Letters from the Vatican #6

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the Meeting for the Protection of Minors. A special international journalistic collaboration between The Catholic Herald, First Things and The Catholic Weekly.

Number 6: February 25, 2019

Pope Francis and the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world attend a Mass on the last day of the four-day meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican on 24 February, 2019. Photo: CNS, Maria Grazia Picciarella

How can the success or failure of the Vatican “abuse summit,” which concluded yesterday, be measured? A week ago, your editor suggested one analytic tool: ten points which, if agreed upon by the participants, would constitute a “considerable success.” Reviewing them one by one may help get into preliminary focus a complex affair that was many things, including a sober and severe examination of conscience and a moment of cautious but real hope.

  1. Did the summit recognise that sexual abuse is a global plague? Even prior to the summit, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, made this point and suggested that the Church ought to make combatting sexual abuse a pastoral priority. There seemed to be a tacit recognition of this among many of the participants. And the Pope laid out the available facts in a lucid and concise way in his discorso concluding the meeting. But was there sufficient recognition of the fact that the Catholic Church will not make a major contribution to eradicating or at least seriously abating the plague until its own credibility as a body that lives what it teaches is restored? There was some of that implicit in Saturday evening’s penitential liturgy. But more might well have been said on this point: when the Church’s evangelical witness is compromised by sexual scandal, so is its capacity to be the “field hospital” to which Pope Francis refers in his programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
  2. Did the summit recognise that, in a Catholic context, this is a crisis of fidelity that cannot be resolved by “best practices” alone? Yes and no. The degradation of the gift of Holy Orders by clergy of whatever rank, through abusive behavior or a failure to address it, was remarked more than once. And, in his closing address, the Pope did stress the imperative of a deeper conversion to Christ and the Gospel as the essential foundation of any deep ecclesial reform.

But the meeting’s sharp focus on “protection of minors,” essential as that goal is, mitigated against a thorough wrestling with the more comprehensive scandal of clerical sexual misbehavior, of which the abuse of the young is one (albeit the most gruesome) expression. And there ought to have been more discussion in the sessions that were live-streamed by the Vatican of the challenges of chastity for all Catholics in today’s hyper-sexualized environment. The idea of chastity as “the integrity of love,” a keen insight of Pope St. John Paul II that was drawn from his pastoral experience as a university chaplain, might have been more prominent in the discussions – and would have helped locate the resounding “no” the Church must say to sexual abuse in the context of the larger “yes” it says to the beauty and dignity of love, by which human beings are configured to the divine nature of the One who is love all the way through.

  1. Did the summit avoid using “clericalism” as an all-purpose explanatory factor in the sexual abuse crisis? There were numerous references to the abuse of sacerdotal and episcopal power during the meeting, including a lengthy section of the Pope’s final statement. And no one should doubt that “clericalism” in this sense of the term – taking advantage of the reverence for the priesthood and episcopate that is deep in Catholic DNA – was and is a factor in sexually abusive behavior by clergy. What was not said, or at least not said often enough and crisply enough, is that “clericalism” in this sense is a facilitator of sexual abuse, not its cause. Those causes are many are often deeply rooted in dysfunctional personalities; the meeting did pay significant attention (as did the Pope on Sunday) to the imperative of a deep reform of recruitment practices and seminary formation to identify potential bad actors before ordination.

There is another expression of “clericalism” that bears on this unholy mess but that was not discussed these past four days, save in private conversation: and that is the clericalism – the defensiveness, lethargy, and possessiveness – that still characterizes too much of the Roman Curia in its response to the abuse scandals. It is now manifestly clear, at least in the West, that there is no resolving this crisis without intense cooperation between bishops and priests, and between those in Holy Orders and dedicated, faithful lay Catholics. Such clarity has not been achieved in too many Vatican offices. Some get it, and are working hard on the problem, not least at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But if there was one en passant phrase heard more often than others over this past week, it was “They just don’t get it:” and the “they” is the Curia, taken as a whole. So as Pope Francis’s curial reform moves into its next phase, it is imperative that the Holy Father and his chief lieutenants demand and enforce within the Curia the “change of mentality” of which the Pope spoke during his closing discourse.

That “change of mentality” must involve a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn in the image of U.S. Catholicism, and its response to the abuse crisis, that is too often encountered behind the Leonine Wall: the image of a local church that is warped by a puritanical fundamentalism in its approach to the moral life; a local church that has been frightened into “Protestantizing” changes by an aggressive media. This is nonsense, and unless it is rooted out there is going to be persistent and potentially destructive chafing between the reform-minded American episcopate and the Curia. American Catholics are angry – and it is often the most dedicated American Catholics who are most angry – because they believe what the Church teaches, and because they understand that gross disregard for those teachings does grave harm to individuals while creating new obstacles to the New Evangelization – the grand strategy of the Church in the twenty-first century, according to the last three popes. A recognition of and appreciation for that passionate belief and commitment, by those working in the Church’s central governing machinery, would be helpful going forward.

  1. Did the meeting recognise that optional celibacy is not the answer to the abuse crisis? Few participants in the summit seem to have bought the line being peddled by some in the meeting’s Off Broadway dimension, that a married clergy would mitigate the crisis of clerical sexual abuse. Whether they express it is these terms of not, summit participants seemed to understand that, in a world where marriage has to often ben degraded into a legal contract for mutual convenience (and tax benefit), to suggest that marriage is some sort of crime prevention program is not helpful. More attention might have been paid, however, to how important strong friendships with joyful, faithful married couples are in priestly formation, before and after ordination. To borrow a phrase from ecumenical theology: the “mutual exchange of gifts” between celibates and married couples might have been highlighted more than it was last week.
  2. Did the meeting underscore the importance of a deep reform of seminaries? This theme came up frequently, and it was good that it did. What is now necessary is another “exchange of gifts:” namely, those seminary programs that are models of reform (many of which are in the Anglosphere) helping other seminary programs (in old and new Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia) learn from the often-hard experience of those who have put into practice the vision of John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis [I Will Give you Shepherds].
  1. Did the meeting recognise that the abuse crisis is also a crisis of episcopal credibility? If there was an “American issue” at the summit, this was it, and in many respects the meeting vindicated the approach that the American bishops have been trying to take (impeded on occasion by the Vatican) since the 2018 Summer of Shame.

At least half of the twenty-one points for reflection proposed by the Pope reflected American experience and American practice since 2002. Last fall, the US bishops were told by the Holy See not to use the term “code of conduct” in reference to bishops; during the summit, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, one of nine major speakers, called for precisely that – a “code of conduct” for bishops – in an address that had to have been cleared with the summit’s organisers. Small progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.

Moreover, it seems that a green light has been given for the development of mechanisms and processes of episcopal accountability, tailored to different national situations and prominently involving laity. After this past week, few will want to hear the terms “synodality” and “synodal” for a while, given their numbing ubiquity in the meeting’s formal presentations. But if those terms come to mean that national episcopal conferences can proceed to fashion reformist mechanisms that meet the particular needs of their local churches, then a corner really have been turned beyond the unfortunate events involving the U.S. bishops conference this past November.

  1. Did the meeting encourage bishops to treat their priests as sons and fellow-workers in a unified diocesan presbyterate? This may have come up in the meeting’s small-group discussions, but it did not figure prominently in the summit’s public sessions. Yet it would seem to be essential to a reformed priesthood in which fraternal support in meeting the many challenges of ministry today is a given of clerical life.
  2. Did the meeting recognise that episcopal authority is strengthened, not weakened, by drawing on the expertise of dedicated laity in the governance of the Church? As suggested in #6 above, the door now seems open, across the world Church, to serious collaboration between bishops and laity in addressing the sexual abuse crisis and in addressing issues of episcopal accountability. This is a very tough idea for the standard Curial mentality to grasp, but any serious Curial reform will, as noted previously, insist on uprooting the curial clericalism that has led to obfuscation, delay, and sometimes cover-up in dealing with clerical sexual abuse. There will also be challenges in instantiating new patterns and processes of collaboration in a culturally-diverse world Church, where the power-differential between those in Holy Orders and the lay faithful expresses itself in different ways and with different intensity.

The kind of collaborative mechanisms that work in the United States, for example, cannot be considered universalisable. But the idea of collaboration ought to be universal, and if “synodality” means anything, it surely means that the different gifts of the Spirit are deployed within local churches in collaborative rather than competing ways. The human condition being what it is, that collaboration will always be tinged by the weaknesses and fears that can lead to conflict. But that collaboration is imperative can no longer be doubted, and the meeting seemed to recognise that, at least in theory.

  1. Did the meeting grapple with the need for reformed criteria by which bishops are selected? In a word, no. But the critiques of episcopal misgovernance that were heard for four days surely point toward the necessity of such a reform. And in local situations where consultation with knowledgeable lay men and women on possible episcopal candidates is feasible, it ought to be mandated by the Holy See – and the Nuncios instructed to broaden the bandwidth of those from whom they seek counsel in identifying and assessing potential bishops.
  2. Did the meeting grasp that deep and authentic Catholic reform is every Catholic’s responsibility? There was insufficient discussion of this, as there was insufficient discussion of the more comprehensive crisis of chastity in the Church. The Holy Father’s closing statement, however, pointed in this direction, and it is surely a theme to be stressed in the months and years ahead.

After the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, Winston Churchill, addressing Parliament and the British people, famously cautioned that “….this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Laying heavy stress on “perhaps,” the same might be said of this “meeting for the protection of minors” in the Church. Its focus was too narrow. The broader issue of the breakdown of chastity in the Church – chastity proclaimed, chastity encouraged, and chastity defended as life-giving and ennobling – was insufficiently remarked. But there was a sense of hope at the end of four days, and that sense was not illusory.

There was even modest progress on another  that went largely, and unfortunately, unremarked during the meeting: the relationship of doctrinal dissent to the abuse crisis. As noted in this space before, the pre-summit statement by the Unions of Superiors General, representing the leadership of both men’s and women’s communities of consecrated life, was less-than-adequate in addressing religious communities’ complicity in the breakdown of sexual discipline in the Church and the corruption and abuse that followed from that. Nonetheless, the statement insisted that “the abuse of children is wrong anywhere and anytime: this point is not negotiable.” That will seem obvious to morally sane people.

But in the context of the civil war within Catholic moral theology that has been reignited in this pontificate, it’s an exceptionally important affirmation, because it concedes that there are intrinsically evil acts, actions that are simply wrong in themselves and that no calculus of intention and consequence can make right. And the denial of intrinsically evil acts has been the linchpin of the assault on classic Catholic moral theology by dissident theologians for decades – an assault that has begun again in critiques of the teaching of Pope St. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor that can be heard in pontifical universities in Rome today, among other venues.

This tacit affirmation of intrinsic evil by the Unions of Superiors General may seem a small thing. But thought through, it could be the twitch on the thread that begins to unravel the entire tapestry of dissident moral theology, which has played a crucial, and lethal, role in the abuse crisis.

So: perhaps the end of the beginning? Perhaps. Perhaps the end of the beginning, when the battle in question is curial denial. Perhaps the end of the beginning, in the struggle to get “Rome” to understand that the Americans were not exaggerating the gravity of the situation and its impact on the Church’s evangelical mission.  Perhaps the end of the beginning of the struggle to get hidebound or fearful bishops to understand that engaging the collaboration of knowledgeable lay people does not diminish their authority but enhances it. Perhaps.

For the moment, no further damage was done. And a door that was closed this past November seems now to have been opened. So full marks to those who made some modest but real accomplishments possible – and who gave the people they serve grounds for hope.

– Xavier Rynne II