Even now, in 2019, the First Vatican Council (1869-70) haunts us still. It has, in many ways, paralyzed Catholics and kept them from thinking more radically about what is needed in this dark hour. It has made Catholics assume that current structures cannot really be altered.
In a recent CWR interview with Timothy Busch, the interviewer spoke of unspecified “limitations on hierarchical accountability built into the very structure of the Church as Christ founded it.”
But what are those limitations? How do we define that structure?
Vatican I was unhelpfully indefinite and this, I believe, has created a hugely damaging and dangerous vacuum. The vagueness of Vatican I has led many to assume facts not in evidence, as the lawyers say. We assume, for example, the pope is an absolute monarch and therefore there can be no “limitations on hierarchical accountability” for him or the bishops.
But what are these “limitations on accountability?” If we cannot define them, we cannot begin to implement the changes in accountability and transparency Busch has rightly called for. Such vague “limitations” must either give way to a very specific accounting (number, type, range, etc.), or we will continue to flounder in the present crisis.
At the same time, however, as we search for new structures of accountability, we must keep in mind—as the interviewer quite rightly avers—“the very structure of the Church as Christ founded it.” What is that Structure, and to what extent can we introduce into it other structures of accountability?
Here it may help to use an analogy I use with my students: that between Tradition and traditions. Tradition, I tell them, will not allow Christians to stop celebrating the reality of the Incarnation in, say, Christmastide. But Tradition in nowise requires you bring a tree into your house and put ornaments on it each December—or to roast a turkey, sing carols, and exchange presents.
These latter are all many cultural traditions, which are changeable and optional. You can, if you are a Scrooge-like Catholic, crankily abolish all the merry-making; but you cannot abolish the dogma of the Incarnation that Christmas celebrates, for such teaching is indeed divine and holy Tradition handed down from God.
Following this analogy, then, we may speak of a divinely given Structure to the Church which is not ours to change because it, too, has been handed down from God. But we must not stop here, or think that such a bald statement settles anything, for it says almost nothing about structures in their concrete or external forms, which we have the freedom and responsibility to reconfigure as “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). Thus there is an apostolic-episcopal Structure to the Church given by the Lord around the year 33, but that in 2019 in no way prohibits the desperately overdue development of structures of local accountability and transparency sought by Catholics today.
Thus the episcopal-apostolic Structure requires that there be bishops, including the one in Rome who is head of their college. But the structures by which all of them get installed in their dioceses—appointed by the Habsburg emperor, elected by a cathedral chapter, strong-armed into office by local clans, nominated by a synod and confirmed by a pope—have varied. This divinely given episcopal-apostolic Structure neither rules in nor rules out certain methods of election, just as it neither rules in nor out additional structures by which bishops, once installed in office, are held accountable.
Since Vatican I we have tried having virtually no structures of local accountability in practice, and today that approach is universally recognized to have failed catastrophically. We need new structures that will strengthen and support the divine Structure of the Church as apostolic-episcopal. Where do we find them?
Let us not make the mistake of looking to corporations or government bureaucracies. Let us, rather, realize there are other apostolic-episcopal churches with a divinely given episcopal-apostolic nature who have successfully integrated into that Structure different structures of accountability that Catholics need to look at closely and carefully. As I show in very great detail in my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019), we have ample precedents of all sorts of solid structures in the Christian East for holding priests accountable in parishes and hierarchs accountable in their dioceses, regions, and nations.
None of what I offer violates the divinely willed apostolic Structure of the Church. Indeed, its proposed structures of local accountability seek only one thing: to make the Church’s Structure stronger and more pristine so that popes, bishops, and all of us can get back to the job our baptism commissions every one of us to do: proclaiming the Resurrection.
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