My thanks to Ed Peters for responding to my recent article on the necessary steps forward for the Church as she emerges from this recent scandal. He offers some very instructive and important historical lessons. Nonetheless, I think his comments (by challenging one point) fail to represent clearly my fundamental line of reasoning.
For the sake of clarity, let us briefly review my argument: Despite the corruption that we see in the case of Cardinal (now Archbishop) McCarrick—a disease which has rightly outraged large sectors of the church—a panicked response to recent events must at all costs be avoided.
A hysterical response by the American episcopacy is what led the bishops to adopt the Charter for the Protection of Young People (Dallas Charter) in 2002. This document undermines both natural justice and the theology of sacred orders, as theologians of the caliber of Cardinal Avery Dulles relentlessly pointed out. But the American bishops, intimidated by the media and by advocacy groups—and under the advice of lawyers and PR flacks—have refused to convene a commission of theologians and canonists to review and revise their document. Today, the Charter is the principal reason why many priests hold bishops in low esteem—precisely because they know bishops are not committed to protecting either their ministry or their good names.
I go on to argue that the recent episcopal scandals offer the Church a providential opportunity—a God-given chance to junk the defective Charter and to establish a new policy, one covering all clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. What is essential in any new policy is a strong, firm, but theologically measured response.
To that end, I proposed that a national commission be established—composed of all the estates of the Church—bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity—to serve as a reporting station for the crimes of child abuse and sexual harassment allegedly committed by clergymen. A “mixed commission” (not exclusively bishops and not exclusively laity as others have proposed) will well represent the Church of Christ and command the respect of the entire People of God. I offered various ways in which the commission could implement allegations against bishops, priests and deacons.
I further specified that I was not talking about the adult consensual relationships into which clergymen at times enter because, while these are serious sins, they are not civil crimes (which was the concern of the piece). Ed Peters has objected—it seems to me that (along with the historical point) this is the gravamen of his critique—that I did not include homosexual acts among the crimes under the jurisdiction of the proposed national commission. Precisely these acts, he adds, are at the root of the current crisis.
To which I reply: While homosexual acts constitute serious infractions against divine truth, should these kinds of canonical crimes fall under the jurisdiction of a national commission? As Peters himself points out, the 1983 Code blurred the canonical criminalization of homosexual acts. And there remain good reasons to debate whether such acts should be re-criminalized in any future edition of the Code.
But, whatever the exact canonical penalties to be levied against homosexual acts, my proposal is that any national commission must first be concerned with the civil, non-consensual, crimes of child abuse and sexual harassment. These are the very crimes that have plunged sectors of the Church into moral turpitude—and the ones that should occupy the energies of a national commission. On the other hand, there exist many other ways in which sexual malfeasance by the clergy (not civilly criminal) can be reported to ecclesiastical superiors and be salutarily remedied.
I share with Peters his lively concern that corruption be rooted out of the Church. And I have long appreciated the precision he brings to canonical questions, including this one. But, at this critical moment in the Church’s life, I encourage fellow Catholics to support a policy which is firm, but carefully measured by the Church’s rich theological tradition.
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