Sounding the alarm
In Catholic circles, the news cycle has been dominated by recent news of several high profile bishops, Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Pineda foremost among them, who are being publically and forcibly called out for their abuse, sexually and otherwise, of seminarians and others in their charge throughout the years. In the case of Cardinal McCarrick especially, the abuse was an open secret among both clergy and lay faithful. Unfortunately, no one in the clergy felt they were capable of resisting and calling out these powerful figures. They were the first victims of these powerful men, and their nascent revolt continues to emerge. Cardinal McCarrick’s case is specifically egregious because of his predation on minors, which is what began the deluge of accusations against him, which cover virtually his entire priestly ministry.
These accusations have laid bare simultaneously the corruption of morals, along with what I would call a general “nepotism of vice,” that is, promotion within the institution of people who share the same evil character traits as their superior, whether that be avarice, lust, gluttony, careerism, etc. This sort of practice in all organizations is as old as Adam and Eve, but it is especially jarring in Catholic ones, where currently prelates have virtually absolute power over their priests. These prelates frequently and routinely violate both civil and canon law in order to punish good priests, and promote compromised ones. We simply cannot understand the current crisis (a word that is frequently overused in today’s sensationalistic media, yet I think applies here), without understanding the near total breakdown of the relationship of trust between priests and their bishops.
For almost two decades since the abuse scandal hit Boston and started the worldwide reforms, commentators have frequently remarked that the cure of the problem will not come as long as bishops continue to be exempt from the rules they have crafted (with the help of lawyers) for their priests. Now finally, the seed sown two decades ago is starting to reap its bitter fruit, and priests everywhere may yet awaken and rediscover their strength.
Punishing the innocent, sparing the guilty
Priests of the past fifty years are very aware of the near universal problem of trying to maintain a modicum of sanity, spirituality and leadership in an age of dissolving public morals and increasing litigiousness (the two phenomena are related). Very many priests are familiar with the “problem” of a priest who wants to evangelize, promote a reverent celebration of Holy Mass and the other liturgies of the Church, and support their faithful in these difficult times, yet face constant suspicion and even direct persecution from their bishops and other officials in their diocesan curiae. All too often, it appears that the norm is that fidelity is punished, while bishops, even good ones, are fearful of making necessary reforms in the intellectual, spiritual, moral and human dimensions of their clerical culture.
The irony of all this is that the average “good priest,” who lives out the promises of sacred ordination, also tends to have a strong sacramental vision, and so along with it a firm grasp of the potestas sacra, or “sacred power” which priests possess, which includes, especially in the case of a bishop, the power of governing. And because these priests take such power seriously, they are the least likely to be disobedient, and more likely to doubt their own judgment on matters. They are thus the most likely to be abused, since, in the words of the old proverb, the willing horse gets beaten the most. On the opposite side, a priest who habitually lives a worldly, sinful and egocentric life, rarely feels any need to show his bishop any respect or obedience except when it strictly benefits him to do so: hence, these priests often tend to be either sycophants or libertines. They either become careerists seeking promotion and advancement, or rogue actors who run their affairs unmoored from Church doctrine or discipline.
This causes a double problem then: good priests, because of their very goodness, are the least likely to fight the very powers that oppress them, while the worst priests, because of their very corruption, are the least likely to care about authority in general, and on the contrary, will try to ingratiate themselves to those authorities, and ensure that the status quo be maintained.
Is there a need for a priestly ombudsman?
Although the Church has journeyed through many different processes for the selection and/or deposition of bishops, one cannot help but think that today, as bishops continue to remain unaccountable and structurally immune from challenges to their authority, priests and even lay faithful need some sort of canonical mechanism by which bishops can be held accountable for their malfeasance, especially if that malfeasance is habitual and public. In theory, priests and lay faithful can have recourse to the Holy See and the pope for their problems, but in practice, Rome has very little coercive power to make bishops obey canon law.
I doubt likewise that the diocesan curia, which is often stacked with people who are tied directly to the bishop’s leadership, much like an ecclesiastical ‘deep state’, possesses the necessary power to act against a bishop who acts immorally or illegally. Anecdotes abound of vicars for clergy, judicial vicars, and vicars general who routinely have abused their power in ‘obedience’ (which isn’t truly obedience because it is immoral and illegal) to their superior.
I wonder whether a solution may be a sort of “constitutional convention” of clergy in times of public crisis, at which priests have the ability to declare a sort of “no confidence” vote in their superior. I think this may be justified theologically for several reasons.
Theological reasons for clerical defiance
Firstly, clergy frequently forget that their promises of obedience are conditioned by both the moral law, as well as ecclesiastical law. If their superior does or commands something immoral or illegal, a cleric is obliged in conscience to resist, like any good Christian in a like situation. Secondly, theologians and historians believe that in the Latin Rite especially, the body language and terminology of the Ordination Rite itself is one taken from vassalage arrangements in the Middle Ages, by which both the liege and the vassal contract obligations and receive rights by mutual agreement. This can also be seen in the Oaths of Fidelity and petitions for Orders. Thirdly, priests have a “sacerdotal genealogy” in that they are spiritually linked to their bishop in a filial relationship. It is expected that children be obedient to their parents as a lawful authority, yet this does not stop us from unequivocally condemning abusive parenting. Finally and practically, bishops need to remember that they need their priests to carry out their initiatives and help their respective dioceses run. Priests, if they only understood their power in numbers, could easily oppose and even paralyze their bishop, especially if they galvanized the lay faithful.
What could this look like in a possible reform of canon law? Perhaps the pope as Supreme Legislator could introduce the possibility that, when a critical mass of priests complain about their bishop, that he be ipso facto suspended until he be investigated by the apostolic nuncio and the Holy See. Perhaps if something like 40 percent of priests declare a non placet in regard to the leadership of the bishop, said bishop is suspended pending canonical trial. Perhaps if something like 80-90 percent of priests declare their bishop unfit for office, such a bishop is ipso facto deposed as bishop of their diocese. Each public vote would have a stated reason for it, and only convened for violations of faith, morals, or the discipline of the Church as stipulated in the Canons.
Moving from “jus” to “munus”
Priests too frequently live in fear of the power of their bishop over their lives. It’s time that bishops understand that they cannot afford to abuse their own power without like consequences. At the same time, many of these crises, which are homegrown and contagious in nature, could easily be nipped in the bud on a local level, way before complaints reach the ears of the Pope, often because of journalistic scandal or public outrage. No faithful Catholic will deny that a bishop has potestas sacra and the right to govern his own diocese. Yet we must remember that the munus gubernandi is not a jus gubernandi. The power of governance is a munus, which in the rich and multivalent Latin means both “gift” and “burden.” The power of governance is not called, like in the language of civil government, a jus or “right.” Thus, implicit in our own theological and canonical language, is the idea that the bishop cannot and must not rule as a Persian prince or Byzantine emperor, but as a man who acts humbly and lovingly as Servus Servorum Dei, most principally as father and servant of his priests, who in turn offer him loving and integral obedience.
Doing this in my opinion will promote more of a relationship of trust and respect, because the rights of both priests and bishops will be respected, and their mutual obligations reinforced. Although I admit in some dioceses this may initially cause discontent between the clergy and their bishops, and that ‘toxic’ presbyterates do exist, I do think the alternative we have now, with record low morale among the clergy, cannot stand for long. Clergy who are depressed, unjustly persecuted and unhappy are in spiritual danger, and their parishes, schools and other ministries will be impacted, as they are right now. It is thus a spiritual and moral imperative to see to the welfare of priests, because they set the tone for much of the reality of the local Church, down to the parish level.
In closing, I want to state that none of my thoughts are absolutely complete or absolutely necessary, but I do think something must be done, because the whirlwind is coming for the world’s bishops, and they must rise to the same standards which they expect of their spiritual sons, or else be swept away by revolt, not born of principle directed toward reform, but of spite, directed toward schism and dissolution.
[This essay originally appeared on the Scutum et Lorica site and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.)
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