A publication of Sacred Heart University
The Real Scandal
At the Crossroads

Creative Reimagining Needed to Resolve the Crisis in the Church

The present crisis in the church has been a long time in the making and no one should be so naïve as to think that it will find a quick resolution. Pope Francis and his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., have signaled in recent days that we ought to temper our expectations for the upcoming meeting of the heads of the episcopal conferences from around the world in Rome. Austen Ivereigh, the biographer and astute observer of Pope Francis and his pontificate, suggests that we should not look for institutional reform, but for Francis to continue his efforts to reform the culture, in particular the culture of clericalism at the root of the shocking failure of pastoral leadership that continues to reverberate around the world (“From Evasion to Conversion,” Commonweal - January 30, 2019).

The gathering of the bishops in Rome signifies that the global Catholic community is at last coming to terms with the truth that no local church is immune from the human reality of abuse nor from the systemic failure of pastoral leaders to do justice. The reality of abuse can no longer be dismissed as a North American affair nor as a problem inherent in the liberal West. Sadly, today one quarter of the world’s conferences of Catholic bishops still have no established safeguarding policies nor procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or church personnel. These measures were mandated many years ago by Francis’ predecessor. Some conferences may simply lack the means to develop them. Others are likely stuck in denial.

Father Lombardi seems to suggest that the meeting in Rome will be a time for schooling the bishops, requiring that they really listen to the experience of victims, to better understand the dynamics of abuse and the enduring harm it effects. The meeting will be conducted in a penitential spirit, aiming to inspire a necessary conversion in the bishops’ ways of thinking and of proceeding. There is no doubt that better education and a profound attitudinal conversion are needed. However, to be truly effective, any conversion of the culture must be met by a substantive reform of the very structures that have fostered a clerical caste more interested in protecting itself than the people it pretends to serve.

Fifteen years ago, John P. Beal, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, described the sexual abuse crisis as “an ecclesial leadership crisis.” In comments that now appear tragically prescient, he worried that the policies set out in the 2002 Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse were insufficient to address the “deeper problems” relating to the ineptitude of the bishops who denied, covered up and minimized the true scope of the problem. He noted that in the present canonical structure and practice of the Catholic Church “all lines of accountability lead upward.”

This has created a situation where only the pope has the power to suspend or remove negligent or delinquent bishops from their duties. In the broad scope of history, this is a rather untraditional approach to church governance. In centuries past one finds abundant examples of horizontal lines of accountability where bishops would not imagine acting without the full collaboration of the cathedral chapters or synods that elected them. (Such structures remain in a number of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches today.) Metropolitan bishops had greater oversight for discipline within their ecclesiastical province.

Now is the time for a creative reimagining of horizontal structures of episcopal accountability that would include fellow bishops, clergy and the lay faithful of the diocesan church. New procedures are sorely needed for the election of diocesan bishops – so as to engage more fully the community of the baptized in discerning the pastoral and leadership needs of their church. The participation of competent lay persons on diocesan personnel boards might develop a more adequate profile for the kind of priests needed to meet today’s needs. They should share actively in discerning the suitability of candidates for ministry and contribute to priestly formation. Diocesan pastoral councils must assume a more vital role. Regular forums – assemblies, synods, diocesan retreats – are needed to enable the bishop to hear from representatives from every parish community as they seek to discern together missional needs and priorities. Every space for frank exchange will contribute to the kind of transparency and accountability needed in church governance today and brought to light by the sexual abuse crisis. Pope Francis, in a letter to the whole people of God, has indicated that bishops alone are unlikely to find a solution to present challenges. The creation of new and vital structures for ongoing dialogue is the first step to discerning a way forward together.

In the absence of genuine synodality – supported by participative structures that honor diversity and foster the synergy of gifts belonging to all the baptized – the college of bishops is likely to remain a self-absorbed body drifting above the very church they were ordained to serve.


Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

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