After Dallas: The Issue is Headship

George Weigel

The bishops have passed their “Charter,” the implementing norms for dealing with clergy sexual abuse are en route to Rome for review, the media pack has moved on to other stories, at least temporarily. So the question is — after Dallas, now what?

One of the cliches coming out of the Dallas meeting had it that the current crisis was caused in large part by a lack of “collaboration” between bishops and laity and a lack of lay “participation” in the governance of the Church. There is some truth in this. But only some.

The truth is that, in some instances, diocesan lay review boards have been helpful to local bishops in implementing personnel policies for dealing with clerical sexual offenders. Another truth is that there are highly competent Catholic lawyers and communications specialists whose sage counsel, requested and taken, would have spared many bishops much grief in recent years. The still further truth is that aspects of the clerical culture, and the club atmospherics of the bishops’ conference, have mitigated against coming to grips with sexual abuse in the past.

All that being said, the deeper and larger truth is that this is far, far more a crisis of leadership than a crisis of “participation.” One indispensable factor in resolving the crisis is more assertive, effective leadership by bishops – “headship,” to use the proper biblical and theological term.

The anger that many Catholics feel at their bishops today tells us the “sense of the faithful” on this. Most Catholics are not interested in building ever-thicker layers of Church bureaucracy: committees, commissions, boards, etc., etc. Most Catholics have little interest in the Protestantizing agenda being forwarded by groups like Voice of the Faithful. What Catholic anger at bishops tells us is that Catholics want their bishops to be bishops — to exert strong, forceful leadership. The vast majority of Catholics in the United States (who don’t get into Time magazine like “Voice of the Faithful”) intuitively understand that this crisis has not been created by “authoritarianism,” but by bishops failing to exercise the authority that is legitimately theirs by episcopal ordination.

Catholic Lite, in other words, is not the answer to the crisis of leadership in the Church in America today. Yes, there is ample room in the Catholic Church for more effective collaboration between bishops and lay men and women. But when “collaboration” becomes code for stripping the bishop’s office of its distinctive authority, then a Catholic Lite agenda is at work.

This immediately raises some questions about the national review board, chaired by Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, whose establishment was announced at the end of the Dallas meeting. Such a board can do useful work in helping monitor the compliance of individual dioceses with the personnel norms adopted by the bishops’ conference, once they have been approved by Rome. But the bottom line in each diocese remains the local bishop — and this is a matter of doctrine, not management theory.

Then there was Governor Keating’s suggestion that the national review board would take up the question of whether individual bishops ought to be replaced for failures of leadership in dealing with clergy sexual abuse. That question certainly must be addressed, and quickly. But the people who must address it are the responsible authorities in the Vatican, in consultation with the bishops of the United States, not the members of a lay review board. Such a board has no theological “standing” to make such judgments. To suggest that it does is to let the passion for “procedures” in our bureaucratically-obsessed culture trump Catholic doctrine.

The reform of the Catholic Church in the United States cannot be reduced to a question of “procedures.” What transformed a scandal of clergy sexual abuse into a national crisis of Catholic credibility was a failure of headship: bishops failing to teach the fullness of Catholic truth, bishops failing to be fathers to their priests, bishops failing to enforce the discipline of the Church. Better personnel procedures can help address one severe manifestation of today’s crisis of fidelity, namely, sexually abusive clergy. That, one hopes, is what Dallas helped accomplish.

But real reform will require deeper remedies, including a recovery of headship in the Church.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!