Restoring, and strengthening, episcopal credibility

George Weigel

Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio on sexual abuse, Vos estis lux mundi [You Are the Light of the World], was a welcome addition to Church law, as world Catholicism seeks to heal the wounds of abuse victims, promote chaste living, foster mutual accountability within the Body of Christ, and restore the credibility of the Church’s leadership. The response to the motu proprio by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ably summed up that document’s achievement:

Vos estis lux mundi calls for the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, whistleblower protection for those making allegations, and active involvement of the laity. It also leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to specify still more to account for local circumstances…Vos estis lux mundi…[is] is a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church. It also permits the Church the time and opportunity to bring spiritual healing.”

The motu proprio is also a vindication of the Church in the United States and its bishops. Many of its provisions for handling abuse cases have been common practice in the U.S. since 2002 (and in some American dioceses, earlier than that). Amidst the frustration that has boiled over here this past year, too many American Catholics, misled by irresponsible reporting or grandstanding by state officials, may not realize that the Church in the United States has been a world leader in addressing the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. This leadership has not always been welcomed, in Rome and elsewhere. But much of what was pioneered in the United States is now universal Church law. By making abuse-reporting obligatory and providing canonical protection for clerics reporting abuse, Pope Francis has improved on the American achievement of the past decade and a half.

As Cardinal DiNardo noted, Vos estis lux mundi not only universalizes strong legal and procedural norms for dealing with clerical sexual abuse; it also allows, and might even be seen to call for, creativity on the part of national bishops’ conferences to build on the foundation Pope Francis has laid. That “latitude for national bishops’ conferences…to specify still more” should now be utilized by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting: to honor the Pope’s invitation to devise particular solutions for particular situations, according to the Holy Father’s principle of “synodality”; to meet the expectations of the most dedicated, committed Catholics in the United States; and to offer the world Church further models to consider. Vos estis lux mundi, like the particular Church law in place in the United States since the abuse crisis of 2002, deals primarily with sexual abuse by priests. The next steps in this process of Catholic reform involve devising mechanisms for guaranteeing episcopal accountability, in terms of both a bishop’s personal conduct and his handling of abuse allegations in the diocese entrusted to his care.

There seems to be a consensus, in Rome and the U.S., that these mechanisms should operate at the level of Church “provinces,” with the metropolitan archbishop of each ecclesiastical province as the responsible party (or the senior suffragan bishop in a province, if the metropolitan archbishop is being charged with an offense). To make that mechanism credible, and to provide the metropolitan archbishops the assistance they need in handling allegations against other bishops, three more provisions seem necessary:

1. Lay Catholics — presumably the archdiocesan review board of the province in question — must be informed of an allegation against a bishop, from the point at which that allegation is made to the metropolitan archbishop. Such a requirement embodies the principle of mutual accountability within the Church while protecting the metropolitan archbishop from any future suggestion that he is burying an allegation to protect a brother bishop.

2. Competent and discreet lay professionals should be involved in the investigation of any allegation against a bishop.

3. It must be guaranteed that, when the entire process has been completed in the U.S. and Rome, and a decision reached, there will be a public explanation of the decision and the rationale for it, perhaps released through the relevant archdiocesan review board.

Adopting these provisions in June will accelerate the healing of a wounded Church and enhance the bishops’ credibility, while heeding the Pope’s call for local creativity.

Featured image by Vatican Media

COMING UP: Gaia, false gods, and public policy

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I claim no expertise in climate science. I do claim a certain competence in detecting spin in the media; for I’m a card-carrying member of that clan, as I’ve committed print journalism for more than 40 years and worked in television for over 20. Thus credentialed, I rise to note that serious spin has dominated media coverage of climate change for a long time now. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this rule. Since Hurricane Katrina, though, it’s generally been all-hysteria-all-the-time in reporting and commentary on weather and climate change. This may get eyeballs onto screens and newspaper pages; it doesn’t do much for cool, calm public debate.

So when the chief scientist in the Obama administration’s Energy Department, who’s also a professor of physics at Cal Tech, challenges the spin and the hysteria, attention should be paid. That’s precisely what Steven E. Koonin does in the recently published Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters: he takes on just about every shibboleth emboldening today’s crusaders against climate change. Professor Koonin doesn’t deny that the planet is warming and that human beings have something to do with that. He does question some of the claims behind the present drive to Do Something! through massive governmental interventions.

Thus, to quote from the Wall Street Journal review of his book, Professor Koonin shows, from the scientific data, that “tornado frequency and severity are…not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly down. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high – they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.”

Not shocked (or angry) at Professor Koonin yet? Then try his own words: “Heat waves in the U.S. are now no more common than they were in 1900…the warmest temperatures in the U.S. have not risen in the past 50 years….Humans have had no detectible impact on hurricanes over the past century….Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was 80 years ago… The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.” 

As I said, I’ve no credentials to judge the accuracy of Koonin’s assertions. I do like his against-the-grain boldness, and I certainly agree with his argument that the science – not media and activist spin on the science, but the actual data from the many authoritative reports he cites – should govern decision-making about public policy and climate change. I also have an idea of why the climate debate has become so emotionally fraught. It’s not just because of media spin and political opportunism, although both of those play their part. It’s because environmentalism has become an ultramundane pseudo-religion.  

That religion has a deity: Gaia, the Earth. It has a sacred text: Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which began the transformation of the American conservation movement (which respected the natural environment without deifying it) into contemporary environmentalism. It has its religious holidays, “Earth Day” being the Pentecost of the new religion and the occasion for homiletics that mimic Peter in Acts 2:14-36. (A pre-K student, I’m told, brought home from school this past April 22 the revelation that “we should get rid of our cars because they’re bad for the air.”) Gaia-religion has a kind of ersatz sacramental life: I’ve been in circumstances where there are seven recycling bins, which certainly rings bells in the Catholic mind. It inculcates a moral code; some of it makes sense – How can anyone object to the fact that our highways and national parks are virtually litter-free these days? – but other parts of it veer into the worst forms of elitist, anti-natalist zealotry, as when some of the new religion’s prophets urge shrinking the planet’s human population by six billion people in the name of saving (or appeasing) Gaia. And I certainly can’t be the only person who’s noticed that carbon trade-offs are the new religion’s form of indulgences – the selling of which in the 16th century led to a lot of trouble.

Is ours a secular world? Or is it a world that’s traded authentic religion for a modern form of idolatry – one that’s corrupting our politics because it displaces reason with the kind of existential dread the ancient Canaanites once felt about Moloch?