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Pope Francis denounces clericalism, but his new motu proprio enables it

What “Vos estis lux mundi” neglects to draw to our attention—for obvious reasons—is that there is nothing requiring episcopal governance in its current monopolistic form.

Pope Francis poses with clerics during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 15, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Just over a year ago, in looking at a minor liturgical change announced by Pope Francis, I drew on the work of D.W. Winnicott to help better understand some of the papal language about the Church as mother. Winnicott was a celebrated pediatrician and psychoanalyst who did so much, during and after World War II, to more deeply comprehend the mother-child bond. Most famously, he gave us the idea of the “good enough mother,” which was not only helpful in understanding what children do and do not need from their mothers, but also released many mothers from neurotic guilt at their imperfections. As he put it in a 1953 International Journal of Psycho-Analysis article titled “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”, the “good enough “mother”… is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens according to the infant’s growing ability to . . . tolerate the results of frustration.”

I was writing about Winnicott in the early spring of last year. Much has changed in just one short year. Shortly after publishing that essay, the dams burst all over the country and indeed the world. Now we divide Church history into the “before-McCarrick” and “after-McCarrick” periods.

Looking back at myself a year ago, I now say: “No! On the issue of sexual abuse, the Church whose efforts at reform are ‘good enough’ is a Church that has become so demented in her thinking, so disordered in her life, as to be demonic. Good enough is never enough when dealing with the soul-murder of sex abuse victims!”

And yet it is clear to me now that many bishops, including the bishop of Rome, are hoping that we will be fobbed off with “good enough” measures, which is all they want to see happen. They give no indication of realizing the need for far-reaching changes today. How else to explain their falling over themselves to praise the provisions in “Vos estis lux mundi”, the new motu proprio of Pope Francis on procedures for reporting abuse? As Christopher Altieri has recognized and argued, those procedures are far from adequate, and in this instance it is nowise acceptable for the Church to offer “good enough” measures while implying that, like infants at their mother’s mercy, we must simply “tolerate the results of frustration” (if Winnicott were a Catholic he would have said “offer it up”) over these inadequate procedures.

What is the central flaw with these provisions?

It is more than a little astonishing to me that these procedures are offered, apparently without irony, while reeking of that great bugaboo in papal eyes: clericalism. This is their fatal flaw. As the document’s third paragraph says, “this responsibility falls, above all, on the successors of the Apostles,” because, it claims, bishops are apparently the only ones to “govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power.” Given this dodgy claim, the provisions unfolded in the rest of the text rely on the local “ordinary” (a bishop) to receive and transmit reports, usually to the relevant metropolitan (a bishop) or patriarch (a bishop); some reports can be sent to the papal nuncio (a bishop), or to Roman dicasteries headed by (you guessed it) a bishop—who operates on the authority of, and reports to, the bishop of Rome.

Blind men living in caves on the dark side of the moon can see the problem here. But it apparently occasions no questions or concerns among the bishops, whose monopoly remains intact all down the line. Perhaps many bishops are, even at this late hour, still blinded by the light of their own virtue and thus unable to see that they are, as a body, no longer men in which trust or credibility reposes. Since every step of this process in fact relies on them, I believe this entire proposal must be regarded as dead in the water.

What, then, is to be done? Before getting into the weeds on mechanisms and processes, we must backtrack to see the sleight of hand attempted in the document’s opening justificatory claim that bishops “govern the particular churches…by their authority and sacred power.” This is a quote from Lumen Gentium (par 27), Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Like virtually all conciliar decrees, this one must be read as much for what it does not say—for what it conveniently leaves out—as for what it does say.

What it says is plain enough. What it neglects to draw to our attention—for obvious reasons—is that there is nothing requiring episcopal governance in its current monopolistic form. My new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press) is guided by one overarching principle: nobody, in any organization, above all the Church, should be entrusted with a monopoly on power in any context for any reason.

The Church practically owns a trademark on the concept of “original sin” but that has not prevented her from assuming that bishops (including the ordinary of Rome) are somehow immune to its effects and thus can be trusted to enjoy a monopoly on the “sacred power” of governance, which of course they would never, ever abuse. In this after-McCarrick era of the Church, we now realize what utter folly this was. Catholics, who should have known better than anybody in the world the temptations of libido dominandi occasioned by original sin, which temptations ordination per se does nothing to restrain, have in fact allowed the Church in the modern period to be structured along monopolistic lines, giving unchecked power of governance to men who have abused it both to perpetrate sexual crimes and to cover them up. Until and unless this monopolistic cartel is broken up, nothing will change in the Church.

As I lay out in detail in my book, there is no theology in Vatican II—or Vatican I, or Trent, or any council going back to Jerusalem—that says the apostolic-episcopal structure of the Church requires or permits a monopoly on governing power in the hands of bishops. There is, moreover, very little historical support for that, either. And there is certainly no ecumenical appeal in it, never mind common sense.

How, then, are we to proceed? For reasons historical, ecumenical, and above all theological, all of which I detail in the book, governance in the Church must be tripartite, involving the laics (to use Afanasiev’s term, which I explained on CWR last August), the clerics, and the bishops. None can have a monopoly; all must work together. This begins in the parish, which must have a council sharing with the priest the burdens of authority; it continues at the diocesan level, via the revived institute of a mandatory yearly synod; proceeds to the national level, and beyond. At every step all major matters—from passing legislation, agreeing on a budget, electing clergy and bishops, and disciplining malefactors—must involve three “orders”—laics, clerics, bishops. This model has ample history and theology to justify it, and is still to be found in its fullest form in the Armenian Apostolic Church, whose structures I have carefully studied in both my books.

If we were to revise the motu proprio in this vein, then it would have to be structured in such a way that wherever the document says (e.g., art. 3 s.1) a “person is obliged to report promptly the fact to the local Ordinary,” we would have to require that a copy of the report simultaneously goes also to the council of presbyters of that ordinary’s diocese, and also a (newly convoked) council of laics. But rather than have three separate bodies, it makes sense—and has, as my book shows, ample historical precedent and real theological justification—for one report to come to the diocesan synod or, between its sessions, the governing body (“diocesan council”) bearing its authority.

For the synod, as I outline it by drawing on Catholic and Orthodox models past and present, is the one body which unites all three in governance, holding each accountable to the others. It is chaired by the bishop, but contains proportionate numbers of clerics and laics, all of whom must agree on a course of action.

If, in the case of a report of abuse, the council of synod were empowered as it should be, then they would ensure no bishop could ever again sweep reports of abuse under the carpet or buy off victims with a cheque and confidentiality clause. If the council receives a report concerning a crime by a bishop or member of the council, then they are of course excluded from any deliberations and immediately suspended pending the final outcome, the chair being taken over (in case of a bishop) by (as the motu proprio suggests) the metropolitan, or bishop having seniority in the province.

Other ways of establishing mechanisms of reporting and accounting are of course possible, but however they are set up, they cannot perpetuate the monopoly as this new papal document does.

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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. Combating clericalism is a mighty task. But sages say the all powerful Holy Spirit will blow away clericalism.

    • Combating the real problem is made exponentially more difficult as long as we accept Francis’ ridiculous obscuring premise of clericalism as having anything at all to do with personal sin, rather than personal sin being the cause of personal sin.

  2. Please consider the sad, fragmented condition to which the Anglican communion has come after setting off down the path of governance (entirely) by votes-in-synod involving laity and clerics in all orders. Please consider whether such a synodal arrangement in the Catholic Church, even if initially applied to sexual abuse only, might not be the thin end of a wedge. The ultimate effect of such a wedge might be dislocation, possibly leading to total schism, as for our sad Anglican sisters and brothers, simply as a direct result of decisions made by a democratic synodal mechanism.

    For the Body of Christ, under its Divine Head, to be ruled by human democratic mechanisms would be a denial of its ontological nature and Divine origins and its eternal destiny in Christ. If this ‘synod’ scheme were to be adopted to remedy the current crisis (which is in fact more than one crisis) it would have to be very strictly circumscribed, but how long might that circumscription survive the inevitable pressure which would come from all quarters for an extension of the synodal system to a wider and wider range of ecclesiastical business? I ask again, consider the recent history of what remains of the Anglican communion.

    • Jill, you are spot on. Synodal governance, far from ‘everybody working together’, is a formula for death by a thousand lobby groups.
      The experience of the Anglicans makes this all too clear. Spare us, Lord.

    • No doubt Anglicanism and its current hyper-fragmentation is a considerable argument against synodality [¿ = “collegiality” ?]

      But the ultra-montaigne implications of the post above, as I read it, to the effect that the Pope cannot err tout court is equally unpalatable. Indeed one need look no further than Pope Francis to see quite how unpalatable is that view; notwithstanding its clear rejection at Vatican I.

      In this context, the issue of Pope Francis’s still secret deal with the Chinese regime is a fascinating case in point, since he has chosen personally, as far as I can see, to ignore the explicit teachings of that Ecumenical Council of Vatican II to the effect that episcopal appointments are an exclusively church matter, that no more deals giving nation states a say in such appointments are to be struck and that countries already having such powers are to be respectfully requested to surrender this privilege.

      On what basis I ask has Pope Francis decided to ignore the explicit teachings of vatican II on this matter? “I think we should be told.”

      Though sadly given his ever so manifest disdain for questions which he does not like, I am not holding my breath.

      • The Vatican is clericalism. That is what we Protestants fight against. Anglicans prefer to fragment rather than surrender to democratic autocracy. Roman Catholics have been taught that monarchical authority in the Church brings unity. Since when. From the time the Patriarch of Rome and Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other when has the Vatican been a focal point of unity and fruit of the Holy Spirit? Its because you can have unity and holiness OR conformity and abuse. Leave us alone. We like our ability to circumvent immoral power structures. In Anglicanism every bishop is a Patriarch or Pope. That means to have a heresy spread is near impossible. That is how we have checkmated the illegalities propagated by the TEC and CoE. We have standards contrary to what the Liberal Anglicans will say and faithful bishops even if it is left with one of them can always enforce them.

  3. Pope Francis is part of the problem, not the solution, to the sexual abuse crisis does not learn from his errors and his advisors are either cowards or are themselves entrenched in the corrupt homoclericalist cabal that is stifling the life out of the Church.

    Any reform and cleaning up of the Church will have to come from the laity and law enforcement.

    • I agree Johann. In December 1862 a few months after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he said in a speech “the dogmas of the quite past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, then we will say our country.” This I think is the attitude the good Catholic laity must now take to save our Church. Francis says one thing and does another. As Fr Peter Morello has said, “Silence is not an option when truth is compromised.” But what are we to do? I would like to see something on a national level but something that asks, respectively, what are good Catholics to think? We would need the support of a group of like-minded Bishops and Priests to pull it off. Any ideas on this subject. I am eager to hear from anyone!

  4. The USCCB is run by the McCarrick Establishment, McCarrick and his clones Mahony, Wuerl, Cupich, Night-night Tobin, etc etc etc being the frauds who either engineered and elected Jorge Bergoglio (the first 3 named), and/or remain in power (the last 3) to ensure the election of the next fraudulent pontiff, who they hope will be a clone of Jorge Bergoglio.

    Mr. DeVille’s recommendation is superb, and an example of serious, adult, transparent governance.

    The “Pope Francis motu proprio” is fraudulent, secretive, clericalist and indicates Jorge Bergoglio’s total commitment to maintaining an infantalized laity “trusting” the secret episcopal cabal.

    Pope Francis, and all of the men named above, and all of the bishops like them who support this fraudulent motu proprio, will die in office with ZERO trust or credibility.

    Since Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies, I must pray for them, as I pray the Church is delivered from this living death that these men have confected.

  5. The epitome of “clericalism” itself, the invincible egoism of Bergoglian individualism which seeks to supplant the perennial Magisterium — our understanding of the revelation made in Jesus Christ — with the notions of a clique of disgruntled connivers.
    They never cease to exhibit the exact behaviors they pretend to abhor.
    It is nothing less than bizarre. The fact that it is not the topic of discussion and concern brings me to the conclusion that our entire Church is in a state of pathological denial.
    The depth of discord and disorientation is in extremis.

  6. While it’s not the gravest of sins such as cold blooded murder, etc., there’s no sin more lustfully greedy for power and control, and more fertile and more powerfully enabling of other sins than homosexuality is and has always been. Pope Francis, with his numerous acts of ambiguity and quiet advocacy and his placement of gay advocates in key positions is obviously a great advocate of sodomy, therefore not a legitimate Bishop of Rome. The plan proposed in this article will work, regardless of what results that very plan has had with Anglicans and other Protestants, if and only if, those lay people in church and diocesan councils have a minority or no C.I.N.O’s (Catholics In Name Only) at all.

    As clearly stated in the book: “The Book of Gomorrah and St. Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption” (2015) by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, the path to sodomy does not begin in the actual unnatural union of bodily organs but long before that in our self-deceiving hearts (Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is more devious than any other thing, and is depraved; who can pierce its secrets?”). That statement we’ve been bombarded with since the 60’s: “Follow your heart”, is a hard-core, reality escaping, sodomite statement. Therefore, the most efficient way to reject all faith in the True God is to emotionally and mentally reject and lose all faith in your true, real, authentic, God-given, born identity which in turn fractures the mind, heart and soul and fills them with hatred and murder against everything real and good. We have more spiritual sodomites in our Church than just the physical homosexuals. That’s God’s harsh warning and calling for change through the shocking scandal of Pope Francis, the Priest scandal and those infiltrators behind it.

    When you deny your own core truth, you hate all Truth and feel entitled to murder all Good, Beauty and Truth. Pope Francis is a golden false idol with feet of clay. We True Catholics are to bring all he represents down by starting at those feet, at the local Church level, starting with the C.I.N.O’s through our own outspoken, uncompromising personal holiness, sacrifice and prayer. Now that’s Real Mercy not 60’s slogans! All for the Glory of the One who died to save us! If Alabama can make such a very brave stand against the “invincible” abortion monster (human imperfections notwithstanding)) so much more can we with God’s Grace against the homosexual one and all others. Our holy victories need be not instantly perfect as only God is.

  7. This POPE is a CONFUSED MAN, he needs to go to Confession! Confusion comes from not having a Clean SOUL! When the SOUL is in the Light, It has no Darkness within, the person could easily sees what is Good and what is Evil with Clarity! “God is LIGHT!” 1 John 1:5 “You are the light of the world.” Matt. 5:14. When we, the LITTLE LIGHT, look at the The Big Light of God, that is His Truth. If our LITTLE Light is with HIS Big light, we can only see TRUTH, could never be Confused! This POPE brings Confusion, that means, he needs to stop making PUBLIC STATMENTS without first, asks his THEOLOGY and Scripture advisors and go through what he wrote and make that needed correction(s)!

    • Were it that the Pope is only confused. That is a massive understatement. I think it is much more frightening than that.

  8. Wouldn’t the easiest solution be for victims to report the crime to the police? I still don’t understand why so many victims stopped at the bishop’s office. Why did they not report the crime? The solution to all sexual crime is to stop acting as if the victim has something of which to be ashamed. Adding laity to the mix would change nothing; what would stop lay people from colluding with the clerics and bishops? Strong secular laws and victim support groups would at least make sure the abusers could no longer hide their sins.

    • I wonder that, too. The Church isn’t trained in detective work; if you’re reporting a crime and you want someone to be held legally accountable, you go to the police.

  9. This sounds mighty like Anglicanism with its Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. And we all know where that got them.

    • I don’t think this is orthodox.
      The children of a natural family established by a real marriage do not share authority with their parents.
      The pope has supreme jurisdiction, that is, there is no on earth above, including all the bishops. The pope’s authority is “truly Episcopal”.
      So, the diocesan Bishop’s authority is like the pope’s.
      The shepherd has authority over the sheep, and not the other way around.
      Let the pope and the bishops meditate on the fires of He’ll, and the special ” exclusive” and “supreme” tortures inflicted by the demons if they fail to do their duty.

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