Continuing Controversies and Unanswered Questions

Synods and other Vatican gabfests used to be quite placid – even boring – affairs. St. John Paul II, before becoming pope, is reported to have worked on one of his books during some such event – and slept at another during his pontificate. One cannot help but yearn wistfully, at times, for the days of such dusty and distant events when every Vatican meeting now seems to bring up the deep tensions within the Church.

Friday’s sessions did so yet again, though you had to find your way into all that by reading between the lines. The two morning speakers, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, are both close confidants of the pope’s. Both were appointed by Francis to the group of four organizers of the summit on the Protection of Minors. So it was no surprise that they both stuck closely to themes that have long been a central part of the Bergoglio papacy.

Gracias spoke first under the general subject of collegiality among bishops. There was nothing wrong – technically – and a good deal right with what he said, which began with reflections involving spiritual renewal and translation of that spirit into new attitudes among clergy and laity alike.

But like many Catholic prelates, including the Holy Father, he also leaned too heavily, in my judgment, on inequities of power – the clericalism gambit – which I believe betrays a wish to make the abuse crisis into more about social justice than personal sin. In fact, some here have asked whether power disparities in violence against children is going to be the next big push – after the environment and immigration – of Vatican social doctrine.

As I grew frustrated myself listening to Cardinal Gracias, I tried to imagine how I would react if I were a victim, or a relative of a victim, hearing this parade of big words: accountability, responsibility, collegiality, synodality, clericalism, discernment, universality, particularity – even humility.

I think I’d want to stand up and shout: “Fine, but please: save all that for some other day, on your own time. Since we’re here, too, and the whole world is watching, tell us, in simple words, if you please, what are you – you ‘collegial’ brothers – specifically now, going to DO. Where’s the ‘concreteness’ everyone was talking about yesterday?”

There’s really little need at this point for anyone to argue that we need a new attitude towards clerical sex abuse – including the malfeasance or nonfeasance of bishops themselves. Church figures only show themselves to be terminally self-involved every time that, expressions of concern for victims notwithstanding, they speaks as if denial of the problem is rampant and they are the voice of awakening.

We’ve had a number of stories lately about the Vatican’s own unwillingness to hold malefactors truly accountable out of what seems a false sense of mercy. And given the recent reports that Cardinal Gracias ignored cases of abuse in his own diocese just a few years ago, his calls for humility and openness about admitting mistakes were welcome. (Though you have to wonder whether victims and their families might have viewed them in a more jaundiced – not to say cynical – way.)

Cardinal Cupich’s session – under the aegis of “synodality,” a concept hastily introduced last year at the end of the Synod on Youth – was peppered with similarly high-flying rhetoric about “orienting all proposed reforms in synodality,” “penetrating discernment,” “rejecting a clerical worldview” that caused abuse, a “reciprocal exchange of collegial knowledge,” and other Bergoglianisms.

On the one hand, Cupich tried to frame proper responses to the abuse crisis in the emotional terms of the Pietà, the holy image of a loving mother holding her wounded child – a striking image of what the Church could be for the abused. On the other, there were lists of three of this, four of that, and a repeated caution that merely “changing structures” is not enough.


True enough, but even changing structures, for many of us, would be a good – a real – start. Let it be noted, in fairness, even if it does not lead to any effective action, that Cupich ended with no fewer than twelve suggestions about how to hold a bishop accountable. These included structural and procedural changes that he elsewhere played down.

A quick, first impression is that he was repeating and spelling out the “metropolitan” model that he offered at the U.S. bishops’ meeting last November. That model had clearly been worked out in advance in collaboration with the Vatican and prepared to be delivered as an alternative, as soon as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo announced that Pope Francis had essentially frozen the model the American bishops intended to vote on.

Nevertheless, a large part of this speech was crafted to address the problem of wayward bishops– the very subject that Cupich and others said would be a distraction from the main focus of the summit, which is the protection of minors. Indeed, he claimed (in the language of pop psychology) of giving them “a voice.”

It will take time to parse out the specific implications of these dozen suggestions; we’ll need to hear from the canonists and lay experts with actual experience of trying to hold bishops accountable. And there remains the problem of what to do when the failures and corruption reach into high offices of the Vatican itself.

But at a very superficial level, it at least affirms that individual bishops’ conferences – respecting both the universality of Church norms but also applying them in their specific cultures and circumstances – are being told they can hold their members accountable. No doubt that will be done well in some places, badly in others. But the present writer never believed that we could hope for anything much more than opening up such spaces for action.

The bishops now seem to have approval from Rome to act as they see fit in their circumstances; it will be interesting to see – when push comes to shove – whether they will be allowed to really do it.

Meanwhile, Catholic and secular journalists here have been doing yeoman’s work that deserves attention. At yesterday’s press briefing, they put Cardinals and others on the spot:

  • One asked Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley when we’d see the real meat – the actual rules by which bishops would be held accountable. He replied that he’d been “assured” by the pope that it will be “soon.”
  • Another asked a basic question: how many bishops have been removed globally? Answer: no one currently knows.
  • A third pointed out that she had been in the press room in 2002 when then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick assured everyone that the Americans would practice zero tolerance and had the situation well in hand. After that hypocritical act, are we supposed to believe everything being said now?
  • Still another added – in a question to Cardinal Cupich – that Cardinals McCarrick and Bernard Law were “metropolitans” back in the day. So what happens when the metropolitan in Cupich’s system is himself a problem? Cupich stated that there are notes on that in his longer text and several possible solutions.
  • Finally, a woman, conceding that homosexuality per se does not necessarily lead to abuse, asked how can we continue to ignore the gay networks in various countries that have enabled or protected abusers?
  • And how about McCarrick – did anyone in the hierarchy have a talk with him about his actions? And are there investigations happening into how he was able to do what he did? (Cupich and O’Malley said they’ve “been told” yes.)

Good questions all. We now await good answers, and not only in words.


*Image: Flanked by Fr. Federico Lombardi, former director of the Press Office of the Holy See, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Pope Francis prays during the opening of the second day of a Vatican’s conference on dealing with sex abuse by priests. [Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP]