The Catholic University of America holds a unique place in the American Catholic landscape. It’s the official university of the Catholic Church in the United States, the “bishops’ university,” home to three ecclesiastical faculties, including the only school of canon law in the country. A multitude of priests – and many bishops – have studied at CUA since its founding in 1887.
The university also occupies a unique physical space – in the nation’s capital, across the street from the USCCB, next door to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, in the shadow of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
So, when the current iteration of the sexual abuse scandal broke last summer – with its epicenter in Washington, D.C. – it was only fitting that The Catholic University of America should marshal a coordinated and concerted response. That effort, under the direction of President John Garvey, has become what is now called The Catholic Project (further information available by clicking here). I was brought on board in February to serve as its executive director.
It’s not hard to get people to understand the need for something like The Catholic Project. The urgency among the faithful – the anger and frustration and sense of betrayal – are all palpable. No one needs to be sold on the importance of a robust and faithful response to the current crisis. And few need to be convinced that the way forward will require both lay leadership and a properly ecclesial respect for the irreplaceable role of the clergy and, especially, bishops.
But if everyone agrees that the Church is in crisis, there’s less agreement about just what the nature of the crisis is, what caused it, or how to fix it. The commotion that followed the pope-emeritus’ recent letter shows this clearly enough.
So the first task The Catholic Project has been to seek clearer understanding of how we got here and why. There is an unmistakable unity – almost a simplicity – beneath it all: men convinced of the truth of the Gospel and dedicated to the cross of discipleship do not sexually prey on the young and the weak, or anyone else. The crisis is unmistakably a crisis of fidelity.
But it’s more than that. It’s also a crisis of episcopal nonfeasance, malfeasance, and mismanagement. It’s a crisis of priestly formation, spiritual fatherhood, and, yes, clericalism and the abuse of power. It’s also a crisis brought about and exacerbated by unchastity of all kinds, not least homosexual grooming and predation upon young men and seminarians. It’s a crisis that has cultural and social influences, spiritual causes, psychological complexities, and on and on and on.
How does one begin to untangle a problem like this?
For starters, we hosted a series of conferences to look at the root causes of the crisis, to explore its historical precedents, to learn how lay involvement in reform efforts has changed over the centuries, and to sketch out principles to guide faithful and robust lay responses today and in the future. We’ve asked theologians, sociologists, canonists, social workers, historians, experts in organizational behavior, and members of the Catholic media to weigh in.
Has every contribution been equally compelling? No. But I think anyone who has attended one of the conferences or watched online will have found something new, insightful, perhaps even surprising. The big picture is coming into clearer focus and with greater detail.
The other two goals of The Catholic Project, in addition to understanding, are prevention and remediation. In these efforts, the National Catholic School of Social Service has been a tremendous help. They are working closely with the USCCB to help bishops better understand the trauma of abuse and to encounter abuse survivors as more than just liabilities. They’re designing a certificate program in child protection, which will allow for different tracks of study tailored to the needs of students depending on their field – social workers, lawyers, canonists, seminarians, chancery employees, etc.
The Busch School of Business has a Masters in Ecclesiastical Administration and Management. They will be the first to tell you that the abuse crisis is not, first and foremost, a management problem and that the Church is not a business. Yet effective, transparent management – at both the diocesan and parish level – is an important piece in ensuring that abuse and malfeasance (sexual, financial, or otherwise) are less likely to occur in the first place, and are dealt with swiftly and appropriately when they do.
Canon law is a black box to most Catholics, and yet it plays a critical role in determining how the Church responds to this crisis. For example: when an abuse allegation is reported to a diocese, what happens in the subsequent 48 hours? What does the canonical process look like as it plays out? Who is involved? Is it “Law and Order” with Roman collars? These aren’t frivolous questions, given how much of the Church’s response to this crisis is determined by canon law and how little most Catholics know about it or even why it exists.
The current crisis weighs on innumerable questions of law, both canon law and civil law. Add in the nebulous areas where canonical and civil jurisdictions overlap, and you get a whole new set of questions. Catholic University is home to both a School of Canon Law and the Columbus School of Law. This presents unique opportunities for collaboration that could benefit the Church across the country. This, too, is part of the work of The Catholic Project.
There is much more in the works. We’re only just getting started. I hope our work bears good fruit. We don’t have any delusions about “fixing the Church,” but we are confident that we have important contributions to make toward that end. And maybe our many efforts will add up to more than the sum of the parts. That’s our goal, anyway.
Please keep our work in your prayers.
© 2019 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.