Lay collaboration and episcopal authority

George Weigel

The Vatican is a hotbed of rumor, gossip, and speculation at the best of times — and these times are not those times. The Roman atmosphere at the beginning of 2019 is typically fetid and sometimes poisonous, with a lot of misinformation and disinformation floating around. That smog of fallacy and fiction could damage February’s global gathering of bishops, called by the Pope to address the abuse crisis that is impeding the Church’s evangelical mission virtually everywhere.

Great expectations surround that meeting; those expectations should be lowered. In four days, the presidents of over 100 bishops conferences and the leaders of a dysfunctional Roman Curia are not going to devise a universal template for the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate. What the February meeting can do is set a broad agenda for reform, beginning with a ringing affirmation of the Church’s perennial teaching on chastity as the integrity of love. In a diverse world Church, that teaching applies in every ecclesial situation. And it is the baseline of any authentically Catholic response to the abuse crisis.

What the February meeting must not do is make matters worse by swallowing, and then propagating, some of the fairy tales circulating in Rome about the Church in the United States: like the noxious fiction that the U.S. bishops have overreacted to what is essentially a media-created crisis.

To be sure, inept or hostile journalists too often fail to report the significant reform measures the U.S. bishops have implemented since 2002 and the positive effects of those reforms. But there is still much reform work to be done in the American Church; most U.S. bishops know that; and for Rome to blame the Church’s current crisis of confidence on the media is a reflexive dodge and an obstacle to genuine reform.

Then there’s the “Protestantization” fairy tale. In Roman circles, it’s said that panicky U.S. bishops cobbled together reform proposals that would gravely diminish episcopal authority by handing great chunks of that authority to lay people — a “Protestantizing” move, as it’s called along the Tiber. To make matters worse, some in Rome blame this alleged “Protestantizing” on what are deemed “too many” converts in the U.S. Church today.

How to begin unraveling this nonsense?

First, it is beyond bizarre for anyone to complain about too many converts in a Church called by the Pope to live “permanently in mission,” radiating “the joy of the Gospel.” In real-world 2019, American adults are baptized or enter into full communion with the Catholic Church because they believe the Catholic Church knows what it is, teaches the truth, and offers them Christ himself in the sacraments. They don’t “convert” to change the Church’s self-understanding.

Second, how does it diminish their authority for bishops to collaborate with orthodox, capable lay people in addressing the current crisis in both its dimensions: clerical sexual abuse and episcopal failure in addressing that abuse? What the U.S. bishops were prepared to do in November, before an inappropriate Vatican intervention prevented it, was to create a national body of competent lay people to receive allegations of episcopal malfeasance, assess them by a carefully crafted set of standards and report credible allegations to the appropriate Church authorities. Period. Such a process would not only preserve the bishops’ authority; it would enhance it.

In any effective organization, the leader with ultimate responsibility engages the expertise of others in order to do what only he or she can do: make good final decisions. Not a jot or tittle of episcopal authority will be damaged by the American bishops collaborating with expert lay people who understand the boundaries of lay competence. On the contrary, that collaboration is essential if the bishops — and the Vatican — are going to recover the credibility necessary to do the jobs that only bishops and the Vatican can do in reforming the priesthood and the episcopate.

These points must be made forcefully in Rome in February. Fictions about American Catholic life and American attempts to impose a universal solution to the abuse crisis on the world Church must be firmly rejected. An appropriate pastoral response to a genuine crisis, well-suited to the ecclesial situation of the U.S., should be vigorously defended. And the Roman voices saying there are too many converts in the U.S. should be invited to read Matthew 28:19-20.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: A tough year ahead

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2018 was a bad year for Catholics. 2019 is almost certainly going to be worse. Good reason, then, to reflect on two recent texts from the Church’s Office of Readings.

The first is from paragraph 48 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established and cannot be revoked. In our era it is in a true sense anticipated: the Church on earth is already sealed by genuine, if imperfect, holiness. Yet, until a new heaven and a new earth are built as the dwelling place of justice, the pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions belonging to this world of time, bears the likeness of this passing world. It lives in the midst of a creation still groaning and in travail as it waits for the sons of God to be revealed in glory.”

And the second is from the Spiritual Canticle of the reforming Spanish Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross:

”Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”

With those sobering but consoling thoughts in mind, I offer a few speculations about 2019, by way of cautions about the rough waters ahead.

There will be further revelations of clerical sexual abuse from decades ago, and the false narrative that there is a rape culture in the Catholic Church today will be reinforced.

More awful details about the behavior of Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, will come to light.

At least one U.S. bishop, and possibly several, will resign after revelations of malfeasance and worse in handling reports of sexually abusive clergy under their authority.

Rome and certain sectors of the American Church will continue to ignore or misinterpret empirical evidence about the exceptionally high percentage of adolescent boys and young men who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse.

The February meeting in Rome to discuss the abuse crisis in a global context will disappoint many U.S. Catholics, who mistakenly imagined that it would produce a global plan for reform.

Too many senior officials of the Roman Curia will continue to insist that the U.S. reaction to clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance is exaggerated, media-driven, and somehow “Protestant.”

The determination of the U.S. bishops’ conference leadership to involve expert Catholic laity in the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate will encounter more resistance in Rome.

No state attorney general or federal prosecutor will launch an investigation of sexual abuse in public schools.

October’s Special Synod on Amazonia will (obliquely?) appeal for the ordination of mature married men to the ministerial priesthood in that region, but without input from other local Churches that would be seriously impacted by any such concession – including the Church in the United States.

Ultramontanism – an excessively Petrocentric idea of the Church that misconstrues the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II by treating the pope as an oracle – will intensify on an increasingly cranky and authoritarian Catholic Left.

The Holy See will run a huge deficit, even as Peter’s Pence contributions continue to fall throughout the world Church.

The persecution of Cardinal George Pell will continue but his conviction on “historic sexual abuse” charges will increasingly be seen by rational people as a grotesque miscarriage of justice motivated by scapegoating, anti-Catholicism, and sordid politics in Australia (and elsewhere).

As the Xi Jinping regime’s persecution of Christians intensifies, the Vatican’s “deal” with the People’s Republic of China will look even worse and its defense will seem ever more implausible. 

Russian Orthodox spokesmen will continue to blame the Catholic Church for the Moscow Patriarchate’s troubles in Ukraine, further compromising the Russian-centered ecumenical grand strategy of the Holy See toward the complex worlds of Orthodoxy.

A tough year lies ahead. Yet Christ, risen and triumphant, remains present and available in the Eucharist, to which serious missionary disciples will have ever more frequent recourse for strength and courage. May His Kingdom come.