The Betrayal: How to Save the Church

BY: Michael Sean Winters
The New Republic

 

Continued from page 5

But the pope is ill, and so it is likely that the only organization that can deal with the controversy is the U.S. Conference of Bishops. When the nearly 200 American bishops hold their annual June meeting, they must adopt a national policy on sex abuse; they must fess up that their negligence and inaction were immoral; and they must beg the forgiveness of their clergy and their people. The national policy must enshrine a level of openness to which ecclesiastical procedures are unfamiliar. Lay people must be included on the boards that review allegations of sexual abuse. Court records must be unsealed if the victims desire it, and all future settlements--including the sums expended--must be part of the public record.

The problem is that the Bishops' Conference can only make legally binding decisions by unanimous consent, and some conservative bishops have made a career of obstructing such unanimity on principle. Especially under John Paul II, conservatives have preferred to have the Vatican make the decisions by fiat, rather than have the bishops debate and vote on policies stateside. The main objective of this week's meeting in Rome between all the U.S. cardinals and the pope appears to be precisely this: to make clear that should any bishop obstruct the formulation of a national policy, Rome will not support him. Different bishops have differing views about the role of a bishops' conference in the life of the Church, but today it is all there is. However ill the pope may be, the cardinals in the Vatican are not prepared to let this crisis go on forever.

But resignations and a new policy are not enough. Most importantly, in future appointments, bishops must be selected not for their ability to parrot the Vatican line, but for their ability to lead the local church and their willingness to see the hierarchic structure of the Church as a hierarchy of service--not power--in which they are accountable to the clergy and the laity below as well as to the pope above. Perhaps in the future priests should exercise greater influence in the selection of bishops--as they once did. Lest we forget, the most prominent bishop in the world, the bishop of Rome, is still elected to office by the clergy.

The relationship between the Church in the United States and the Vatican must also be restored to balance. Rome has become increasingly powerful within the Church over the past two centuries. Before the nineteenth century, local governments played key roles in the selection of bishops and even in the appointment of parish priests. Only with the separation of church and state, which the Catholic Church fought on principle, has Rome gained complete control over the personnel of the Church. Without government as a local counterweight, the local clergy and laity must now exert whatever pressure is needed to make sure their bishops are leaders, not martinets. Indeed, it may be time to return to the ancient Catholic tradition of not permitting bishops to move from one bishopric to another, more prominent one. If a man knew he was to be the bishop of Bridgeport for the rest of his life, he might be more inclined to face the realities of the local church head-on rather than worrying about becoming an archbishop somewhere else.

Still, no amount of procedural tinkering will help the Church if the men who lead it refuse to be candid. Put differently, bishops must be chosen for their humility and honesty. As in every case of sin, what is ultimately called for is less a change of policy than a change of heart. In the late 1790s the first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, welcomed a group of nuns from France by making them a gift of a slave woman and her daughter. We read this and recoil in horror--how did he not understand that trafficking in human beings was a moral enormity? We do not know that any more than we know what men and women 200 years hence will see with a similar sense of puzzlement and disgust when they look back upon our age. The Catholic bishops should remember this when they feel themselves inclined to stridency in all but their charity.

In studying the long history of Catholicism, one realizes that as bad as things are, they have been worse before. And yet the Church survives because the life of faith, in a man or in a people, is an unpredictable thing. As Monsignor Albacete recently told me, "If, in addition to all the terrible things we have learned, if tomorrow it was revealed that the pope had a harem, that all the cardinals had made money on Enron stock and were involved in Internet porno, then the situation of the Church today would be similar to the situation of the Church in the late twelfth century ... when Francis of Assisi first kissed a leper." Saints, not bishops, will remake the face of the Church, and the making of saints is God's work. It would be wonderful indeed if every bishop were a saint. But the current crisis could have been avoided if the bishops had merely remembered they were human beings.

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