What must be done in Dallas

Expectations for the bishops’ meeting in Dallas in mid-June have gone over the top. More journalists have applied for credentials than applied to cover the Pope’s last visit to the United States. Bishops have contributed to the frenzy by suggesting that, at Dallas, the bishops will take measures to “put this behind us” and the crisis of clerical sexual abuse will be “over.”

It won’t be. There is more to come, and getting at the roots of the crisis will take years, even decades, of work. But the Dallas meeting can do two important things substantively, and it can do one critically important thing symbolically.

The substantive agenda was suggested by Pope John Paul II, addressing the U.S. cardinals’ meeting in the Vatican on April 22. The Pope came straight to the point: “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.” I take that to mean that classic pedophiles (men with a perverse sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children) are to be dismissed from the clerical state. I also take it to mean that priests who are habitual sexual abusers of minors are to be dismissed from the clerical state. Period.

There are the harder cases of one-time offenses, perhaps involving alcohol, and there are difficult questions about priests who have occasional, but neither habitual nor merely one-time, heterosexual or homosexual affairs. But there need be no ambiguity in the case of the true pedophiles and the habitual abusers of minors. They must be dismissed from the clerical state. If the bishops cannot make this clear at Dallas, and if they do not get the Vatican to fast-track approval of procedures for dealing with such cases, they will deserve the firestorm of criticism that will ensue.

On April 22, the Pope also said that the people of the Church “ … must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” The Holy Father would not have said this if he did not have good reason to believe that such total commitment has been lacking in some quarters, and that dissent from the Church’s sexual ethic is one of the sources of the current crisis.

That is precisely right. Thus the bishops at Dallas must at least open a conversation about the terms and procedures for a proposed apostolic visitation — a Vatican-mandated study — of all seminaries and religious houses of formation. Such a study is essential to complete the reform of seminaries that has been underway in many instances for a decade, and to begin the reform of the truly troubled institutions — notiviates and religious houses of formation.

In both circumstances, the studies should not be led or staffed by anyone with a vested interest in the status quo or in defending the lax attitudes of the recent past — particularly in regard to sexual misconduct, heterosexual or homosexual. The study of seminaries should be run by bishops who have demonstrated an ability to reform seminaries in their pre-episcopal careers and to attract and nurture vocations by their episcopal ministry. Happily, there are a good number of such men among the younger members of the hierarchy.  The study of novitiates should be run by bishops who have nurtured vocations to the consecrated life in their dioceses and who have a clear-eyed view of the current corruptions in too many religious houses of formation.

Beyond this, the bishops must do something to make unmistakably clear that they accept responsibility for the discipline of the clergy, that they are deeply sorry for the episcopal misgovernance that turned serious scandal into Church-wide crisis, and that they fully intend to pursue remedies down to the roots of the crisis in the culture of dissent.

A communal, public act of penance has been suggested. That would be no bad thing, especially if it helped drive home the point that the Dallas meeting is only the beginning of a long and difficult process of fixing what has manifestly been broken in the Church.

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

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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