“Synodality” and the Rome abuse summit

George Weigel

Despite Pope Francis’s lecture on the subject at Synod-2015, and notwithstanding the passages on it in Synod-2018’s final report, there is little agreement in 21st-century Catholicism on what “synodality” means. The theology of synodality can be left for another day. In practical terms, however, perhaps synodality ought to mean something roughly analogous to what our British cousins mean by “horses for courses.” There, the phrase is a homely caution against one-size-fits-all remedies to problems. In the world Church today, and with an eye to the “abuse summit” that will meet in Rome from February 21-24, a “horses for courses” understanding of synodality would mean that different local Churches should be empowered to implement specific local remedies, tailored to their specific problems and capacities, in addressing clerical sexual misconduct.

The plague of sexually abusive clergy manifests itself in different ways in different ecclesiastical contexts. In the so-called developed world, the plague seems to have largely involved the sexual abuse or exploitation of young men; but there are many other ways in which a subset of Catholic clergy, both priests and bishops, lead duplicitous lives in violation of the promise of celibate chastity they made to God and the Church. Latin American Catholicism has a culturally-influenced and destructive habit of denial about clerical sexual misconduct, whether abusive or consensual, heterosexual or homosexual. The Church in Africa faces serious challenges with the sexual exploitation of women by clergy. Each of these situations has its own epidemiology, as infectious disease doctors would say.

While more than a few German theologians and bishops (and bishop-theologians) deny it, the Catholic Church has a settled ethic of human love, drawn from the Scriptures and developed over centuries by moral reason. The ethic is the same, but the challenges to living it are not uniform among 1.2 billion Catholics. Because of considerable cultural and historical differences across the world Church, particular solutions to the plague of clerical sexual impropriety (and worse) are going to have to be developed to meet particular circumstances. So while the bottom of the bottom line for the “abuse summit” must be an unambiguous, clarion call to the entire Church to live chastity as the integrity of love, there is no single reform template that will address different forms of clerical sexual misconduct in quite diverse circumstances.

Catholics in the U.S. must also recognize that the kinds of solutions that are feasible in our country — and that have worked in addressing historical clerical sexual abuse and driving down its incidence — may not be applicable in other parts of the world Church, where the financial and personnel resources the U.S. Church can deploy are not available. To take one example: diocesan review boards that function quite well in America in handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse may be infeasible in other local churches. On the other, other hand, what the American Church has learned, often the hard way, about rigorous screening of seminary applicants and about effective priestly formation (both in seminary and after ordination) might well be “transferable” to other ecclesiastical situations.

Misimpressions and prejudices notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in the United States has been more forthright in addressing clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical sexual misconduct than any other local church. Others can learn from this experience. In the abuse summit’s official meetings and in the “Off Broadway” venues where Catholic leaders will conduct more informal conversations, American churchmen in Rome this month should explain the reforms the U.S. Church has implemented, including the extensive use of lay expertise to address clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical misconduct; describe the positive effects of those reforms, especially on seminaries; offer to share ideas (and personnel) with other local churches that wish to explore adopting and adapting certain U.S. reforms; and make clear why the U.S. bishops believe it imperative for them to apply to themselves — and to be seen to apply to themselves — the code of conduct they have applied to priests since 2002.

How episcopal accountability is managed may well be another case of “horses for courses,” given vastly different situations throughout the world Church. Lay involvement in that accountability is imperative in the U.S.; it may be impracticable elsewhere. But those serious about Catholicism’s capacity to embody and preach the Gospel will understand that credible episcopal accountability is essential in carrying out the Church’s mission.

COMING UP: The ever-present totalitarian temptation

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First circulated underground in communist Czechoslovakia in October 1978, Vaclav Havel’s brilliant dissection of totalitarianism, “The Power of the Powerless,” retains its salience four decades later. It should be required reading for politicians given to describing the Knights of Columbus as an “extremist” organization because of the Knights’ pro-life convictions and activism.

Havel began his essay with a homely but devastating vignette. A Czechoslovak greengrocer is arranging vegetables in his shop window. There, amidst the carrots and onions, he puts a small sign, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Why? Havel asks. What does that dreary Marxist slogan have to do with vegetables? Does the sign manifest the greengrocer’s fervent political convictions? Does the greengrocer feel an irrepressible desire to share the communist gospel with all who pass by?

No, Havel answered, the greengrocer’s sign is something else: it’s a white flag. It’s a signal to the authorities, including the secret police and the government wholesaler who provides the store with supplies, that this shopkeeper is reliable. He won’t make trouble. He won’t dissent from the official “truth” of things. The sign may read, “Workers of the World, Unite!” but what really says is, “Please leave me alone.”

The totalitarian impulse did not (and does not) express itself only through constant surveillance, the sharp knock on the door in the dead of night, the sudden disappearance, the slave labor camp. As the word implies and Havel’s greengrocer analogy illustrates, totalitarianism demands something more than external obedience to the system. It demands that others concede that they are wrong and that the totalitarians are right. To be socially acceptable, one must not just toe the line visibly; one must be converted.

When United States senators describe the Knights of Columbus as “extremist” — and by implication apply that epithet to all of us who think like the Knights on the life issues and the nature of marriage — those legislators are declaring us socially unacceptable: people whose commitments to democracy are suspect; people who should be shunned as morally unclean; people who are leprous.

One of the senators who indulged the totalitarian temptation in respect of the Knights of Columbus, California’s Kamala Harris, is now running for the presidency. Senator Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and an African-American father. When the scribal guardians of political correctness began hassling her with questions about her “identity,” the senator sensibly brushed off such impertinent and irrelevant inquiries by saying, simply, that she’s “an American.” That was exactly the right answer.

But isn’t that answer in considerable tension with the attack on the “extremist” Knights of Columbus in which she had joined, during a Senate hearing on a federal judicial nominee who happened to be a Knight? If Senator Harris is free to reject P.C. shibboleths about race and identity and thereby call the nation to look at “the other” as a fellow-citizen rather than a racial category, why shouldn’t the Knights of Columbus and all pro-lifers be free to register our vigorous dissent from the notion that an unborn child should have less moral and legal status in America than a protected species of bird in a national forest — and thereby call the nation to relearn the truth about the inalienable right to life on which it once staked its claim to independence?

In several states, efforts are underway to drive pro-life Americans to the margins of public life and to coerce the consciences of pro-life physicians and nurses. Those initiatives illustrate a hard truth: the totalitarian impulse can rear its ugly head in well-established democracies like the United States. Yes, there are totalitarians on the alt-right. The far more consequential of today’s totalitarian are the proponents of lifestyle libertinism, who are quite prepared to deplore as un-American anyone who disagrees that abortion up to the moment of birth is a basic human right; or anyone who believes that “marriage” is the permanent union of a man and a woman; or anyone who thinks it child abuse to “transgender” a pre-adolescent or adolescent.

This is the new McCarthyism of the left. And while it won’t create a new Un-American Activities Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, its message will be similar: those who disagree with us are, well, un-American. That calumny must be stoutly resisted.

Featured image by Christine Rousselle | CNA