To sort it out, Beliefnet talked to a number of the leading Catholic analyists and thinkers, including:
Civil vs. canon law | Bishops' accountability
Why the confusion?
Did the Vatican reject the American bishops' action in Dallas?
Reese: [Cardinal] Re's letter should not be read as a Vatican rejection of the charter--at least not yet. We have to wait to see what comes from the mixed commission. If the due process questions are resolved satisfactorily, the charter will be better for it if it can protect both children and innocent priests. The fact that the Vatican committed itself to resolving these issues before the November meeting of the U.S. bishops shows that it understands the critical nature of the problem.
What does the response mean for the American church?
Ward: That they weren't going to just outright reject the American bishops' charter, but also that something additional needs to be done with it. And they want to work it out jointly rather than using their usual procedure--which is to send it back to the American bishops' conference and have them deal with it. This is a way of saying, "This is an urgent thing, and we don't have time for that. So this commission will work on it together."
Hitchcock: At a minimum that no bishop in America can be required to follow these procedures, whereas previously the [bishops'] conference had said they were. Are bishops free to follow the procedures [issued in Dallas]? That's not clear. There were lots of priests who previously resigned quietly or allowed themselves to be dismissed quietly who probably now will be filing appeals. These are cases where the bishop says there's been a credible complaint so you're suspended from the priesthood. If a bishop gets what he thinks is a credible complaint that a priest has been misbehaving and the priest says, "I'm appealing this case through the ecclesiastical courts," conceivably he could remain in his ministry indefinitely.
Ward: They're saying the charter doesn't comport with the universal law of the church, the Code of Canon Law. That's what the bishops were asking for-a deviation from the code. To give that deviation to one country and make substantial changes--that has import for the whole rest of the church and the value of the code itself. What the American bishops were doing in a sense was changing the law.