Monday, May 16, 2011

Circular letter likely to be self-enforcing


The very top of the letter should say it all: CIRCULAR LETTER TO ASSIST EPISCOPAL CONFERENCES IN DEVELOPING GUIDELINES FOR DEALING WITH CASES OF SEXUAL ABUSES OF MINORS PERPETRATED BY CLERICS.

This isn’t a motu proprio. This isn’t an instruction, like Universae Ecclesiae was. Like Fr. Federico Lombardi said, “The aim of the letter is to have a common denominator of principles.” Not only is this what we’re given, this is pretty much what we were told to expect.

Which, of course, made it all that much easier for David Clohessy of SNAP to go on another one of his tirades:

“Bishops ignore and conceal child sex crimes because they can …. So any ‘reform’ that doesn’t diminish bishops’ power and discretion is virtually meaningless.” [We’ll be coming back to this ….]
And the new Vatican statement will not require bishops to report suspected abusers to the police, he anticipated.
“They aren’t binding or mandatory, just suggestions,” [Clohessy] said. “Such voluntary ‘guidelines’ have been widely ignored for years in the past. Top church staff have known of clergy sex crimes and cover ups for decades, if not centuries.”

The CNN.com “Belief Blog” authors, Richard Allen Greene and Hada Messia, note almost sardonically, “Clohessy spoke to CNN before seeing the Vatican’s statement.”


But even John L. Allen, Jr., who ordinarily doesn’t miss much, said, “The Vatican guidelines do not … impose a single global rule for cooperation with civil authorities,” as if a document devoted to guidelines would impose a rule. (Perhaps working for the Fishwrap is having a deleterious effect on his mind?)

And the Associated Press complains, “But the suggestions in the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are vague and nonbinding and contain no enforcement mechanisms to ensure bishops actually draft the guidelines or follow them.” That’s right, because they’re guidelines.

If your host serves you a turkey leg, it’s rather bizarre to complain that it’s the worst prime rib you’ve ever tasted. No duh.

But if I missed it at any time before, it’s clear to me now what Clohessy and SNAP want: in words Allen attributes to SNAP, they want to curb “the virtually limitless power of bishops.” (Unfortunately, I can’t find these words on the official press release.)

Even recognizing the overblown rhetoric for what it is and scaling it back, it’s apparent Clohessy wants a more democratized, bureaucratized Church run by laymen, with the Pope and bishops shunted off into mostly irrelevant ceremonial roles like the English Crown and peerage. He’s not the first to ask for it; he won’t be the last.

But it’s not gonna happen.

First, let’s assume just for kicks that it is purely a power thing, and that Benny and the boys are little more than cynical opportunists. Restructuring the Church towards lay management would require the willing surrender of that power. Things haven’t gotten nearly bad enough to force the issue. You can’t ask us to believe that the pope and bishops are both power-hungry, deceitful monsters and so stupid as to just give up that power and step off to the side “for the good of the Church”; you need to be consistent in your fantasies.

Now, let’s add some reality into the mix: Pope Benedict and the vast majority of the bishops aren’t power-hungry monsters. They truly believe what they preach … and besides, there really isn’t that much political or social power in being a bishop.

The hardest thing for non-Catholics (and CINOs like most of the NCFw staff) to understand is that “bishop” isn’t just a job or an organizational slot, like an EVP or the local franchise owner. He’s also the spiritual father of the community. Because of his ordination, he’s a successor to the apostles along with every other bishop; in this respect, the bishop of the smallest Catholic diocese is at eye level with every other bishop, including the Bishop of Rome.

As spiritual father to the community, the bishop has to consider the good of the organization but also the good of the people. That includes priests accused of sexual misconduct. Also, our most cherished principles of justice declare that people are innocent of wrongdoing until proven guilty, that it’s better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished.

Structurally, you could theoretically devolve a lot of decisions from a bishop’s calendar. But so far as they affect the spiritual life of the diocese, you can’t strip him of the responsibility for those decisions. And matters of internal discipline, such as returning priests to the lay state, do affect the spiritual life of the community.

Committees, by contrast, don’t have a soul. They exist to negate or spread out individual responsibility, to avoid blame for mistakes and to advance the agendas of their members. I haven’t seen the human problem yet that a committee of talented, educated and concerned people couldn’t make worse. Anyone who thinks committees are better at handing down justice than individuals didn’t learn anything from the French Revolution or from the history of the Soviet Union.

One thing that keeps Clohessy and SNAP from looking at the matter as it stands now is that they’re functionally living in the past. Whatever the conditions were in the US in 2001, when Bl. John Paul II assigned such cases to the CDF, is irrelevant: it’s a whole new ballgame now. Now bishops the world over are quickly learning that covering up sexual abuse is a bad idea, and that a little embarrassment in the short run is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. More to the point, Papa Benedetto has shown himself willing to remove wayward bishops, and has already accepted several resignations in similar matters. The Vatican simply will not tolerate more cover-ups.

That message has already been received, loud and clear. I suspect the principles will be self-enforcing.