As the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore on the weekend of November 10–11, it seemed certain that, after a day of prayer, penance, and reflection on the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, they would take two important steps toward reform. An episcopal code of conduct, holding bishops accountable to the standards applied to priests in the 2002 Dallas Charter, would be adopted. And the bishops would authorize a lay-led mechanism to receive complaints about episcopal misbehavior, malfeasance, or corruption; allegations found credible would be sent to the appropriate authorities, including those in Rome.
Then, at the last minute, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), received an instruction from Rome stating that the Vatican did not want the U.S. bishops to vote on these two measures. The lame rationale given with the instruction was that any such decisions should be made after the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences meet in Rome in February, to discuss the abuse crisis in its global dimensions.
What happened to the “synodality” and “collegiality” that were supposed to characterize the Church under Pope Francis? What conceivable meaning of “synodality” or “collegiality” includes an autocratic Roman intervention in the affairs of a national bishops’ conference that knows its own situation far better than the Roman authorities do? And spare me the further excuses about Roman concerns over canon law. If there were canonical problems with the U.S. proposals, they could have been ironed out after the bishops had done what they had to do and what Rome effectively prevented them from doing: demonstrate to furious U.S. Catholics that the bishops are firmly committed to addressing the episcopal dimensions of the abuse crisis and the meltdown of episcopal credibility it has created.
(And while we’re on the subject of Church law: By what legal authority did Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, instruct the USCCB not to vote on matters the conference membership thought of the gravest importance? A sliver of justification for that intervention might be extracted from Canon 455.1, on the authority of bishops’ conferences. But given the insouciance about canon law demonstrated by Rome in recent years, not to mention the seemingly endless series of strictures against “legalism,” such concerns over canon law ring hollow. In any event, and according to Canon 455.2, any legal fine-tuning could have taken place after the U.S. bishops had done what they deemed necessary for restoring trust in this critical situation.)
I recently spent almost five weeks in Rome, during which I found an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican. A false picture of the Church’s life in the United States, in which wealthy Catholics in league with extreme right-wing bishops have hijacked the Church and are leading an embittered resistance to the present pontificate, has been successfully sold. And in another offense against collegiality, this grossly distorted depiction of American Catholicism has not been effectively challenged or corrected by American bishops enjoying Roman favor these days.
Honest disagreements—about, say, Amoris Laetitia and its implications for doctrine and pastoral practice—are one thing. A systematic distortion of reality, which tramples on the presumption of an opponent’s good will that should guide any internal Catholic debate, is quite another. Those involved in this anti-American-bishops calumny might also reflect on its disturbing genealogy. For one of those who injected this toxin into the Roman bloodstream was a serial sexual predator specializing in the abuse of seminarians under his authority—Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington.
Mainstream media reporting on the bishops’ recent Baltimore meeting generally got it right: The U.S. bishops tried to do the right thing and got bushwhacked by Rome, which Just Doesn’t Get It on sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. But the story cannot be allowed to end there. Nor can the Church afford to “wait until after February.”
Cardinal DiNardo and the majority of the bishops are determined to get to grips with the awfulness that has come to light, for the sake of the Church’s evangelical future. The bishops’ challenge now is to temper their ingrained deference to “Rome” and get on with devising responses to this crisis that are within their authority, and that address the legitimate demands of the Catholic people of the United States for reform.
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.