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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