Bishop Accountability
  Task for the Next Church Council

By Raymond G. Helmick, S.J.
Human Development, vol. 24, no. 2
Summer 2003

Have we a new Council of the Church in our near future? When Pope John XXIII answered that question affirmatively back in 1959 the rather sclerotic Catholic Church of the time faced a broadening crisis of relevancy, but nothing like the catastrophe we have experienced since January 2002. As we discovered how widespread was the crisis of child sexual abuse by priests, as revealed last year, how long a time it had been going on and how church leaders had concealed it, we entered a devastating period of collapsing trust and fierce recrimination.

The bishops, meeting in Dallas last June, placed some new obstacles in the way of actual abuse by priests, whether strong enough we do not yet know. Their formula for dealing with past abuses struck many as posing serious doubts about due process, raising a new controversy of its own. But since, in November, they tamely accepted its drastic revision by Roman authority, people fear that any crackdown is essentially compromised, that American bishops have now abdicated responsibility for meeting the crisis, leaving it up to curial officials in Rome. They, in turn, fail to command trust, as they appear anxious to sweep everything under the rug. Discussion of the Christian imperatives of reconciliation and forgiveness, common after Dallas, fade out of the picture now, as the Church appears too distracted even to consult its own tradition and responds, for the most part, only to media pressures.

We have urgent questions about whether the bishops, whose actions horrify us even more than those of the pederasts, will be held accountable in any credible way. That is terribly disillusioning for all who wish to have confidence in the Church as an institutional structure through which to live their faith. Accountability, the ultimate red-line question for the Roman authorities, constitutes a quite distinct issue from the pervasive sexual disorders. Since the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston has had to resign his see, calls for other resignations abound, all referred to the Pope as the only one who can judge, order or accept them. Roman officials shrink from the thought, fearing that bishops may go down like a row of dominoes.

An outstanding piece of research done by reporters for the Dallas Morning News (June 12, 2002) established a claim that some two thirds of the bishops of dioceses in the United States (at least 111 of what they classify as the nation's 178 “mainstream,” or Roman rite, Catholic dioceses) have in some way protected or concealed offender priests, brothers or other religious. New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein, writing December 1, 200[3], has since widened that count, claiming such offense in all but two of those dioceses, to the chagrin of Andrew Greeley who, in the February 10, 2003, issue of America saw this as anti-Catholic attack. All this tells us how far such a purge could go. Some might want that, but if we are to attack this problem root and branch, let’s be clear that the roots are in Rome, from where the policy was enforced that protection of the institution’s reputation from scandal took priority over nearly anything else.

That is not to say that the Pope did it: this is the sort of thing that comes from a bureaucracy. Nor should we be surprised. This is the way of large institutions, as examples ranging from Enron to the U.S. Government constantly teach us. Bishops, too timid even to criticize, have simply followed institutional procedures. We have to suspect that a bishop who would not go along, placing the avoidance of scandal at the top of his list, would have lost his job.

We have serious questions, then, to ask about basic habits in the Church. Angry though people may be, we make fools of ourselves if we believe that a few hangings, a reign of terror in the Church, will resolve these issues. Our ills are so endemic to the system that it is mere evasion to heap all the blame on individuals. Venting our outrage on them may give us some self-indulgent satisfaction, but does not address the underlying problems at all.

Two obvious questions stand out: one about our attitudes toward sexuality, the other about the governance of the Church. On both matters our whole process needs to be opened up. While there may be other ways of doing this, the traditional one is in a Council of the Church.

This may well be the matter of a new papacy, which will come in its time, though Pope John Paul II keeps surprising those who write him off and addressing new problems with new energy. We may expect that when the cardinals next meet to elect a Pope, these matters, weighing on the whole Catholic Church, will be at the front of their minds. The leaders in the Church have a responsibility to ask why these things have happened. We will all be telling them they must deal with this when electing a Pope, and the one chosen will have to address this disaster in some appropriate way.


Anyone can see the social immaturity, especially the retarded psycho-sexual development, of the predator priests we have heard about. There have to be reasons for that, things in their experience and formation that have led them to these perversions. We hear a good deal about sexual sin, but basic attitudes toward sexuality are one of those things that we shy away from discussing in our Church.

It does not stand to our credit if we regard one of God’s most precious gifts to us with the disdain and evasion that human sexuality has received in much of our tradition, the furtiveness with which it is treated. This applies not only to Catholics but to most other Christians as well, since the anti-sexual tradition goes back to St. Augustine, many of his contemporaries and even older authorities, but actually has its roots in the pagan world of their time, its dualism (reflected in the Manichaeism that had so attracted Augustine) and its disgust with the body and the material circumstances of life.

In the recruitment of our Catholic clergy and religious, this creates opportunity for young persons simply to evade or postpone dealing with the issue of sexuality at all, treating it as something that has nothing to do them. Surely we know celibates who, even much later in life, have never genuinely faced themselves. This is especially tempting to those with some ambivalence, uncertainty or fear about their own sexuality. We may try to screen out such persons as candidates, but can expect little success if the screeners themselves share those attitudes.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council made a concerted effort never to accept this disparagement of the sexual character of human beings and the sexual expression of human love, particularly in their teaching on celibacy. But the poisoning tradition still holds on, one that sees persons’ sexuality as the bad thing about them of which they should be ashamed, and try to live as if they didn’t have it. Discussion of this whole area has long been treated with such reluctance and suspicion as to contribute to a widespread immaturity in our community, such that we ought not be surprised when it leads to bizarre consequences like this priest-pedophilia or -ephebophilia. The wild chaos of sexual permissiveness that characterizes so much of our contemporary scene can actually be seen as simply the reverse side of this same coin.

Many commentators, some with pre-conceived agendas, want to approach this pathology with instant solutions, like the abolition of mandatory celibacy or the ordination of women, without going through the more fundamental reflection that the matter requires. These issues will doubtless come into the picture and eventually have the attention of such a Council as we may hope to see. (They did come up at the last Council, Vatican II, but were taken off the table and reserved instead for curial consideration.) But we owe it to the integrity of the faith to examine this void in our understanding of the human person more carefully before settling for easy solutions.

Many, even among those of manifest good will toward the Church and its traditions, question whether celibacy or virginity can ever be other than damaging to the persons committed to them. No one will be able to defend their value convincingly unless a mature and welcoming understanding of sexuality and sexual identity become common property of Christians.

Still more pressing, however, is the question of authority structures in the Church.


We have seen protection of the institution and its managers set above even the most basic moral responsibilities. Our foundational Christian Scripture calls for the most open dealings among us. The “rulers of the gentiles,” we are told, “lord it over them, and their great men know how to make their authority felt,” but “among you this is not to happen” (Matthew 20, 25). Ours is to be a Church where “there is nothing hidden, but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light" (Mark 4, 22). To appeal to such fundamentals of Christ’s teaching sounds simply ironic today, and we need to ask why.

We have become a very law-bound Church. That in itself accords ill with the priorities set in the letters of St. Paul, where we learn that our salvation is by faith, and not by the works of the law. We search our Scripture for a “Law of Christ,” and what we find, in such places as the Sermon on the Mount, is instead an insistence that we must never satisfy ourselves with observing merely the requirements set by a law. Instead we must always strive to do more, to put ourselves at the service of others: never by constraint, but by willing offering of self. You can’t codify that.

That makes the Christian community an unwelcoming place in which to develop a culture of law. We have a different kind of mandate from Christ, more difficult perhaps, but freer. The Christian community is to build up its members in a living of the faith, the confident service of God in others around us, especially those most in need. Law is not its foundation. But of course, the Christian community eventually became large and complex, acquired respectability and a great deal of secular responsibility for civil society, first under Constantine and his successor emperors and again in the harsher 11th century. By then it found itself in need of orderly structures for its own governance.

What happened was that it turned, for lack of any specifically Christian structure of law, to purely secular sources. Just by reason of time and place, the Christians who established our internal canons of law adopted the categories of Roman Law, which still dominate not only the Canon Law of the Catholic Church but also, as Code Napoleon, the legal systems of most European countries.

That law is Roman but has no essentially Christian character to it. It is the law of Empire, and its governing premise is that the will of the sovereign is law. That this should have become the basis of Canon Law is entirely anomalous. It is the very system of domination that Christ so explicitly rejects for his followers. It has provided a kind of order, essentially an imposition of order, to much of Europe ever since Roman imperial times, but it has as its fundamental flaw that there is no room in it for the accountability of those who govern to those whom they govern.

By no choice of his, but by the simple fact of his rank within this system of Roman Law, such a figure as Cardinal Law in Boston, like any other bishop, caught though he was in the headlights of a condition that is the fundamental commonplace throughout the Church so governed, was constituted judge of his accusers. How could he escape this? Early in the debacle, his diocesans attempted to construct an association of the existing parish councils, bodies of the most devoted of all his Catholic people: a much milder venture than the better-known Voice of the Faithful. The inevitable response, in terms of the law as constituted, was to reject the association as something built other than on the executive’s will, hence potentially divisive. Much later in the year, shortly before his resignation, he did finally agree to meet Voice of the Faithful representatives themselves, but his initial observation to them was that he wished they had sought his permission before forming their association. The Cardinal was accountable, not by his own choice but by the situation common to all his fellow bishops, only to higher authority. Calls for accountability from below could only be anomaly.

Is this form of legal structure of the nature of Christianity? By no means. Christianity, as Chesterton once told us, has not been tried and failed. Instead it was found difficult and never tried.

We are often told that the Church is no democracy, and the reasoning has been, essentially, that this Roman imperial system is the form of its law. But that has nothing whatever to do with Christian principle. It was adopted only because it was the most obvious law available at the time when the Church first found itself so extensive an institution as to need some such structure of order. It has had so long a tenure in the Church’s experience that it will be a painfully intricate thing to extract ourselves from its tentacles, should we so choose, but that is the enterprise that our current predicament demands. It will demand a longer commitment than the duration of a Council of the Church, but its initiation is properly the work of a Council.

Doubtless many of the authority figures who reign in the Church would find it much more comfortable to resist any accountability. They’ve lived without it as long as they’ve had their jobs. But the situation has become untenable now. The executive chair in the Church-as-corporation currently stands empty. This must pose a dilemma for our present Pope, a centralizing figure who yet asks so earnestly for the thoughts of all Christians on how his office may better contribute to unity in the Church. It has got to emerge as the main topic of discussion when the cardinals meet to elect his successor. The man who emerges from that conclave, unless it has been a conventicle of simple intransigence, will know that this is the top item on his plate.

Alternative structures of law, as models for order in our enormous Church, are hard to come by, and we can hardly expect that a system of order faithfully Christian in its inspiration will come easily or quickly. We are much attached, in the United States, to the Common Law system of justice that we inherited from English experience. Common Law, built on the binding force of precedent, does produce accountability, rendering the rulers as responsible to the law as are the subjects. It has fabricated a thick planting of the land with precedent laws that bind the ruler as well as the subject, and thus protect the individual from the arbitrary will of authority. So much so good! It has been the seedbed of as much democracy as we have yet attained. But it too has its dark side, in its massively adversarial and vindictive character. Our American culture has become savagely punitive and vengeful under its aegis, as witness, among other things, its attachment to the death penalty. It can make no more claim to be proper to Christian life than can the Roman model.

What remains? There are, of course, multiple systems of law we could draw on, many of which are free of either the arbitrary, unaccountable character of the Roman Law or the exclusively retributive character of the Common Law. Many of these systems of justice exist among peoples we in the West tend to look at patronizingly, as having civilizations less complex than ours. Yet South Africans, seeking a more wholesome system of justice than they received from the European colonists, found much of value in the native African concepts of ubuntu.

Lawyers and judges in our country, and in some parts of Europe and Australia, have experimented with systems of Restorative Justice, in which the objective is the restoration of relations in society rather than mere retribution, but these remain a novelty, still in their teething stage. Those so inclined have found some useful lessons in the practices of American Indians, the circle-sentencing concept among their most attractive features. None of these, though helpful, have specifically the inspiration of Christian Gospel behind them, but neither has our current Roman-Law-inspired law of the Church.

Are we capable, then, of constructing a system of internal order for our Church that would genuinely spring from sources within the Christian Gospel tradition? The process would have to begin by recognizing the profoundly a-Christian and even anti-Christian character of the law we presently have, disruptive of Christian living, corrosive, as we are seeing in the sex scandal, of the most fundamental values of Christian faith. We would have to reflect long and carefully to build an ordered Church community that truly related to values of that faith, and could not expect to construct it at one stroke. We have a time before us to learn some of the humility that is so conspicuously lacking in the system by which we now operate.

The Second Vatican Council in fact went some distance toward constructing such a system in the first two chapters of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, but they have since been negated, first by a distrustful period of anxiety, and then by a concentrated period of clawing back from any tendencies toward the accountability of those who govern.

Is this indeed the work of a Council? We may well believe so, and one much needed in the face of the deservedly low esteem into which the governance of the Church has fallen. The Council would need to face squarely both of these outstanding questions: the sexuality question and that of law and structure. On the sexuality question the Church needs to hear from many persons of authority, intellectual and spiritual, other than bishops. Just as much, on the matter of law and a structure of service, humility and accountability, many other than the bishops of the Church need to be heard and respectfully consulted.

The crisis of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, not merely a Bostonian or an American problem but an Irish, a French, an Austrian, an Australian, a Canadian, a Polish, an Italian and, universally, a Church problem, so long smoldering but only so recently exploding in our faces after long concealment, has made these questions so acute that they can hardly be evaded any longer.

We face challenges to the basic credibility of our Church, and hence of our teaching, on no less a scale than those of the 16th century. The Catholic Church responded poorly then, and paid with centuries of division and dissension among Christian believers when its mere defensiveness turned the attempted Reformation into a lasting breach. If we should treat the present crisis as less serious than it is we can expect to see disruption of a comparable sort.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.