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Structures, traditions, and hierarchical accountability

Let us not make the mistake of looking to corporations or government bureaucracies.

(Image: Patrick Schneider |

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. I would urge readers to research “accountability” in the Orthodox church using the word “accountability” as a keyword/starting point and to do so extensively. This is not BTW a defense of our own Roman Catholic current shipwreck/nightmare.

    Our Lady at La Salette and at Fatima got it right.

    We have denied sin and the weight of sins of the flesh in particular and the possibility (for the most part) of eternal punishment for sin in hell.

    What is the “salvation” then we can proclaim and what “Resurrection” when we have “trampled” sin by simply denying sin itself minus any need for grace or a savior?

    Aren’t we just “trying to be better people?”

  2. Crediting both Vatican I and Vatican II together(Lumen Gentium), the lucid Pope Benedict XVI proposed that the collegiality of bishops is like an ELLIPSE with two focal points. These are the primacy and the episcopacy. Not a mimic of either political MONARCHY or a PARLIAMENT. (God’s Word, 2008). (And even further removed from the fluid factionalism of divinely-dictated Islam which sees itself as a “congregational theocracy”).

    Still-undefined synods? Even the national Catholic conferences of bishops fail to qualify as a sort of presumptive parliament. They exist rather to support “the inalienable responsibility of each bishop in relation to the universal Church and to his particular [not merely local] Church.” (Apostolos Suos, 1998).

    Not like a “corporation” or a “bureaucracy,” and possibly instructive, the U.S. Navy maxim for leadership is clear: “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.” A collision at sea always points to someone. Like real fatherhood?

  3. When did “we” have anything to say about anything? “We” are not allowed to set up local structures of accountability. Not even the USCCB is allowed to do that, and was told to stand down when they met last fall.

    Also, you say that we should look to other churches and how they hold priests accountable; but that is not the issue! The problem is with the bishops and the Pope. They all cleverly allowed McCarrick to eliminate accountability of all clerics, instead articulating that priests and deacons only would be held accountable. Neat.

    In the meantime, Catholics are leaving the Holy Eucharist and therefore, souls are being lost. Tick, tock. The bishops wring their hands and then carry on as usual, when the faithful are in desperate need of their shepherds.

  4. Good piece. A bit of hyperbole here and there, but basically good. There’s a lot of theological and ecclesiological work to be done. And much praying and sacrificing.

  5. For an Internet based start, less sanitized for Western consumption, check out “Orthodox Christians for Accountability.” That’s just a starting point.

    The same favoring of hierarchs goes on in Orthodoxy…and favors are provided by hierarchs other hierarchs and priests…locally and nationally.

    We have very little to learn “structurally” IMO from a “Christian East” that allows for 2nd and 3rd marriages…who claim they hold a more “mystical” viewpoint of marriage which in the end is simply a “smells and bells” embellishment of what the civil state allows.

    The current problem now is a “structure” named Bergoglio who is too often a friend really of other “structures” of Cardinals and Bishops who cover up for each other…this is the same Bergoglio who can be seen pulling his hand away in a video on the Internet when “dummy” lay visitors attempt to kiss his papal ring.

    I am not against change BTW. I am not Ignatius saying “when the Pope says black is white” but more like Aquinas who says “when it ain’t right it ain’t right.”

    The foundational “structure” problem is this conclusion that sin does not really exist, just various “weaknesses” and that pretty much everyone is going to heaven.

    • Joseph, what you say is skewed and inaccurate. Brovo, Dr. DeVille! Vatican I was/is a disaster for the Churches.

      As an Eastern Christian who values the primacy of the Bishop of Rome your comments about 2nd and 3rd Marriages in Orthodoxy are ignorant of your own history. Before Henry VIII there were plenty of “dispesations” and “annulments” for royal houses. Annulments in the RCC are nothing more than “juridical gymnastics”. “Lack of due discretion” …anyone can use that in the process to get an annulment. I have never heard (as a priest) of an annulment that was not eventually granted by the RCC. You say the east believes it holds a more mystical view of marriage. Yea,the Orthodox grant ecclesial divorces in certain very defined situations. After an ecclesiastical divorce in the Orthodox Churches is obtained the Bishop imposes a time of penance and absention. from the Holy Eucharist. 2nd and 3rd Marriages are potential celebrations often done in The narthex instead of the church. The RC’s with their annulment simply say a marriage never existed and no penance or conversion are required. It’s all about juriducal, not ecclesiastical rules and requirements.

  6. Some have pointed out that there is a failure of accountability in some Orthodox jurisdictions. So what? That just means that Eastern churches may need to follow the prescriptions laid out by Dr. DeVille as well. Go read the book and determine for yourself whether the reasoning behind those prescriptions are adequate or not.

  7. “New structures of accountability”? Hogwash. What is needed now is the same as what was needed in the 4th and 11th and 16th centuries: virginity, celibacy, chastity, corporal and spiritual mortification, frequent vigils and fasting of all, especially priests and religious, poverty in fact, humility and obedience in a hierarchical structure from which homosexuals, lesbians, catamites, and onanists have been formally and thoroughly purged, and incessant prayer in a Liturgy and Divine Office restored to their state before they were mutilated and discarded.

    • Well said. This essay is extremely dangerous. Immediately the post-conciliar Catholic academic reaches for “natural” solutions. As your comment suggests: our battle is with essentially with “Powers and Principalities.” This battle is a supernatural one and our weapons must be of a supernatural nature.

      For this author to take on such a complex issue – a one page magazine essay is not the place to do it. The post-conciliar neo-conservatives (who have conserved nothing for 60 years and could only shout, “John Paul II we love you” when some of us were warning of the present spiritual/theological crisis which was then in the making)are sounding increasingly like the Jacobins which brought France the Reign of Terror. The present tone of hysteria is re-creating the atmosphere of the Salem Witch Trials.

      Dust off your Rosaries and pray for a successful Counter-Reformation against the post-Vatican II “structures” responsible for the present mess.

  8. We need not “boil the ocean.” I cannot cull the key messages from this piece, therefore, I sense no path forward, things to do, or action to take. In those respects, this is gibberish. “We” lost our way after Vatican I and/or II? OMG. Go do research and define the problem, propose an approach towards a solution…I can think of many things, some of which dioceses have taken. But I also learned the scientific method in 5th grade, in Catholic school. Apply it, but THINK first!

  9. A good approach to a solution< I suggest, obtain a copy of the book " The Fundamental Ideas of the Cursillo Movement. It is worth reading.

  10. Wonderful and helpful article! We can learn from both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Eastern model. The marriage question aside, it preserves orthodoxy very well (something we desparately need in the West), but fails to prevent the idolotry of nationalism and of exalting culture over gospel at least in some areas. This is why we need that blend of a Bishop of Rome (who functions more like a Supreme Court Justice calling councils and resolving disputes than a President) with regional apostolic Churches in full communion. Saint John Paul II was right to ask the ecumenical dialog with the East to look back to the first Millenium. The Eastern models preserve much of that. With a secular world now hopelessly incompatible with the Christian Faith and accelerating rapidly away from it, we can not afford to look to the Holy Roman Empire or the late Byzantine Empire for models, let alone the incomplete Vatican I. We need to look to the Pre-Nicene Period and the Patristic Age (on the frontier) and maybe to the Eastern Churches in the Middle East, while preserving the servant-oriented hierarchical structure Christ gave us. I look forward to reading Dr. DeVille’s book and learning more.

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