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The Chilean bishops’ offer to resign is surprising, yet also traditional. But more is needed.

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.

Pope Francis poses for a photo with Chilean bishops at the Vatican May 17. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 58 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

14 Comments

  1. What more is needed?

    The Bishops need to apologize to the people they have betrayed.

    Or is that asking too much?

  2. Real or for dramatic effect is the question raised by Vatican observer Edward Pentin, “Some observers close to the Vatican strongly suspect the en masse resignation was orchestrated by the bishops, working with the Secretariat of State and the Pope himself. They believe it highly likely that most of the bishops will have been assured that their positions are safe”. Four including Barrios are ‘expected’ long delayed dismissal or resignation. If so retired with fat pensions to live happily ever after. The juridical tribunal instituted by Francis to judge abusive and negligent bishops hasn’t acted as noted by DeVille. Homosexuality long infused in the veins of the Church deadening the Body is what’s behind inertia in Chile’s Hierarchy the Vatican and most elsewhere. A purge earlier promised by the Pontiff was as hollow as the new juridical tribunal. The world waits. More ominously for many Christ waits.

    • I was thinking orchestrated myself this afternoon. “ The media is watching…let’s give them good image times ten” is a disease of the Church now…and is partly responsible for the anti death penalty mistake which is very politically correct with the NY Times and Euro elites etc. This smells of…” let’s out do every institution on earth who has had a sex abuse scandal”….at least media wise. Media demands stunts of heroic proportions….to surpass previous stunts. But what do you next time after this…lol….we will all resign and wear hairshirts and eat plainly til death. But then…after that what?

  3. A number of years ago an OCA (Orthodox Church in America) bishop in Canada was convicted of abusing a minor. After his prison term was up, he was deposed from his office of bishop by the OCA synod and reduced to the status of a lay monk, so that he could spend the rest of his days in repentance but without any office.

    By way of contrast, Cardinal Law, after fleeing from the US, got a major basilica in Rome…. which was apparently the Roman form of punishing him…

    Lord, we have a long way to go. Maybe the current case will bring about a new approach to those who cooperate and cover up such gross evil.

  4. It’s hard to believe that the author is serious. Francis is going to fire every Bishop in Chile because many of them were telling the truth about Bishop Barros and company and rebuked by Francis for their trouble. In truth, Francis has a miserable record on the abuse issue. He seemed to be the only person on earth that had confidence in Barros (Barros didn’t). He gave disgraced Cardinal Mahony as a papal legate until enough people screamed and Mahony retreated to needed obscurity. He pulled Cardinal Danneels out of obscurity to get his support at the Family Synod despite Danneels miserable reputation on abuse matters. And, at present, the Pope’s closest collaborator is Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras who is not only fighting serious charges of financial dishonesty but also covering for Bishop Juan José Pineda – someone every bit as unsavory as Barros. The author notes the papal decision to weaken (or abolish) the abuse discipline efforts started by Francis. The abuse scandal rocked the Church 15 years ago. Another round of abuse would be incredibly damaging. If the Pope thinks that answer to this crucial problem is to dispense with the services of men who have showed miserable judgement – he should resign.

  5. “The Chilean bishops’ offer to resign is surprising, yet also traditional. But more is needed.”

    While I agree with Mr. DeVille’s conclusion that the Chilean bishops need to be tried before the Vatican episcopal sex crimes tribunal, that is only part of the more that is needed. The vastly more important part is the immediate resignation, public apology, and lifetime penitential sequestration of Pope “Who-Am-I-To-Judge?” Zero-Tolerance Bergoglio whose reckless and cynical incompetence on episcopal sex deviants (Barros-Danneels-Paglia-Martin) has caused this crisis and pitched it to world-wide proportions.

  6. Nothing Pope Francis does offers any sign of hope. Every word and act and omission is polluted with his advancing “his cult.”

    As his co-Machiavellian travelers say: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

    This demand for a mass resignation of a “national conference of Bishops” implies that a conference has standing in the Church – which it absolutely does NOT have.

    F will exploit the opportunity of this sex abuse by LBGT-believing “Bishops” and their allies to eliminate all good orthodox bishops, including all who warned him against assigning Bishop Barros.

    Bishop E of Chile, one of F’s “circle of 9” will remain in F’s magic circle, to continue coordinating the corruption of the Church, along with the corrupting and polluted Cardinal Maradiaga (another embezzler, Jew-bating bigot and sex abuse coverup artist).

    Nothing but evil will flow from this clericalist, post-Catholic cabal of injustice.

  7. Pope F needs to go. He is the candidate of the sex abuse coverup mafia – led by “Cardinal” Danneels, Mahony, Maradiaga et al.

    Fruit of the poison tree.

  8. Mexican Bishop Norberto Rivera and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony are aging examples of a problem not solved. The Mexican priest Aguilar Rivera had been charged with a multitude of rapes and molestation of children. Perhaps knowing that Mahony agrees to allow Rivera to preach in LA. While there it is reported that he continued his atrocity on children. Rivera has been defrocked and is said to be living out of his car. There is no report of the fate of Bishop Rivera, but Mahony, after being allowed to vote for Pope Francis is in exile in the LA Sun. Then, when we add the impossible to fathom experiences of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and the infamous Father Paul Shanley the picture is really bleak.

    A strange anomaly has appeared. I surmise that there are reasons why Popes seem to be dragging their feet on pedophilia could be their inability to take responsibility or, perhaps more plausible… depletion of the clerical ranks. Pope John Paul II whisked the criminal Law to the Vatican to protect him from litigation.

  9. The resignation of the Chilean Bishops is an ineffective consequence of the abuse scandal. When the Bishops undermined the father-figure of the Pastors and sought to periodically transfer them, contrary to the traditional practice, they set the ground for clericalism and the abuse scandal. Had the practice of transfer not existed, then the present Bishops who were former Pastors, would have had the experience of being a father-figure towards their parishioners. Secondly they (the Bishops) would have been prevented from replacing erring priests and the priests would have faced the consequence and the resultant ignominy, thus avoiding a single instance of abuse into a larger diocesan scandal.

  10. “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.”

    Well said.

    The Bishops in question have shown that they can NOT be trusted as “life-giving Fathers-in-God”. Therefore it is safe and fair to conclude that because of the Bishops the “unity of the episcopate” lies in tatters.

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