Almost twenty years to the day since Apostolos Suos was promulgated on the topic of episcopal conferences working together, we have an entire episcopal conference in Chile offering to resign en masse after meeting with Pope Francis to discuss utterly damning reports of sexual abuse. This is a stunning development not seen in modern times. What are we to make of this?
First, while there may be no modern analogues to this development, it is in fact a deeply traditional decision they have made. A problem of this severity and scope needs a commensurate response. In their resignations we have that.
What do I mean by that? For decades now we have had bishops often seeming to prefer to wriggle out of accepting any responsibility for the problem, sometimes blaming “modern psychology” for telling bishops sexual abusers could be “managed” or perhaps even rehabilitated. Bishops—especially American ones—were told to say nothing, to admit nothing, to do nothing by those who really run our world today: lawyers and insurance companies. Only after enormous pressure were individual bishops moved to resign; very few actually did, Bernard Cardinal Law being perhaps the only notable example.
In behaving thus, the bishops were acting like managers and executives in the corporate world: they were not acting like their venerable apostolic predecessors. Indeed, the responses of bishops—whether in Canada after 1989 when the sex abuse crisis blew up there, or the United States after 2002, or Ireland more recently, and now Chile—showed them to be totally estranged from, and indeed in almost all cases entirely ignorant of, the Church’s canonical norms of the past, as I discovered to my amazement about a decade ago now, when asked to give a public lecture on the topic of sexual abuse in the Church. In preparation, I forced myself to read all the canons I could lay my hands on from a variety of local, provincial, and ecumenical councils across the entire Church, East and West. It quickly became clear to me that the early Church took any sexual sin involving clerics—including even consensual sins between adults—as grounds for the severest of penalties, almost always involving permanent removal from ministry and perpetual ineligibility for any office, however minor, in the Church.
Modern research into the effects of sexual abuse has revealed, as the clinicians say, an array of traumatic sequelae that victims must live with, and one of these often involves the destruction of trust, especially in authority figures, but very often more generally in anyone. For if those closest to you—fathers, mothers, and other family members—have betrayed that trust how can you be expected to trust anyone else after that? This is a key point to be born in mind here if, as I expect, certain defenders of the Chilean bishops will start to cavil about how not all of them are guilty to the same degree and should not therefore have resigned. Let us say that a tiny handful of the bishops were not involved in abuse or covering it up in any way, and thus have grounds for being presumed entirely innocent. It is still right that they should also resign. Why?
In answer to that, psychology and theology converge: the unity of the episcopate in particular, and of the body of Christ in general, can only be maintained when bishops are trusted as life-giving fathers-in-God. If some bishops can no longer be trusted, than no bishops can be fully trusted for they are all bound together—not just in the minds of victims, but in the mind of the Church as laid down from St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-27) to Vatican II. To use another Pauline term from earlier in the same letter (1:23), some untrustworthy bishops have become a skandalon (stumbling block) to restoring trust in all bishops. Thus I say again it is right for them to have submitted their resignations en masse.
More recently, as I noted earlier, this conclusion is suggested by Apostolos Suos, where we read that
the concerted voice of the Bishops of a determined territory, when, in communion with the Roman Pontiff, they jointly proclaim the catholic truth in matters of faith and morals, can reach their people more effectively and can make it easier for their faithful to adhere to the magisterium with a sense of religious respect (no.21).
If respect to any further teaching authority of any bishop, including the bishop of Rome, on any topic is to be restored in Chile or across the wider Catholic world, dramatic actions like those seen this week can only be applauded. Otherwise we leave the door open to an easy anti-apologetics: Why should I listen with “religious respect” to the new CDF document on the economy, or to what some bishop said last week about Donald Trump’s immigration policies, or to what the Irish bishops are saying about the upcoming abortion referendum? If bishops have mutilated their “magisterium” by covering up the “soul murder”(to use the phrase of Leonard Shengold’s landmark book on sexual abuse) of children, then they have become millstones around the neck of the Church (cf. Mark 9:42) whose removal is a small price to pay not only to recover their credibility but also to allow their victims to find some measure of healing and trust once more.
Is that sufficient? Such a mass resignation is, as already noted, a very striking development in the Church. But is resignation not too easy for the bishops, allowing them to escape with comfortable pensions into a quiet retirement? Certainly Christians of the first millennium, and for much of the second, would think so. They seem to have been made of sterner stuff than a lot of us in some respects. Sentences of deposition and banishment—whether to foreign lands or monastic penitentiaries—were not uncommon for erring clerics still alive, who were also often cut off from the Eucharist in literal, and often very lengthy, excommunications while they did serious penance, often for many years. For those who had escaped justice by dying, there are stories of episcopal and papal corpses being dug up, put on posthumous trial, and then chucked into the nearest river or given some other equally unceremonious valediction-cum-malediction.
Some of these depositions were clearly driven by mobs often acting at the behest of imperial powers, resulting in injustice for the clerics in question (here one thinks, e.g., of what befell St. Maximus the Confessor). Catholics today, with more delicate sensibilities and with the famed Roman propensity for preserving la bella figura, usually prefer for an erring bishop simply to resign (almost always invoking canon 401 s.2) very quietly and then to disappear.
But between such quiet disappearance and escape from justice, on the one hand, and mob “justice” on the other, is there no alternative? Indeed there is. Back in 2015 Pope Francis created what I praised: a new juridical tribunal precisely to judge bishops on precisely the problem that has led all the Chilean bishops to resign. In three years, the tribunal seems never to have been called into action. But there is no time like the present, and no greater way for the pope to show he means business than to put the bishops on trial and accept their resignations.