Thursday, February 11, 2016

Popes Can't Afford To Be Tone-Deaf

According to news sources, the Holy See is instructing bishops that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that ultimately victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police.  The document, produced by the Pontifical Council for the Family, advises bishops that while they must be aware of local laws that require allegations to be reported to civil authorities, as far as the Holy See is concerned the only duty of the bishop is to deal with the matter internally. 
Now, despite the impression the news agencies are giving, the Vatican isn’t telling the bishops that they can break the civil law in those places where it is required for social workers, teachers, and other authorities to report abuse cases. And I can understand the dilemma of a bishop who becomes aware of an allegation against a member of the clergy or a Church employee but also is confronted with a victim or a victim’s family that is reluctant for the matter to be made public.  But the directive obviously shows that some people in Rome are still tone-deaf to the crisis of credibility that is facing the institutional Church. 
And, of course, this story follows up on the the suspension of clerical sex-abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.  Saunders was “voted off the island” by an all but unanimous vote of his fellow commission members.  (There were sixteen votes against, one abstention, none for Saunders.)  Now, again, this was not an executive decision from above but a decision by peers.  And we have all served on committees where one member keeps gluing up the works with his or her own agenda.  But again, however justified the commission members might be, it is a matter of tone-deafness that brings considerable scandal on the Church and undermines our credibility. 
And now we have the president of a Catholic University, fortunately in this instance a layman and not a priest, comparing under-performing students to “bunnies” who “should be drowned.”  Boy, where in the Gospel do you get that????    I realize that good academic management requires weeding out those who will not succeed so that more viable candidates can take their space—but again, how does the murdered bunnies image play in Peoria?
Why is the Catholic Church on a suicide mission?  If there is a failure in regard to implementing the mandate of the Second Vatican Council for the Church to take its place on the modern world, it is this: the presupposition that we, as Church, are not accountable to the larger human community among whom live and work.  How can we be that “light of revelation to the nations” if we maintain that we are somehow exempt from the standards of behavior we ourselves set with our Christian ideals? 
And I must admit that as much as I admire Pope Francis he too seems at times to have become bogged down in protecting the institution rather than witnessing to the integrity of the Gospel.    The Pope’s appointment and defense of Juan Barros Madrid as Bishop of Osorno, Chile, despite Barros’ ties to notorious priest-abuser Fernando Karadima, is another case of Rome being tone-deaf.  Barros’ installation in his cathedral church turned into a huge fracas as the vast majority of the faithful made their rejection of their bishop public.  Moreover, the vast majority of his brother bishops in Chile, including the two Chilean Cardinals, refused to attend the installation, signifying that few, if any, supported the Pope’s appointee.  Francis allegedly referred to those who opposed Bishop Barros Madrid’s appointment as “lefties” and “dumb.”  Holy Father, we know you can’t carry a tune in a basket, but get to a hearing-specialist and get your ear canals cleaned out.  We can’t afford to have a tone-deaf Pontiff sitting on the chair of Peter. 
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that hearing confessions desensitizes the clergy to the evil of certain sins.  This isn’t just a Catholic problem.  I suspect that many Protestant clergy  and rabbis after years of pastoral counseling ministry, also become somewhat immune to the impact of evil.  The problem is that most of the evil encountered in confession or counseling is done by basically good people. Bad people—and there some—generally don’t come to see the priest or rabbi.   Most people sin to, in some way or other, escape the pain they feel in life.  (Pardon the split infinitive in the above sentence; I too am a sinner.)  The husband who finds himself continually rejected by his wife (or the wife, by her husband), turns to an illicit relationship. This is not right but the sin is most often the result of the pain and anger of rejection.  Beneath the abuse of alcohol or drugs is often a huge amount of psychological pain.  And when it comes to physical or emotional or sexual abuse: how many abusers have themselves been the victims of abuse?  None of this justifies the evil we choose,  but the priest or minister, becoming aware of the complexity of people’s lives, puts sin in a context that not only involves judgment but compassion.  In pastoral care that is most probably a good thing.  But it can’t leave us, as a Church, in a world of moral ambiguity.  It is a difficult balance to achieve, especially without risking the sin of phariseeism ourselves, but we need to find it.   Our integrity as a Church demands that while we deal compassionately with sinners we keep true to the moral compass of the Gospels. 
Perhaps the problem is, at least in part, that the bishops and clergy have no idea that they are in any way accountable to us, the People of God.  We are still an overly hierarchic Church rather than a true community of the faithful.  There are still too many working on the pyramid model of Church where the Pope is over the bishops, the bishops over the clergy, and the clergy over the people.  In this model, communication is one way—top down and the role of the laity is still perceived to be “to pay, pray, and obey.”  And need I say that for many of us, those days are over. 
We need to develop an ecclesiology in which we—and I mean all of us, not just the laity—see ourselves  not in a hierarchic pyramid but in a communal model of concentric circles with the bishop at the center, the clergy around the bishop, the faithful around the clergy.  In the same way the larger perspective is viewed with the Bishop and Church of Rome at the center surrounded by the communion of local Churches with their bishops at their center.  This model of Church is far from new and was the predominant ecclesiology in the patristic period from the second century through the thirteenth. 
To a certain extent we have already begun to move towards this model of Church.  The decrees of the Second Vatican Council, particularly Lumen Gentium (the dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Christus Dominus (the Decree on the Bishops), and to a lesser extent in Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), actually lay out this theology.  Unfortunately, as we all know, John Paul II didn’t much care for this model and pretty much smothered it in its post-Paul VI cradle.  Francis has given us hope of reviving it, but the above-mentioned actions on the part of the Holy See show not only some back-pedaling but even the Pope’s failure to see the implications of his actions.  Hopefully his remarks about “lefties” and “dumb” is only another case of a live-mike picking up an indiscreet comment from a world leader, but it is still troubling that the Pope doesn’t see the profound theological issue when not only the faithful but the regional episcopate reject a candidate for bishop. 

Today’s adults are not going to continue to belong to an organization—even a Church—that doesn’t take them seriously.  I am not advocating a democratic Church but one in which there is genuine communication so that those whose ministry it is to speak the faith of the Church know what is in the mind and the hearts of the Church’s members.  The consensus fidelium needs to be restored as an essential part of the dynamic of the Church’s teaching and governing mission. 


  1. Amen. it is the tone-deafness that frustrates many of us pew-sitters. I would like to get Robert Mickens's take as to whether we are still seeing the crumbling of the Curia, or whether we are seeing window dressing where complete remediation and housecleaning are needed, I other words, the institutional Church has to fix the foundation to keep the whole building from falling into the basement, but we aren't seeing any real changes.

  2. "I am not advocating a democratic Church but one in which there is genuine communication so that those whose ministry it is to speak the faith of the Church know what is in the mind and the hearts of the Church’s members."

    I am confused. What do you want the Catholic Church to communicate about ? Transparency about sex abuse, parish activities, getting involved in the parish (finance committee, etc.), helping out with religious education, more social events to promote (Catholic) marriages, Bingo (!) and other fundraisers, etc. -- I am all for that.

    But are you saying you want the people to get involved in the liturgy because otherwise they will be bored ? Taking over RCIA if the priest/sisters want to do it ? Running other religious services left to the clergy ?

    I think what you are asking for -- even though I don't think you mean it -- is what could lead to people deciding what Catholic teachings will be taught in a particular diocese (or parish) and which ones will not.

    I am sure that is not what you meant. But make no mistake, many of those who advocate your position do want that so that traditional moral values can be removed and the Catholic Church become more like the Unitarians.

  3. yes, I am saying that I want the faithful to be involved in the Liturgy because that is their baptismal priestly role--liturgy comes from the Greek, "the work of the people." And yes, I want the laity involved in RCIA because that is part of their ministry: who better to introduce catechumens and candidates to the role of they will play as laity than the laity. and Yes, I want lay people involved in other church services--communion to the sick, teaching religion to the youth, consoling the grieving, preparing couples for marriage, financial administration of the parish, liturgy preparation--the whole ball of wax--because those ministries are in their competence. The role of the priest is to preach the word and administer the sacraments, particularly Eucharist, reconciliation, and anointing--and in the absence of a deacon, Baptism. As for preserving the integrity of the faith: after 67 years as a practicing and devout Catholic, I have far more confidence in the laity on this score than I do on the clergy.

  4. Interesting perspective, I disagree. Here's what I think of your list:

    Liturgy -- they are involved by listening and accepting Communion (if in a state of grace).

    Communion -- only in emergencies

    Teaching Religion -- CCD ? Only if trained and not in opposition to Church teachings.

    RCIA -- only if knowledgeable and competent. Someone who does not accept Catholic teachings can not instruct others in the faith.

    Other Functions: Only if it does not impinge on clearly priestly functions (i.e., liturgy) and they are competent to do it (i.e., financial administration).

    I'm all for helping out the priest where Canon Law and protocol allow it. I am not for people trying to blur the lines between the laity and the clergy, or between the appropriate role for women and men.

    I'm not the most religious person and yeah, I get bored at Mass sometimes, but I have never felt entitled to be part of the service. I think my role is in the pews. Most people agree with me -- the ones who don't are the ones pushing for change.

    That's why the word NO was invented ! :-)

    1. well, you obviously haven't read Sacrosanctum Concilium and what it says about restoring the laity to "full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy." In fact, you obviously have read the decrees of the Second Vatican Council on the Church (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes) nor the post conciliar instructions on implementing the Council. Your vision of Church is one that none of the recent popes would agree with. I am afraid that with the current crop of seminarians and newly ordained, there will be a revival of the sort of moribund Church you favor, but it will feed the secularization of what is already a post-Christian culture as the Faith is stripped of its relevance and the laity and returned to the days of "pray, pay, and obey."