Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Current Crisis

Published in George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference on August 15, 2018


The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War caused the premature suspension of the First Vatican Council on October 20, 1870 and left the Church’s theological self-understanding somewhat unbalanced. In its first session, Vatican I defined the nature of papal authority with a carefully crafted affirmation of papal infallibility under certain clearly defined circumstances; the intention was to complete that reflection on authority in the Church by a parallel statement on the authority of bishops. But Vatican I was never reconvened. And the result, over time, was that bishops were too often thought of as mere branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., whose all-powerful CEO was in Rome.

The Second Vatican Council intended to redress that imbalance and misunderstanding through its primary document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. The Council fathers taught that local bishops were true overseers (the Greek meaning of episkopos) of the local churches for which they were responsible; moreover, bishops shared in the governance of the entire Church, with and under the pope. This notion of episcopal “collegiality” was then extended to clusters of local churches, as the Council mandated the formation of national bishops’ conferences.

Implicit in this developed theology of the episcopate was the idea of mutual responsibility among bishops. Their “collegiality” was not the collegiality typical of privileged castes, but that of mutually responsible stewards. And implicit in that idea was a practice that had been virtually abandoned through disuse: fraternal correction among bishops, which was widespread and often quite robust in the mid-first millennium. Christ willed that his Church be governed episcopally, Vatican II taught. But that teaching laid a heavy responsibility on bishops for being a self-correcting, as well as mutually supportive, collegial body.

That responsibility was manifestly not met in the case of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, revelations of whose sexual predations have caused a wave of righteous anger throughout the Church in the United States.

Nor was the initial response to those revelations the response that was needed—or that could be expected from true shepherds with an understanding of their sheep. Senior leaders of the Church spoke of “protocols” and “processes” when those they claimed to lead wanted to hear words of revulsion, indignation at the abuse of the episcopal office, and determination to fix what had gone terribly wrong. Lawyers and public relations consultants seemed to be writing the script. And it seemed that a primary lesson from the Long Lent of 2002, when too many bishops appeared immune to the Yuck Factor that was driving their people to exasperated rage over clerical sexual abuse, had not been learned.

A first step in a better direction was taken on August 1 in a statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who decried the McCarrick affair as a “grievous moral failure in the Church,” one that had caused “anger, sadness and shame” among his brother bishops. Cardinal DiNardo also made an important pledge that has not received sufficient attention in the continuing firestorm surrounding this reprehensible business:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding … McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the Conference will advocate with those who do have the authority. One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.

Which means that the bishops are determined to face down any roadblocks to a full accounting “in this matter,” including roadblocks in Rome.

That important first step must now be followed by credible action. Various proposals have been floated about this, that, or the other kind of investigative commission; some bishops have proposed that any such commission must be lay-led in order to have any credibility. That may well be true, but for a lay-led investigation to be successful, it must get full buy-in and continual cooperation from the bishops. And that suggests to me that a lay-led investigation should have an ecclesiastical adviser, in the person of a bishop whose reputation with both the people of the Church and his brother bishops is unimpeachable.

And despite the tsunami of innuendo and guilt-by-association that has fouled the blogosphere in this matter, such bishops exist.

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

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