On Friday, the Vatican officially reacted to the American bishops' plan for dealing with pedophile priests. But much debate ensued over what message the Holy See was trying to send, not only about sex abuse but also the role of laity in the church and the authority of bishops.

To sort it out, Beliefnet talked to a number of the leading Catholic analyists and thinkers, including:

  • George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II
  • John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter
  • The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America
  • The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine
  • Mike Emerto, spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful, a grass-roots lay group
  • The Rev. Daniel Ward, canon lawyer and director of the Legal Resources Center for Religious
  • James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University

    General reaction | Meaning | Lay power
    Civil vs. canon law | Bishops' accountability
    Why the confusion?

    Did the Vatican reject the American bishops' action in Dallas?

    [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.

    Yes, we believe in forgiveness, but let's say somebody is revealed to have done something 20 years ago and says, "I'm terribly sorry and I'm repentant." My feeling is if a priest is truly repentant he ought to think to himself, "I deserve some punishment." To present yourself as a wronged individual even though you admit you did something wrong is sort of like a criminal being in court and saying, "Yes, I did it and I'm sorry but I shouldn't be sent to prison because that's unfair."

    Why is the Vatican so concerned about making changes to the charter and the norms (the legal enabling articles that must be approved for the policy to be binding)?

    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.