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HomePerspectiveGeorge WeigelAfter Dallas: The Issue is Headship

After Dallas: The Issue is Headship

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.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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