Ethics & Public Policy Center

Dallas, Rome, and beyond

Published in The Catholic Difference on November 6, 2002



Single-issue advocacy groups have a long history in American public life. Those who imagine that the Church is another kind of political community celebrate the role of advocacy groups in the current Catholic crisis. To be sure, the Church is a human institution and it has its politics. To imagine that the Church is essentially a political community is to make a serious mistake, however.

That’s the mistake too many advocacy groups have been making in recent months.

It’s perfectly understandable that victims’ groups emphasize the imperative of ending clergy sexual abuse, protecting children and young people, and making sure that sexual predators are expelled from public ministry. But when victims’ groups suggest that theirs is the only agenda, and that justice for priests falsely accused of abuse must take a back seat to that agenda, something is wrong.

It’s perfectly understandable that priests’ support groups emphasize that a man should be considered innocent until reasonable proof of his guilt is brought forth. It’s also perfectly understandable that priests don’t want to see the local bishop’s office turned into an adjunct of the local state’s attorney’s office. But when priests’ support group fail to acknowledge that certain aspects of clerical culture – including a breakdown of fraternal correction among priests – is a large part of the problem of clergy sexual abuse, something is wrong.

It’s perfectly understandable – more than that, it’s devoutly to be wished – that bishops seek counsel from knowledgeable professionals in dealing with sometimes murky clergy personnel questions. But when bishops mortgage their headship to lay review boards, or when lay review boards suggest that they stand in judgment on the fitness of bishops for office, something is wrong.

The Roman response to the U.S. bishops’ proposed national norms for dealing with clergy sexual abuse marked an important moment in the Long Lent of 2002: the moment when the Holy See and the U.S. bishops’ leadership agreed that the twin problems of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance have to be dealt with in a thoroughly Catholic way.

In the Catholic imagination, things are more often “both/and” than “either/or:” nature and grace, faith and works, Word and sacraments, ministerial priesthood and priestly mission of the baptized, authority and collegiality. That’s not waffling. The famous Catholic “both/and” expresses the ancient Catholic intuition that things fit together, in a script with a divine author. Applied to today’s crisis, the Catholic “both/and” means that the Church must promote justice for victims and justice for priests falsely accused of abuse; fraternity among priests and fraternal correction of malfeasant priests by their ordained brothers; lay responsibility and episcopal leadership. Of course this is difficult. But to suggest that it’s impossible, as some advocacy groups have done in the wake of Rome’s complex and nuanced response to the Dallas norms, is to abandon a truly Catholic way of thinking about these problems.

I’m confident that the Vatican-U.S. commission that will sort these questions out further will contribute to what I called for in my book, The Courage To be Catholic: namely, the authentically, indeed radically, Catholic reform of the Church. When the commission completes its work, however, the challenge of authentically Catholic reform won’t have been met. The bishops will have the tools to deal with the most noxious weeds in the garden; the question of revitalizing the soil so that it doesn’t produce poisonous weeds will remain.

That means that an apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries conducted by bishops who have already demonstrated the capacity to reform seminaries. That means reforming today’s vocations guild, so that holy, wise priests are once again in charge of diocesan vocation offices, and those offices are putting a higher premium on effective discipleship than on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Profile in accepting or rejecting candidates for the priesthood. That means a thorough investigation of novitiates and religious houses of formation, where serious problems of sexual identity and conduct remain. That means developing criteria for determining when a local bishops has lost his capacity to govern.

And that means the appointment of bishops who have the courage and wit to call Catholics to live the fullness of Catholic faith without retreating into self-made catacombs.

Once again, it’s “both/and,” not “either/or”.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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