Lay Oversight Is Not the Answer

Sometimes, I feel like a conservative Catholic. This is one of those times. With the combination of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s circular letter to the world’s bishops on clergy sex abuse and the forthcoming report from the John Jay College researchers into the sex abuse crisis, I anticipate, and have already begun to witness, much foolishness. Perhaps it is because I lurk in leftie circles that I witness more of the foolishness there. I am sure there will many silly things said on the right, too.

One of the arguments I have seen put forward questions the Vatican’s circular letter because it reaffirmed the authority of the local bishop within his diocese. Some, apparently, wanted a form of decisive lay oversight. Now, first there is an issue of textual analysis. As I read the letter from the CDF, it was saying to bishops, “Do your damned job!” But, there is another reason there is not, and can’t be, any lay group that exercises “power” over a bishop’s decisions, and that reason is because we are not Congregationalists. Our Church is governed by bishops, always has been and always will be.

Mind you, I think part of being a good bishop is consulting the clergy and laity, getting to know their minds and their opinions, not being defensive when they ask questions or ask to be involved in certain decision-making processes. But, a bishop’s first responsibility is to know the mind of Christ and the opinion of the Church as it has been expressed through the ages. Indeed, that study of history, for a secular culture no less than for a Church, is the best guarantee against the loathsome indignity of being a child of one’s own age.

Sadly, so much of the criticism I see directed against the bishops or the Pope reeks of this kind of simplistic confidence in lay opinion. Earlier this week, in another context, I mentioned how Stanley Baldwin and his government of Great Britain was paralyzed from taking the steps necessary to prevent World War II in large part because he was so subservient to popular opinion. Nixon won twice. More to the point, the recent commentary by Ana Maria Catanzaro, who led the review board in Philadelphia, points not only to the way the chancery there manipulated them, but the degree to which they allowed themselves to be manipulated. It is a truism I know well, from talking to victims of sex abuse, that usually when a family encounters sex abuse in its midst, the family tends to rally around the perp not the victim. The fault is not in the ecclesial stars, it is in ourselves.

Another concern I have is that the introduction of more lay involvement in Church decision making will not necessarily result in the inclusion of thoughtful, smart, deeply faithful men and women. It is as likely that people like Bill Donohue or George Weigel and other toadies would win at the Catholic ballot box as would you or me or the editors of this newspaper. Would that really improve things?

For all my difficulties with the glacial processes by which Rome works, and specifically its slowness in responding to the sex abuse crisis, there is something to be said for taking the long view. How do we discipline priests in a way that does not undermine our theology of Holy Orders? That is not an unimportant question. Holy Orders is not just a job, it is a sacrament, after all. The twentieth century saw the rise and fall of Freudianism, Marxism, Fascism, and a variety of other intellectual fads, none of which survived the century, but Catholic anthropology looks better every day.

There is a final difficulty I have with the idea that structural, or institutional, or cultural realities are behind the sex abuse crisis. It lets the actual perps off the hook. Of course we have to look at how the ecclesial structures, the institutional arrangements and the cultural biases of our Church shaped the responses of the Church’s leaders. But, at the end of the day, they are responsible for their decisions. This is a problematic analogy, to be sure, but the importance of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” was that it reminded people, especially German people, that while it is important to consider the way a variety of socio-economic, political and cultural forces conspired to allow Hitlerism to grow, take over Europe and perpetrate mass-killing, it is also the case that individuals participated in that conspiracy. The Shoah could not have happened without the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded it, but it also could not have happened unless Grandma and Grandpa worked at the camps. Whatever the cultural and institutional blinders that attached themselves to the members of the Catholic hierarchy, at any point, one of the bishops could have stood up and said, “No.”

So, when the John Jay report is released later today and we can all read it, remember that there are no easy solutions to these problems, and whatever solutions we devise will entail other problems. Democracy has famously been called the worst form of government except every other form, and that is true of our civil affairs. But, there are limits to its usefulness for the Church which must deal with deeper realities than those that confront politics.

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