Conversion or reform: What will the bishops choose in 2019?

Washington D.C., Jan 4, 2019 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- This week the U.S. bishops gathered at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago for a weeklong retreat, held at the urging of Pope Francis. Under the guidance of the preacher to the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, they will spend a week “pausing in prayer” to “reflect on the signs of the times.”


Although recent scandals loom large over the meeting, the pope has asked the bishops to focus on their own conversion, before further discussion about new systems or structures to address the sexual abuse crisis.


In a letter sent to the American bishops ahead of their retreat, Pope Francis underscored that the recent crisis has “severely undercut and diminished” the Church’s credibility.  Only response grounded in unity and communion, the pope wrote, has the power to restore the Church’s authority and authenticity.


The pope warned the bishops to avoid temptations to seek either the “relative calm resulting from compromise, or from a democratic vote where some emerge as ‘winners’ and others not.”


These temptations remain strong. One of the great frustrations for many of them during the Baltimore assembly was what they saw as a missed opportunity to produce “a solution,” in whatever form.


Whatever model bishops supported in November: the proposed lay-led national commission or the so-called metropolitan model, at least some seemed to be looking for a silver bullet, a powerful “fix” that would restore confidence now and prevent scandals from repeating.


Many American Catholics, too, seemed to expect a cure-all structural reform, and are now hoping that at the global summit on abuse in February, Rome will produce the reforms the U.S. Church could not.


But expectations that there can be one practical solution to solve the crisis are likely to prove false hopes. It has become obvious to most observers that no new policy, structure, or process can answer or prevent what is essentially a crisis of sin.


In his letter, Francis called administrative reforms “necessary yet insufficient” as they “ultimately risk reducing everything to an organizational problem.” The pope called the bishops to recognize their “sinfulness and limitations” and to preach to each other the need for conversion.


The pope’s diagnosis seems to be rooted in the evidence of recent months.


The current crisis is really better understood as a web of intersecting crises. The sexual abuse of minors is rightly seen as the most scandalous among them, but it has festered – as the pope has observed – among other illnesses in the body of the Church.


Clericalism, sexual permissiveness, moral indifference, and administrative negligence are themselves serious problems that require answers of their own.


But, if recent history is any guide, those answers are unlikely to come from any canonical or structural reform, however dramatic or well-intended.


As Cardinal Blase Cupich noted in November, there have been structures and commitments of various kinds in place in since 2002. The Statement of Episcopal Commitment was designed to ensure Church law was always followed when allegations were made, no matter who was being accused. And in 2016, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Come una madre amorivole, which established – or was meant to – an entirely new canonical procedure for investigating and triying allegations against a bishop.


But even with those those policies and promises, Church officials have not seemed to consider themselves bound to any uniform procedure for handling allegations against bishops. Meanwhile, Francis has withdrawn the reforms of Come una madre before they were ever tested.


Many are now realizing that the problems facing the Church have never been the result of a lack of procedures. Instead, attention is beginning to shift to an enduring lack of will in the Church to employ its policies consistently and with rigor.


Absent a moral commitment to see them applied unsparingly, no reform measures – however systematic – can prevent the worst from happening.


As a case in point: last month it emerged that the Archdiocese of New York, which has some of the clearest, best-established abuse policies of any U.S. diocese, left a priest in ministry even after its own independent commission offered compensation to several of his alleged victims.


As recently as last month, the office of clergy personnel issued a letter of good standing stating “without qualification” that no accusation had ever been made against him; this despite an ongoing investigation by the archdiocese’s own review board.


The failures in New York were not caused by a lack of policies and procedures. Instead, they appear to have been truly human failures.


This may be the reason the pope appears skeptical that another policy or structure could yield different results, at any level of the Church, without personal conversion by the people charged with implementing them.


In August of last year, at the height of the Church’s summer of scandal, the USCCB’s own lay-led National Review Board agreed, issuing a statement that ruled out further structural reforms as a solution.


“The evil of the crimes that have been perpetrated reaching into the highest levels of the hierarchy will not be stemmed simply by the creation of new committees, policies, or procedures,” the review board wrote.


“What needs to happen is a genuine change in the Church’s culture, specifically among the bishops themselves. This evil has resulted from a loss of moral leadership and an abuse of power that led to a culture of silence that enabled these incidents to occur.”


Moral leadership, as the pope has told the U.S. bishops in no uncertain terms, cannot be effected by a vote. It requires a personal conversion in the face of failure and sin. Real change will require a totally new mindset among bishops, and the Curia.


The 19th century British Prime Minister George Canning ridiculed what he called “the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the carriage.”


“Men are everything,” Canning said, “measures comparatively nothing.”


Pope Francis echoed this sentiment in his letter to the bishops, warning them that the Church’s lost credibility “cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts.”


Instead, the pope wrote, the Church will only regain her credibility by “acknowledging its sinfulness and limitation” while at the same time “preaching the need for conversion.”


After the scandals of 2002, many bishops and officials treated the new measures and standards as a hardship to be endured, rather than a new reality of ecclesiastical life to be internalized. The “cultural change” called for by the national review board and the pope may prove to be the only means of breaking what has begun to resemble a cycle of scandal.


By warning the American bishops against measures aimed at recovering their reputations rather than amending their ways, the pope may have set the bar by which his own February summit will be measured. In his letter, Francis has called for a “shared project that is at once broad, unassuming, sober, and transparent.” Such a project, it seems, would bear little resemblance to past attempts to respond to the sexual abuse crisis.


As the bishops pray in Mundelein and the pope’s advisers prepare for February’s meeting in Rome, many Catholics begin 2019 wondering if a hierarchy beset by scandal can truly convert, or merely reform – again.

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