Lay collaboration and episcopal authority

Not a jot or tittle of episcopal authority will be damaged by the American bishops collaborating with expert lay people who understand the boundaries of lay competence.

U.S. bishops prayer during Mass in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary Jan. 3 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The Vatican is a hotbed of rumor, gossip, and speculation at the best of times — and these times are not those times. The Roman atmosphere at the beginning of 2019 is typically fetid and sometimes poisonous, with a lot of misinformation and disinformation floating around. That smog of fallacy and fiction could damage February’s global gathering of bishops, called by the Pope to address the abuse crisis that is impeding the Church’s evangelical mission virtually everywhere.

Great expectations surround that meeting; those expectations should be lowered. In four days, the presidents of over 100 bishops conferences and the leaders of a dysfunctional Roman Curia are not going to devise a universal template for the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate. What the February meeting can do is set a broad agenda for reform, beginning with a ringing affirmation of the Church’s perennial teaching on chastity as the integrity of love. In a diverse world Church, that teaching applies in every ecclesial situation. And it is the baseline of any authentically Catholic response to the abuse crisis.

What the February meeting must not do is make matters worse by swallowing, and then propagating, some of the fairy tales circulating in Rome about the Church in the United States: like the noxious fiction that the U.S. bishops have overreacted to what is essentially a media-created crisis.

To be sure, inept or hostile journalists too often fail to report the significant reform measures the U.S. bishops have implemented since 2002 and the positive effects of those reforms. But there is still much reform work to be done in the American Church; most U.S. bishops know that; and for Rome to blame the Church’s current crisis of confidence on the media is a reflexive dodge and an obstacle to genuine reform.

Then there’s the “Protestantization” fairy tale. In Roman circles, it’s said that panicky U.S. bishops cobbled together reform proposals that would gravely diminish episcopal authority by handing great chunks of that authority to lay people — a “Protestantizing” move, as it’s called along the Tiber. To make matters worse, some in Rome blame this alleged “Protestantizing” on what are deemed “too many” converts in the U.S. Church today.

How to begin unraveling this nonsense?

First, it is beyond bizarre for anyone to complain about too many converts in a Church called by the Pope to live “permanently in mission,” radiating “the joy of the Gospel.” In real-world 2019, American adults are baptized or enter into full communion with the Catholic Church because they believe the Catholic Church knows what it is, teaches the truth, and offers them Christ himself in the sacraments. They don’t “convert” to change the Church’s self-understanding.

Second, how does it diminish their authority for bishops to collaborate with orthodox, capable lay people in addressing the current crisis in both its dimensions: clerical sexual abuse and episcopal failure in addressing that abuse? What the U.S. bishops were prepared to do in November, before an inappropriate Vatican intervention prevented it, was to create a national body of competent lay people to receive allegations of episcopal malfeasance, assess them by a carefully crafted set of standards and report credible allegations to the appropriate Church authorities. Period. Such a process would not only preserve the bishops’ authority; it would enhance it.

In any effective organization, the leader with ultimate responsibility engages the expertise of others in order to do what only he or she can do: make good final decisions. Not a jot or tittle of episcopal authority will be damaged by the American bishops collaborating with expert lay people who understand the boundaries of lay competence. On the contrary, that collaboration is essential if the bishops — and the Vatican — are going to recover the credibility necessary to do the jobs that only bishops and the Vatican can do in reforming the priesthood and the episcopate.

These points must be made forcefully in Rome in February. Fictions about American Catholic life and American attempts to impose a universal solution to the abuse crisis on the world Church must be firmly rejected. An appropriate pastoral response to a genuine crisis, well-suited to the ecclesial situation of the U.S., should be vigorously defended.  And the Roman voices saying there are too many converts in the U.S. should be invited to read Matthew 28:19-20.

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About George Weigel 429 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 books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. ‘“Too many” converts in the U.S. Church today”‘ ? What stupidity is this ? Whoever said this sets himself direactly against Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, which act is surely an automatic self-excommunication ?

    • Exactly! Protestanization is good only when Romans and Germans are doing it.

      These people don’t like anything American except dollars. I hope Cdl. DiNardo reads this, gorws some spine, an prepares to counter the moves Cdl. Cupich will make to prevent effective action.

  2. “Devise” a universal template? “Set a broad agenda” for reform. How about implement an authoritative action? Lay people are rightly skeptical of this entire process even as suggested by Mr. Weigel. I have seen some so-called “lay experts” interviewed on EWTN (interviewed by Mr Arroyo) who don’t even appear to understand their basic faith and therefore make just as many misstatements about the problem and its resolution; while all the consultations and all the laymen cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The bishops are a cracked egg and each piece needs to first strengthen itself and its diocese at the risk of being criticized from the press and its progressive parishioners. This needs a grassroots not a top-down solution (which might work if the body wasn’t chasing around blindly for its severed head).

  3. I must respectfully disagree with George Weigel, what the USCCB proposed was a board of Overseers (Epsicopoi) of the Overseers (Episcopoi), something unprecedented in Church history, ecclesiology and theology amounting to an innovation and rupture. Any reform that does not take into account the process by which our leadership is chosen is merely ‘lipstick on the pig’. What the Long Lent has painfully made clear is the vacuum of leadership. We are and continue to chose the wrong priests to be bishops, the selection process is broken. We need a broad lay/clerical collaboration on the choice of bishops, until that happens the crisis will continue to unfold before us. The clergy and people of Milan once collaborated to acclaim a pagan Roman Official as their bishop, his name is St. Ambrose the Great.

    • We need some fine-tuning as to what lay/clerical collaboration might look like, but at least it should be restrained from morphing toward the past American tendency toward “Trusteeism”–as might result from typical institutional bracket-creep in future years. Namely, who will decide about future payouts for another round of lawsuits (e.g., liquidation of specific parishes)?

      But we also should agree fully with Weigel’s main point which deserves more blunt attention…

      Slanders planted in the Vatican against the Church in America bring to the fore the relevance of the 5th and 8th Commandments (as well as the 6th and 9th)in dealing with the malignant sexual abuse crisis. The past whisperings of McCarrick and his collaborators need more, shall we say, exposure.

    • “We are and continue to chose the wrong priests to be bishops, the selection process is broken. We need a broad lay/clerical collaboration on the choice of bishops, until that happens the crisis will continue to unfold before us. The clergy and people of Milan once collaborated to acclaim a pagan Roman Official as their bishop, his name is St. Ambrose the Great.”

      Yes, but this will not be implemented properly until the question of scale at the level of both the parish and the diocese is discussed, as well as the traditional understanding of the monoepiscopate.

    • Wrong. The proposal was not an overseeing of the bishops. It was to act only as a fact finding and advisory body. So you misunderstand that part of it. The part about having lay people choose bishops will go way off the rails in some places. Take San Francisco for example. Harvey Milk and Nancy Pelosi would both be bishops now.

  4. Happily G Weigel brought up Converts. That Hierarchy are pointing to this as a detriment is beyond belief nonetheless believable as it indicates the profound depths to which our pathetic Hierarchy have sunk. And I would add much more to George Weigel’s defense of converts as successful evangelization and differ sharply. Most converts were not “evangelized” by zealous priests and bishops. That’s delusional in today’s Church. The vast majority that I’ve had converse with came into the Church On Their Own Conscientious Volition seeking truth and finding it in Scripture the Fathers of the Church and Magisterial documents. And the Lacuna of this article is that they bring to the Church a wealth of knowledge of the faith that the vast majority of born Catholics Lack. It is clearly providential and a blessing brought about by God’s grace, not the pathetic attempts at evangelization of priests and prelates who lack zeal and true knowledge of the faith. ‘Converts’ what I call Newly Arrived Reinforcements called by Christ to bolster the faith have become along with the faithful the necessary vanguard of orthodoxy and salvation for Catholics at large.

  5. “Not a jot or tittle of episcopal authority will be damaged by the American bishops cooperating with expert lay people…”

    While I agree that lay Catholics would be very helpful in disinfecting the Church, I cringe whenever I see anyone call upon the bishops to enlist the help of “expert” lay people.

    Let us not forget that back in the 70’s and 80’s it was the “experts” — psychologists who advised many bishops on the best way to deal with sexually predatory priests — who recommended various forms of “treatment” that usually proved worse than useless.

    These “treatments” resulted in the offenders enjoying brief respites from their everyday activities destroying souls, after which they would be returned to ministry in different parishes with a new batch of unsuspecting victims all lined up for exploitation.

    It’s certainly true that many bishops have failed miserably at leading their flocks according to Catholic teachings. So it’s easy to see how the guidance of resolute, believing lay Catholics would be invaluable.

    But God save us from the plague of “experts” such as those who originally urged Church leaders to prioritize the “treatment” the offenders over the protection of the faithful.

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