Pope Francis has ordered the Catholic Bishops of the United States to refrain from voting on a code of conduct and a lay-led oversight body to investigate bishops accused of misconduct. The President of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, told prelates of the Pope’s instruction as they were gathered for the opening session of their highly anticipated Fall Meeting in Baltimore.
The reason given for the delay is that the Holy See desires the US bishops’ action be informed by the discussions scheduled to take place among the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences in February at the Vatican.
Upon hearing the announcement, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago immediately took the floor to suggest the bishops stick to their agenda, and take a resolution ballot in lieu of a binding vote. “As you [Cardinal DiNardo] are our representative going to that meeting, we need to be very clear with you where we stand,” Cupich said, “and we need to tell our people where we stand.”
Cardinal Cupich also said, “It is clear that the Holy See is taking seriously the abuse crisis in the Church, seeing it as a watershed moment, not just for the Church in this country, but around the world, in putting so much emphasis on the February meeting.”
The Vatican announced the February meeting in September, at the end of a three-day gathering of the paralyzed and scandal-ridden C9 Council of Cardinal Advisers — the Pope’s hand-picked “kitchen cabinet” tasked with drawing up the blueprint for reform of the Roman Curia — in the wake of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s dossier alleging systemic corruption and rot in the Curia, including a cover-up of the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, that stretches back at least twenty years and involves three popes and three secretaries of state, as well as a host of other more-or-less senior Curial officials.
The Holy See has not published a list of those officially invited to the meeting — though it is supposed to involve all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences — nor has the Holy See said which dicastery is principally responsible for organizing the meeting. There is no agenda, nor is there any specific mandate.
When the C9 Cardinals announced February meeting, this Vatican watcher had the distinct impression they had to twist the Holy Father’s arm to get him to agree to do anything at all with regard to the burgeoning crisis.
The Holy See apparently did not have similar scruples when it came to action on the part of French bishops, who last week voted to establish an independent commission to investigate their hierarchy’s response to abuse since 1950, and make reform recommendations. In a message to the French bishops sent through his Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis called on the French hierarchical leadership to continue their efforts at reform. News.va reported last week:
[T]he Pope encourages the [French] Bishops to persevere in the fight against pedophilia, urging them to continue in their implementation of a “zero tolerance” stance against sexual abuse committed by certain members of the Church, without ever forgetting, he says, “to recognize and support the humble fidelity lived in daily life, with the grace of God, by so many priests, men and women religious, consecrated and lay faithful.” He also stresses the importance of listening to the victims whose wounds, he adds, will never be healed by a prescription.
It remains to be seen whether the Holy See will intrude on the Italian bishops, who are slated to consider similar proposals at their own extraordinary assembly, which also opened Monday in the Vatican.
Addressing the US bishops on Monday morning in Baltimore, shortly after they had received news of the Vatican order, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, said,
There may be a temptation on the part of some to relinquish responsibility for reform to others than ourselves, as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves, as if the deposit of trust should be transferred to other institutions entirely.
Archbishop Pierre went on to say,
Assistance is both welcome and necessary, and surely collaboration with the laity is essential. However, the responsibility as bishops of this Catholic Church is ours — to live with, to suffer with, and to exercise properly.
The laity, in other words, are welcome to pray, and will foot the bill for the bishops’ incompetence, negligence, and wickedness, but have no say otherwise.
Whether the US Department of Justice will see it quite that way, or any of the more than a dozen states currently conducting or considering whether to open their own criminal probes into the conduct of senior US Church leadership, remains to be seen.
After the nuncio’s remarks, Cardinal DiNardo announced his intention to lead the US bishops in discussion of their proposals. “We remain committed to the specific program of greater episcopal accountability,” he said near the top of his presidential address. “Consultations will take place,” he continued. “Votes will not be [cast] this week, but we will prepare ourselves to move forward for action.” Cardinal DiNardo went on to say, “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser, will be determined by our actions.”
When the Executive Committee leadership of the USCCB met with Pope Francis in September, and asked him to authorize a special investigation — an Apostolic Visitation — into the rise of McCarrick, Pope Francis refused. Though the Holy See never gave a reason for the refusal — never actually said the Pope had refused — the general picture that emerged in the wake of the meeting was one in which the blunderbuss procedure of USCCB leadership in announcing their intention in mid-August to request the Apostolic Visitation before talking things over with the Holy See, coupled with Archbishop Viganò’s highly publicized J’accuse! toward the end of that month, led to Pope Francis feeling unduly pressured, not to say painted into a corner.
McCarrick is credibly accused of abusing at least one minor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and alleged to have subjected the boy who was the first child he baptized as a priest to a decade and more of sexual violence. McCarrick, now known also for his serial abuse and harassment of seminarians, nevertheless advanced to the rank of Cardinal before Francis was forced by circumstance to have his hat.
Francis also suggested the bishops forego their Fall gathering entirely, in favor of a spiritual retreat.
Just to be clear: expectations from the US bishops’ Fall meeting were generally low already. The proposals on the table amounted to things the bishops admit they should have been doing all along — indeed, things that no morally competent individual or group could fail to do as a matter of course. The measures were a code of conduct that CNA’s editor-in-chief, JD Flynn, described as “a seven-page document in which bishops promise to do things they’re mostly obliged already to do,” and a reporting mechanism that had no real teeth and no real funding mechanism.
It also would have involved the apostolic nuncio as de facto referee. The reporting mechanism would have to report to the nuncio. If the Pope’s defenders will urge that it does not appear entirely unreasonable to demand the US bishops not foist the arrangement upon the Holy See, it is at least equally reasonable to urge in response that the nuncio is already responsible for knowing what the bishops are doing in the country to which he is appointed.
If the Holy See wants to contend that the responsibility for making sure the bishops the Pope appoints do not rape, assault, abuse, harass, or otherwise mistreat any member of their flock, or condone, allow, wink at, or otherwise tolerate any mistreatment or malfeasance of any kind, should somehow be placed under terms or subject to negotiation, let the Holy See say so in words.
In any case, the nuts and bolts of the arrangement — which the US bishops’ administrative committee approved on September 19 — are the sort of thing the USCCB leadership and the competent curial officials could have worked out together, either in the run-up to the Baltimore gathering, or during the three days of sessions, themselves, or even subsequent to the vote
The measures would at any rate have been likely to offer precious little in the way of direct address of the core problem: not so much the bishops’ failure to police their own ranks with respect to the abuse of minors and the cover-up of said abuse — appalling and egregious as that failure is — as the bishops’ dereliction of their duty to foster a sane moral culture among the clergy, high and low.
Here’s the point on which the whole thing hangs: neither Cardinal DiNardo, who in his presidential allocution said of himself and his fellows, “In our weakness, we fell asleep,” nor Pope Francis, who has called the February meeting around the theme of “safeguarding minors” or “minors and vulnerable adults,” comes close to acknowledging either the nature or the scope of the crisis.
The bishops were not merely negligent: many of them were complicit. As a body, they are widely viewed as untrustworthy. Francis appears more concerned with making sure everyone understands that he’s in charge, than he is with actually governing.
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