The National Review Board and authentic Catholic reform

Published March 31, 2004

The Catholic Difference

When attorney Robert Bennett asked me to testify before the “causes and context” committee of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board (NRB) , I told him that, once the tape recorders were turned on, the first thing I’d say was that I didn’t think the NRB made much ecclesiological sense – but since it had been commissioned by the bishops, I believed it my duty to cooperate with their work. I’m happy to say now that, in my judgment, the NRB report released on February 27 is a genuine service to the Church and a potentially crucial step toward authentic Catholic reform.


1) Because the report is set within a genuinely Catholic and thoroughly ecclesial framework. The report makes clear that the Church, by the will of Christ, is led by her bishops; that the priest is far more than an ecclesiastical functionary; that celibacy is a great gift to the Church; that Catholic doctrine didn’t cause the problems the report addresses, but rather the failure to teach and live the truths of Catholic faith; and that what the Church needs is authentically Catholic reform.

2) Because the report squarely faces the two dimensions of the crisis – i.e., sexual misconduct and episcopal misgovernance – and suggests that both aspects of the crisis are reflections of a deeper crisis of fidelity and spirituality.

3) Because the report, rather than calling for “power-sharing,” calls for evangelically and pastorally assertive episcopal leadership, including far more fraternal challenge and correction within the body of bishops.

4) Because the report faces the overwhelmingly homosexual nature of the clerical sexual abuse of mirrors over the past fifty years, without either euphemism or “scapegoating.”

5) Because the report frankly describes the failures of seminaries in the late Sixties and Seventies, stressing lapses in spiritual and ascetic formation, and thus sets the stage for accelerating the seminary reform already underway.

6) Because the report decries the many occasions on which psychiatric and psychological categories and processes trumped theological categories and available canonical remedies in handling clerical malfeasants.

7) Because the report delicately suggests that “zero tolerance” is too blunt an instrument to be an instrument of genuine justice.

8) Because the report warns against encroachments by the state into internal Church governance, while also warning that those encroachments can and will happen if bishops abrogate their responsibilities.

9) Because the report demonstrates that lay people can take on a task of great complexity and delicacy in the Church and do it in such a way that, for all its (legitimate) criticism of the hierarchy, reasserts the divinely-ordered structure of the Church and calls the episcopate to exercise its legitimate authority. In this way, the report implicitly challenges Voice of the Faithful and similar organizations, by showing that a diverse group of accomplished lay Catholics can agree on an analysis of the crisis and an agenda of reform that is authentically Catholic, not an exercise in Catholic Lite.

There are particular recommendations in the report with which reasonable people can disagree – and I do. But at this point in time, it’s much more important to concentrate on the many, many things the NRB got right than to focus immediately on this or that recommendation which may or may not be imprudent or inappropriate or in fact inapplicable.

And it wasn’t just the report itself that was impressive; so was the way the members of the board handled their press conference on February 27. Illinois judge Anne Burke, the interim chairman, began the proceedings with a tribute to bishops and priests. Bob Bennett was thrown a raw-meat question by a CBS reporter who asked why, if the board was so critical of the stewardship of some bishops, it didn’t call for their ouster; to which Bennett replied that that wasn’t the board’s job or the laity’s job, that was a judgment for the bishops themselves and for the Holy See.

The National Review Board, created in part to appease an out-of-control media, declined to follow the media script. Rather than proposing a dismantling of Catholic belief, structure, and practice, it produced a report which persuasively argues that the answer to a crisis of Catholic fidelity is – Catholic fidelity. We’re in their debt.

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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