At conference in Baltimore, USCCB passes three measures in response to abuse crisis

Catholic News Agency

By Ed Condon/Catholic News Agency

The U.S. bishops’ conference voted Thursday to approve proposals intended to respond to recent scandals involving sexual abuse, coercion, and cover-up on the part of bishops, most notably former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield.

The bishops, gathered in Baltimore for their spring General Assembly, voted overwhelmingly in favor of three measures aimed at building processes to address episcopal misconduct or neglect, and the ongoing crisis of credibility widely perceived to overshadow ongoing work to eliminate sexual abuse from the Church.

The assembly approved protocol explaining the powers of a diocesan bishop to curtail the public ministry of a retired bishop in his former diocese by a margin of 212-4.

They also approved a set of directives applying in the U.S. the new universal norms for investigating allegations against bishops promulgated by Pope Francis in Vos estis lux mundi.  After initial discussion earlier this week, they were presented to bishops June 13 with an explicit exhortation for metropolitan bishops to appoint “on a stable basis, even by means of an ecclesiastical office, a qualified lay person” to receive allegations against bishops and work with the metropolitan in any subsequent investigation.

The directives were approved by 218-1.

The bishops also approved a joint statement, “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments,” establishing a non-binding moral commitment by bishops to hold themselves to the same standards and measures as are currently applied to their priests and deacons. That document passed by a similarly wide margin of 217-1.

The consensus in favor of the measures was unsurprising. After the bishops were prevented by Rome from adopting similar proposals in November, the majority of bishops returned to Baltimore ready to vote.

The widespread agreement in favor of the three documents was reflected in the much-abbreviated discussion which preceded each vote. With relatively little debate, the bishops finished their morning session more than an hour ahead of schedule, even after adding business they’d intended to address in the afternoon.

As in the previous discussions on Tuesday, several bishops raised the need for clearly established lay involvement in the process of handling complaints against bishops. Changes to the text of the implementation directives for Vos estis were highlighted as a response to those concerns, something Cardinal Joseph Tobin noted was a “clear expectation” of Vos estis itself.

Bishops Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City said that mandatory lay involvement is essential “to make darn sure we bishops do not harm the Church” in the ways seen in recent cases.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler was the only bishop to raise directly the issue of Theodore McCarrick during the session, insisting that “a full reckoning” still needed to be made for the former cardinal’s career but that he had “been assured that the Holy See is working on that.”

On the specific point of whether lay people should be assigned formal, canonically governed “ecclesiastical offices” in order to assist metropolitans, Archbishop Bernard Hebda noted that the drafting committee thought it better to leave that as an option. In some places, he noted, metropolitans might find it best to include a non-Catholic (ineligible for formal ecclesiastical office) in the process if their expertise “offered the greatest possibilities for accountability.”

Several bishops, most insistently Bishop Jaime Soto, raised the prospect of an independent auditing process to track and assess the U.S. implementation of Vos estis over the three-year trial period.

Bishop Robert Deeley explained to the conference that the independent third-party reporting mechanism, approved by the bishops on Wednesday, was itself a form of a self-auditing system with every complaint being tracked, though there were limits to how much the bishops could assess the effectiveness of what was a papal law.

“I think the committee agrees with you that an [assessment] process will have to be done,” Deeley said, but it was not for the U.S. bishops to decide how to evaluate the essential role of the Holy See in the process and implementation of its own norms.

Related to Rome’s role in the process of handling an allegation, several bishops noted that Vos estis provided for a response from Rome “within 30 days,” something Bishop Mark O’Connell, an auxiliary bishop of Boston, called an “intolerable” amount of time for a reporting Metropolitan to be unable to advance the case.

Deeley responded by noting that Rome had committed itself to responding “within not after” 30 days, and that the experience of many bishops was that when circumstances required it, the different Roman dicasteries were respond considerably faster. The longer time period was a reflection of the universal application of Vos estis, which would have to accommodate regions where communication could be more fractured and difficult.

Deeley noted that there had been four investigations into U.S. bishops conducted by metropolitans in recent months, including McCarrick and Bransfield, and that the successful way in which they had been concluded was a sign of the effectiveness of the new model. “That gives me confidence,” Deeley told the bishops.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles told the bishops that “the Holy See is aware of the urgency of this matter,” and commended the passage of the directives to the conference.

After the passage of the abuse-related measures and the conclusion of some other conference matters, the bishops concluded the public portion of their meeting and convened an executive session.

Featured Image by Kate Veik/CNA

COMING UP: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash