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“Synodality” and the Rome abuse summit

Misimpressions and prejudices notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in the United States has been more forthright in addressing clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical sexual misconduct than any other local church.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, all members of the organizing committee for the Feb. 21-24 Vatican meeting on the protection of minors in the church, attend a press conference to preview the meeting at the Vatican Feb. 18, 2019. Also pictured is Alessandro Gisotti, interim Vatican spokesman. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Despite Pope Francis’s lecture on the subject at Synod-2015, and notwithstanding the passages on it in Synod-2018’s final report, there is little agreement in 21st-century Catholicism on what “synodality” means. The theology of synodality can be left for another day. In practical terms, however, perhaps synodality ought to mean something roughly analogous to what our British cousins mean by “horses for courses.” There, the phrase is a homely caution against one-size-fits-all remedies to problems. In the world Church today, and with an eye to the “abuse summit” that will meet in Rome from February 21-24, a “horses for courses” understanding of synodality would mean that different local Churches should be empowered to implement specific local remedies, tailored to their specific problems and capacities, in addressing clerical sexual misconduct.

The plague of sexually abusive clergy manifests itself in different ways in different ecclesiastical contexts. In the so-called developed world, the plague seems to have largely involved the sexual abuse or exploitation of young men; but there are many other ways in which a subset of Catholic clergy, both priests and bishops, lead duplicitous lives in violation of the promise of celibate chastity they made to God and the Church. Latin American Catholicism has a culturally-influenced and destructive habit of denial about clerical sexual misconduct, whether abusive or consensual, heterosexual or homosexual. The Church in Africa faces serious challenges with the sexual exploitation of women by clergy. Each of these situations has its own epidemiology, as infectious disease doctors would say.

While more than a few German theologians and bishops (and bishop-theologians) deny it, the Catholic Church has a settled ethic of human love, drawn from the Scriptures and developed over centuries by moral reason. The ethic is the same, but the challenges to living it are not uniform among 1.2 billion Catholics. Because of considerable cultural and historical differences across the world Church, particular solutions to the plague of clerical sexual impropriety (and worse) are going to have to be developed to meet particular circumstances. So while the bottom of the bottom line for the “abuse summit” must be an unambiguous, clarion call to the entire Church to live chastity as the integrity of love, there is no single reform template that will address different forms of clerical sexual misconduct in quite diverse circumstances.

Catholics in the U.S. must also recognize that the kinds of solutions that are feasible in our country — and that have worked in addressing historical clerical sexual abuse and driving down its incidence — may not be applicable in other parts of the world Church, where the financial and personnel resources the U.S. Church can deploy are not available. To take one example: diocesan review boards that function quite well in America in handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse may be infeasible in other local churches. On the other, other hand, what the American Church has learned, often the hard way, about rigorous screening of seminary applicants and about effective priestly formation (both in seminary and after ordination) might well be “transferable” to other ecclesiastical situations.

Misimpressions and prejudices notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in the United States has been more forthright in addressing clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical sexual misconduct than any other local church. Others can learn from this experience. In the abuse summit’s official meetings and in the “Off Broadway” venues where Catholic leaders will conduct more informal conversations, American churchmen in Rome this month should explain the reforms the U.S. Church has implemented, including the extensive use of lay expertise to address clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical misconduct; describe the positive effects of those reforms, especially on seminaries; offer to share ideas (and personnel) with other local churches that wish to explore adopting and adapting certain U.S. reforms; and make clear why the U.S. bishops believe it imperative for them to apply to themselves — and to be seen to apply to themselves — the code of conduct they have applied to priests since 2002.

How episcopal accountability is managed may well be another case of “horses for courses,” given vastly different situations throughout the world Church. Lay involvement in that accountability is imperative in the U.S.; it may be impracticable elsewhere. But those serious about Catholicism’s capacity to embody and preach the Gospel will understand that credible episcopal accountability is essential in carrying out the Church’s mission.


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About George Weigel 238 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 Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

3 Comments

  1. One wonders in what planet Weigel lives, since there is a huge outcry in the U.S. against the abuse of seminarians and homosexuality in seminaries. Yes, this can vary from country to country. I have served in a seminary in Peru and the problem there is seminarians and young priests falling in love with women. I was told by an elderly priest who has been spiritual director in seminaries in Argentina and Brazil that there is a problem of homosexuality there.
    Mr. Weigel seems to think that the problem can be solved by means of the likes of “review boards”, which in some cases become a kind of kangaroo court. The remedies for both situations are similar. More rigorous standards in admitting young men to seminaries, formation personnel who are well trained and especially priests with a solid spiritual life and other human and moral qualities. There is a problem which bishops ought to solve and that is sending young priests to remote places with no accompaniment. I commented to a bishop in Peru on the occasion of an ordination to the diaconate that it would be very important that he have a priest who would be in charge of the further formation and accompaniment of these young men who had just finished seminary. He responded “how am I going to find a priest with such qualities and willing to take on such a job?”. One result was that within a year one of the recently ordained deacons fell in love with a woman and left the ministry. It is also necessary to place more emphasis on chastity as being intimately related to charity so that during the years of formation the seminarian knows that unless he is able to live a chaste life for several years before ordination, he will not be ordained, Of course, the diocese is very different from an American one and is also poor. I know another diocese in the city of Lima where the young priests have formation sessions every Monday and of course they meet one another. This is possible in a city. In my opinion, much depends on the kind of bishop there is and my impression is after having served in several countries, that most of them should bever have been made bishops, whilst there are other priests who do have qualities to be made bishops and they are passed over. The solution is not to be found in an increase of bureaucratic procedures, rather more emphasis on spiritual formation and developing human qualities which are at the basis of a successful priestly ministry.

  2. Cultural historical differences are natural to Man. Studies in social anthropology Levi-Strauss [The Scope of Anthropology] find overlapping layers of behavior indicative of a common human nature. Komarovsky’s “We’re all made of the same clay!”. Men will be men wherever. I agree with apparent missionary J Foley that we do lack good leadership, good bishops. And to G Weigel’s bookish credit historical cultural differences require “tailoring” to suit the candidate. My first experience in Africa as missionary lecturer was in a benevolent dictatorship, a nation of several tribes different languages different customs. Students were amenable, docile, easy to teach. That was then. More recently another African nation with a strong socialist egalitarian background students were more assertive, challenging. However the entire Continent changed during the interim making pedantic studies like Levi-Strauss’ less dogmatic. Except for the common overlapping features found in men anywhere. Successful leadership, the better selection of bishops is achieved in a monarchal structure like the Catholic Church from the top down. We can’t entirely fault the present Pontiff for poor selections it goes back aeons. A recent article here “Where are the Bishops of Old” addresses this. Where are the Augustines Cyrils and Boromeos if not as suggested by Foley among men who didn’t fit the moldy old mold and were never chosen. At any rate the Church always responds to challenges and this may be the moment for positive change. We hope.

  3. Holding endless Synods to water down doctrine is a practice that destroyed most Protestant Churches, including the Dutch Reformed Church which I used to be a member of.

    According to Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma the structure of government of the Church is not changeable and any attempt to do so will no likely fail in the long term.

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