On Sunday, the Vatican ordered U.S. bishops to stop considering proposals about how to respond when bishops are accused of sexual abuses. Those proposals were on this week’s agenda at the fall gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.
Why were the bishops considering action now? For several reasons. This summer, the Vatican removed retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick from ministry after finding that allegations that he had sexually abused young men were credible. In August, the Pennsylvania attorney general released a grand jury report revealing extensive clerical sex abuse in the state, prompting several other state attorneys general to investigate church abuse records. The resulting public outcry put tremendous pressure on the bishops to act decisively.
What were the bishops going to do?
On Monday, the bishops planned to address a key gap in their response to clerical sex abuse: how to deal with allegations against bishops. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church had, in 2002, released a directive on best practices for reporting and responding to sex abuse, called the “Dallas Charter.” But it did not include rules for bishops.
The bishops’ Baltimore agenda, according to the Jesuit magazine America, included:
Approving new “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” for bishops, the creation of a new commission to handle allegations of abuse against bishops, and new protocols for bishops who are removed or who resign from office due to sexual misconduct with adults or minors.
Why did the Vatican halt the vote?
The many possible reasons all arise from the complicated dynamics of Catholic Church governance. For one, the church has come to see clerical sex abuse as a global issue, not a problem isolated in a few countries such as Ireland or the United States. The church has thus increasingly seen the need for a global solution. The Vatican might be hoping that a more united front will emerge from a February 2019 meeting of bishops that it has called on this issue.
The bishops’ proposals might also have run afoul of the clergy/laity distinction in the Catholic Church, as one proposal would assign a lay commission the authority to investigate allegations against bishops — which the Vatican may have considered as going too far. While many U.S. and European Catholics regularly call for lay people to be more directly involved in church governance, many Vatican leaders think the bishops themselves should oversee reforms.
But what is most likely is that the pope, and the pope alone, has the responsibility of overseeing the bishops. The Vatican would want to seriously scrutinize any proposals to dilute that papal authority. Some Catholic reporting outlets have suggested that Vatican insiders think the bishops’ proposals may violate church law or that the Vatican did not have enough time to review the proposals. Those suggest concerns about the pope’s primacy.
It’s also possible that the Vatican is trying to shift the bishops away from seeing new institutions as a solution to the crisis. Pope Francis tends to play down the importance of institutions; for instance, he argues in his letter Evangelii Gaudium that it is fruitless to create institutions without engendering “new convictions and attitudes.” The Vatican commission set up to investigate clergy sexual abuse has itself been criticized for controversy and inactivity. As one U.S. bishop noted, the pope could be asking the bishops to take greater account of the bishops’ own “need for personal conversion” that would lead them from “ecclesial power” to “true servant leadership.” In other words, Pope Francis may think the resolution will come through changes in attitudes, not only or primarily through new institutions.
What does this say about the relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops?
Throughout his papacy, Francis has advocated a “sound ‘decentralization’ ” of the church’s power, at two levels. First, he has increased the consultative role of cardinals and bishops in his governance as pope, an approach known as “collegiality.” The pope has even explored giving bishops more decision-making authority, particularly through meetings known as “synods.”
Second, the pope has advanced a notion of “synodality”: the idea that all of the church — parishioners along with priests and bishops — should be integral agents in its mission and governance. This pushes against the “clericalism” that values clergy more than lay people. Francis, for instance, included many young lay people in a recent meeting of bishops.
Some saw his September decision not to intervene in the U.S. abuse crisis as evidence of this desire to devolve more decision-making to the bishops. But the Vatican appears to be signaling that issues surrounding papal authority or the role of the laity might be nonnegotiable. The Vatican, in other words, seems to be setting a limit to synodality and collegiality — and reemphasizing its own supremacy.
What happens next?
This complication raises expectations for the February meeting of bishops at the Vatican. But that meeting will not deliver a final decision. Its conclusions will probably be subject to review and debate by national conferences of bishops.
This delay also risks further loss of public trust in the Catholic Church. In January 2018, 45 percent of U.S. Catholics felt that Francis was doing a “good” or “excellent” job of handling the sex abuse crisis, according to the Pew Research Center, while 46 percent felt his performance was “only fair” or “poor.” By September 2018, after the devastating summer revelations, the approval rating had dropped to 31 percent and disapproval had risen to 62 percent. Already, activists are protesting the Vatican’s decision to halt the bishops’ deliberations. Francis remains popular, but this scandal may be starting to diminish that popularity.
Amid this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The relationship between the pope and the bishops will continue to play a large role in the Catholic response to those abuses.
Bill McCormick (@BMcCSJ) is an assistant professor of political science at Saint Louis University and works on religion and politics.