In terms of its harm and far-reaching effects, the present crisis in the church must be compared with the Reformation and the French Revolution. It is this conviction that brings to my mind the forthright declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Our era needs wisdom more than past ages.... The future of the world is in peril unless wiser men and women are forthcoming (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World, No. 15). Cardinal Yves Congar, O.P., long ago pointed out that a major reason why well-intentioned reform movements prior to the Council of Trent failed was that they did not ask the deeper questions. They were content to try to put things back where they were. The church must address the deeper questions. A superficial response will not do.
An American Problem?
According to some media reports, high-level figures in the Roman Curia consider the present crisis an American problem. In actual fact, there is a worldwide problem of sexual failures on the part of priests: the reported abuse of nuns in Africa, for example, and concubinage in Latin America. Canada has had major problems, as well as England, Ireland and Scotland. France, Poland, Germany and Austria have figured prominently in the news. In other words, it would be calling darkness light to maintain that sexual problems exist only in the United States. The problem is manifold in nature; it is worldwide, and it must be dealt with comprehensively. While it would be rhapsodic to think that the abolition of celibacy is the solution, the church must open itself to considering all possible solutions; and this includes the possibility of a married clergy. Some believe that the answer lies in greater discipline, even a return to past policies of seminary training. This overlooks the fact that the majority of offenders were trained in that kind of seminary. A narrow perspective cannot respond to the grave crisis we now experience. It would be a march of folly if the deeper questions were not dealt with comprehensively. And it would be a distortion not to see this problem in the perspective of that great body of priests all over the world who are serving Christ and his people humbly and effectively and who are deeply touched by this crisis.
A National Policy
A problem of such magnitude as sexual abuse calls for a nationally binding policy and a more effective structure of episcopal leadership. Objections are raised to such a policy on the grounds that the individual bishop, responsible only to the pope, is independent. But this is not the whole story. From earliest times bishops formed area or regional groups called councils or synods. In an unusual conflict they might appeal to the bishop of Rome, as in fact they did. But ordinarily problems were dealt with by the bishops at the regional level. There was a sense that to some degree the bishops were accountable to one another. Certainly during the first millennium there was no idea that a bishop was responsible only to the pope. For the common good and for the sake of children as well as for the sake of the church’s pastoral mission, a binding national policy is a necessity.
A Stronger Bishops’ Conference
The effect of the continuing diminishment of episcopal conferences is painfully evident in this present grave crisis, which has been raging with increasing intensity since January. Yet the bishops as a conference will not be able to deal with it until mid-June. Episcopal conferences are a critical factor for the church’s ability to function in the modern world. The preface of the Code of Canon Law (1983) declares that the principle of subsidiarity underlies the code’s treatment of the episcopal office. The national conference was widely listened to and respected when it produced the two landmark pastoral letters on peace and on the economy.
Restrictions placed on the conference since that time would probably prevent letters of that caliber from being written today. If the church is to lead and to respond to crises such as the one we now experience, conferences must be strengthened, not weakened. While the work of the cardinals who met recently in Rome has undoubted merit, the calling of the cardinals is a statement that the episcopal conference as such holds a secondary role. It is the cardinals who are devising a response to the crisis and, presumably, the conference at its June meeting will endorse and adopt what the cardinals have determined. Restrictions placed on the conference, together with emphasis on the cardinals as in some sense superior to the conference, serve only to weaken the conciliar institution of episcopal conferences.
There is need for strong lay involvement if a successful path is to be found through the crisis. It is therefore necessary that the bishops convene a distinguished body of lay men and women and charge them to assess the present situation and set down some ordered plan for addressing it. This cannot be a ploy simply to extricate the bishops from the miasma of the present crisis. It has to be the beginning of a whole new way of thinking and acting. It should be a statement by the bishops of their determination to implement fully the longstanding conciliar and papal teaching about the rights and role of the laity in the church, including the stated right to public opinion in the church. In addition to such a committee, and fully in keeping with Catholic doctrine on the role of the laity, would be an invitation to lay Catholics to take part in the official discussion of sexual abuse during the June meeting of the bishops.
Long-Term and Short-Term Responses
This moment calls for two responses. The short-term response: calling together a distinguished body of lay men and women and enacting a nationally binding policy for dealing with sexual abuse. A long-term response: addressing the deeper questions, such as the worldwide problems in the area of sexuality, the meaningful implementation of episcopal collegiality and the largely ignored question raised by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on church unity, That They May Be One(1995), about finding a new way of exercising the primacy.
Clearly the church has arrived at a very critical moment in her history. Clearly too, the future of the church is in peril unless wiser men and women are forthcoming.