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The current crisis, collegiality, and credible action

Senior leaders of the Church have spoken of “protocols” and “processes” when those they claimed to lead wanted to hear words of revulsion, indignation, and determination.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war caused the premature suspension of the First Vatican Council on October 20, 1870 and left the Church’s theological self-understanding somewhat imbalanced. In its first session, Vatican I defined the nature of papal authority with a carefully crafted affirmation of papal infallibility under certain clearly defined circumstances; the intention was to complete that reflection on authority in the Church by a parallel statement on the authority of bishops. But Vatican I was never reconvened. And the result, over time, was that bishops were too often thought of as mere branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., whose all-powerful CEO was in Rome.

The Second Vatican Council intended to redress that imbalance and misunderstanding through its primary document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. There, the Council fathers taught that local bishops were true overseers (the Greek meaning of episkopos) of the local churches for which they were responsible; moreover, bishops shared in the governance of the entire Church, with and under the Pope. This notion of episcopal “collegiality” was then extended to clusters of local churches, as the Council mandated the formation of national bishops’ conferences.

Implicit in this developed theology of the episcopate was the idea of mutual responsibility among bishops. Their “collegiality” was not that typical of privileged castes, but of mutually-responsible stewards. And implicit in that idea was a practice that had been virtually abandoned through disuse: fraternal correction among bishops, which was widespread and often quite robust in the mid-first millennium. Christ willed that his Church be governed episcopally, Vatican II taught. But that teaching laid a heavy responsibility on bishops for being a self-correcting, as well as mutually supportive, collegial body.

That responsibility was manifestly not met in the case of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, revelations of whose sexual predations have caused a wave of righteous anger throughout the Church in the United States.

Nor was the initial response to those revelations the response that was needed — or that could be expected from true shepherds with an understanding of their sheep. Senior leaders of the Church spoke of “protocols” and “processes” when those they claimed to lead wanted to hear words of revulsion, indignation at the abuse of the episcopal office, and determination to fix what had gone terribly wrong. Lawyers and public relations consultants seemed to be writing the script. And it seemed that a primary lesson from the Long Lent of 2002, when too many bishops appeared immune to the Yuck Factor that was driving their people to exasperated rage over clerical sexual abuse, had not been learned.

A first step in a better direction was taken on August 1 in a statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who decried the McCarrick affair as a “grievous moral failure in the Church” that had caused “anger, sadness and shame” among his brother bishops. Cardinal DiNardo also made an important pledge that has not gotten sufficient attention in the continuing firestorm surrounding this reprehensible business:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding…McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the Conference will advocate with those who do have the authority.  One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.

Which means that the bishops are determined to face down any roadblocks to a full accounting “in this matter,” including roadblocks in Rome.

That important first step must now be followed by credible action. Various proposals have been floated about this, that, or the other kind of investigative commission; some bishops have proposed that any such commission must be lay-led to have any credibility. That may well be true, but for a lay-led investigation to be successful, it must get full buy-in and continual cooperation from the bishops. And that suggests to me that a lay-led investigation should have an ecclesiastical adviser, in the person of a bishop whose reputation with both the people of the Church and his brother bishops is unimpeachable.

And despite the tsunami of innuendo and guilt-by-association that has fouled the blogosphere in this matter, such bishops exist.


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About George Weigel 307 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

10 Comments

  1. The Second Vatican Council asserted the basic truth that all the faithful are called to holiness and are partners in the mission of the Church? Under Canon Law, bishops have governance of the Church.

    But what happens when the governance of a bishop directly works against the holiness and mission of the Church? Does the laity through their dignity as royal priests have certain rights and responsibilities in this regard? Can the Council and Canon Law be reconciled?

    Does not the ministerial priesthood serve the royal priesthood or does the royal priesthood serve the ministerial priesthood?

  2. Perhaps the reason Card. DiNardo’s pledge has not gotten sufficient attention is that so few truly believe him. (I cannot speak for others, so I do not know.) I know I don’t believe him or in his sincerity.

    • Cardinal DiNardo also made an important pledge…

      Agreed. I expect him to make a public report on progress every 30 days.

  3. I would be interested in finding out if Mr. Weisel knows of any other bishops who violated the sacred trust of their office by being a sexual predator of minors, seminarians or other priests under their authority. Yes or no?

    • I’m wondering the same thing. He has been running in clerical circles for decades…what did he himself know and when and what did he do about it?

  4. “And despite the tsunami of innuendo and guilt-by-association that has fouled the blogosphere in this matter, such bishops exist.”
    No, no…what has fouled things is the horrendous clerical betrayals. Not the blogosphere and the airing of legitimate grievances. Nice try. The laity, thanks to the blogosphere now have a vehicle to make their voices heard…after being ignored, ignored, ignored, dismissed…for decades. I can understand why the elitists don’t like the blogosphere…everything can’t be controlled to their liking. But, dear, that’s the point.

  5. Aug. 18th: I always looked forward to Weigel’s columns but I have come to see him as a bit pompous and condescending; usually dropping ‘names’ of those he has dined with or …whatever. He sounds, in this instance, as if some minor infraction of social ethics had been committed. He speaks of McCarrick – McCarrick is gone, given consequences, so leave him out of the conversation. Since Weigel wrote about historic events, why doesn’t he do an honest time-line of decades of sexual and financial abuses – no outrage from Weigel! He seems incapable of strong emotion – I think he should just stop pontificating and do some down-to-earth journalistic investigations into the massive sexual and financial abuses among the Clergy…let him get his hands dirty in the real world for a change…he can do some real good if he will only get out of his comfort zone! I have read his books and they are great…but time now to get into the nitty gritty of this horrendous and evil scandal and do some real reporting..

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