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.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash