The Crisis of Ecclesial Communion

The Catholic Church in the United States is frequently said to be suffering its most serious crisis ever. History will have the final say on that. But something that unquestionably does make the present moment in American Catholicism uncommonly difficult is its complexity: for this isn’t one crisis, but two.

The most obvious concerns the sexual abuse of children by a number of priests and its coverup by several bishops and religious superiors. For going on two decades now, just about everyone has been aware of that crisis, though only lately have damning specifics come to light showing just how badly Church authorities mishandled the situation.

Beyond this crisis, however, a deeper and – arguably – even more serious crisis has been growing for years. It is this crisis that the sex abuse scandal has lately brought violently to the surface of American Catholic life.

This second crisis has variously been described as a failure of communication, a failure of accountability, and a failure of shared responsibility. But these assorted failures and others converge in an overarching failure that is nothing short of a massive crisis of failed ecclesial communion. Until that crisis is addressed and corrected, it will continue to distort and disrupt relationships in the Church at every level and in countless different settings.

The solution won’t be easy. In fact, it may be even more difficult to identify and put in place than solving the sex abuse crisis has been. But a good beginning would be the convening of a plenary council or regional synod of bishops for the Church in the United States.

Before explaining that, though, I need to say first what I mean by a crisis of failed ecclesial communion.

Recall the glowing picture painted by Vatican Council II:

Although by Christ’s will some are established as teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, there remains, nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ. The distinction which the Lord has made between the sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God involves union, for the pastors and the other faithful are joined together by a close relationship: the pastors of the Church – following the example of the Lord – should minister to each other and to the rest of the faithful; the latter should eagerly collaborate with the pastors and teachers. And so amid variety all will bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ. ( Lumen Gentium, 32)

This is a moving account of an ecclesial body whose members are joined in mutual respect and are at ease interacting with one another. Unfortunately, it bears little resemblance to the fragmented, conflict-ridden reality of American Catholicism in 2019, including the Gallup finding that as of last March 37 percent of American Catholics had considered leaving the Church (the figure in 2002, at the previous height of the sex abuse scandal, was 22 percent).

To think about leaving the Church is of course not the same as leaving, but 37 percent by itself reflects an alarmingly high level of alienation.


When the U.S. bishops meet again in Baltimore June 11-13, they are expected to adopt a new plan for episcopal accountability on sex abuse. Its elements will include a hotline for receiving complaints about particular bishops, a procedure for hearing the complaints, and a code of conduct for the hierarchy.

And then? Then the bishops should commit themselves to a feasibility study of a plenary council or regional synod to fashion remedies for the failure of ecclesial communion.

The idea isn’t new. In 2002, following the Dallas assembly at which the bishops adopted their present “zero tolerance” policy on abuse, some bishops (the number eventually rose to 100 or more) came up with a proposal for a plenary council or regional synod to seek broader solutions to what ailed American Catholicism.

The eight original signers of a letter circulated among the bishops to enlist support included Bishop Daniel L. DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa (now a cardinal, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference); Auxiliary Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, with whom the idea originated (he is now Archbishop of Detroit); and Bishop Raymond L. Burke of LaCrosse, Wisconsin (now also a cardinal and former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court).

Originally, the idea was for a plenary council. The Church in the United States has had three of those up to now, but none since the nineteenth century. The special merit of this approach is that, although only bishops would have a vote, the participants in a plenary council would include priests, deacons, religious, and lay people.

As the discussion proceeded, however, awareness grew that a plenary council might be unworkably large – as many as a thousand people. This led to the thought that a regional synod could serve much the same purpose. Only bishops would take part in a synod, but that mightn’t be so bad if the synod were preceded by a searching, honest process of consultation with the people of the Church.

Over the next several years the idea generated extensive discussion within the conference of bishops, but it eventually petered out – for lack of interest, it was said. Presumably, that was because the Dallas policy was operational and the sex abuse crisis appeared to be subsiding. Now we know better.

In their letter in 2002, the eight bishops said their proposal would “involve all strata of the People of God in the experience,” would provide “the clearest and fullest modality for the U.S. bishops to act collegially,” and would have “maximal impact in shaping the ecclesial culture . . . into a culture of reform.”

Seventeen years later, American Catholics need a culture of reform more than ever. The bishops’ meeting in June needs to get this ball rolling again.


*Image: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard, c. 1550 [Rockox House, Antwerp]

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).