities have increasingly taken a critical and even adversarial stance against some powerful trends in Western culture, which they often describe as a “culture of death”. They have increasingly relied on repetitions of traditional teaching rather than on listening and persuading. This conservative way of understanding and applying the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was motivated by an intense and understandable anxiety about the future of Catholicism after the enormous changes of the conciliar period, especially the great exodus of priests and religious women from their places in church ministry. These internal changes coincided with the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, which encouraged more openness on sexual matters in nearly all Western societies.

In the view of conservatives and some theologians who had been progressive or liberal before and during the Second Vatican Council, the refusal of most theologians and many religious professionals to accept Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae (1968) showed the pressing need for Rome to reassert control over the life of the Church. Many of the proponents of this “restorationist” agenda have been political and economic conservatives, as well; but this is clearly not true of the Pope himself, who has been a vigorous advocate of human rights and democracy and a stern critic of the neglect of the needs of the poorest which is effectively dominant in Western economic practice. John Paul II exemplifies a kind of “social dualism”, which proposes quite different sets of norms and values for religious institutions and for secular society.

What the church discussion has generally failed to tackle is the question of whether the Church is to have a constitutional regime which allows for systematic accountability. One of the central features of the Church’s way of governing itself is that judicial, executive and legislative powers are all ultimately concentrated in the same hands, namely, the hands of the pope. This concentration of power was asserted by Gregory VII in the eleventh century and was preserved in the Counter-Reformation. It received heightened theological emphasis in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council as well as greater range and effectiveness as a result of the development of modern forms of communication and the collapse of older patterns of secular and religious authority which had previously limited papal power. In particular, Rome took to itself the decisive power of choosing bishops around the world.

The concentration of powers found in Roman Catholicism means that appeals against decisions by those in authority are either impossible or not readily available. It is not surprising, though it is regrettable, that the sexual abuse cases were taken up by the media and the secular courts well before they were addressed in an open and systematic way by the hierarchy. There was no independent and effective source of justice within the Church to which victims and their families could turn for redress of their grievances. Rather, what complainants and critics have encountered is a separate society which rightly treasures its autonomy and which has historically been committed to the view that the clergy are not to be placed under the jurisdiction of those who are not clergy. They have also encountered a culture in which discretion, secrecy and the avoidance of publicity are valued and the disclosure of culpable failures is discouraged and often prohibited and penalised. The result has been a situation in which the higher clergy concealed the sins of lower clergy, even when these were also violations of criminal law, and in which rank and file members of the Church, “the faithful”, were treated as unreliable bearers of bad news.

What is needed in the present situation where the Church is humiliated and divided is not so much a constitutional transformation of the Church, desirable as that might be, but the development of a style of leadership which emphasises listening and inclusion. Leadership in this new style must be committed to an effective primacy of service and must demonstrate a genuine ability to meet the needs of people who are religious seekers and who are often living on the fringes of the Church. Dismissing such people because their faith is weak or confused or because their lives are not conformed to Catholic teaching in key respects, and even exulting in the prospect of a smaller but purer Church when these people have departed, should be seen as incompatible with the example of Jesus who came to save the lost sheep, the prostitutes and the collaborators with Rome’s imperial rule who seemed so clearly unrighteous to his Jewish contemporaries.

On the other side, the task for new lay protest groups such as the Voice of the Faithful is to make proposals which show a realistic imagination about new possibilities for church life under new conditions and which can elicit the support of a broad range of people in the Church. There are two areas where such proposals are urgently needed. The first is the process of selecting bishops, a process in which considerations of organisational reliability and a partisan version of theological orthodoxy seem to have effectively eclipsed the wider concerns of pastoral service and cultural sensitivity. The second is clerical formation, in which the recent tendency in many conservative seminaries has been to emphasise the “ontological” superiority of the clergy to the laity, a tendency which is rendered absurd by the current wave of scandals.

In the short run, then, what would count as a successful resolution of the current crisis in church governance is a transformed style of leadership and an altered set of priorities in an ecclesial culture ready to take on the tasks of continuing reformation. For reformers and critics in the American style, who crave new structures and legal guarantees, this will seem to be very little; for persons who are accustomed to observing the Roman Church in its complex forms of resistance to change and to accountability, it would be a great deal.

John Langan, a Jesuit priest, is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.


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