Catholics today are caught between two understandable but equally incomplete approaches to the sex-abuse crisis. On the more “liberal” side, Massimo Faggioli has recently rightly written that in an age of profound corruption in the Church, we must resist the temptation of “institutional iconoclasm,” the mentality that leads some people to say “burn the whole thing down.” No serious Catholic can support that.
On the more “conservative” side, Bishop Robert Barron says something similar in Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis, which seems incapable of considering any sort of institutional change. This, too, is unworthy of support from Catholics who are truly serious about major and lasting reform.
What is good in both Faggioli and Barron is the awareness, as Faggioli acknowledges, that “we keep institutions because institutions keep us. On the other hand, institutions need change.” But which institutions? What changes? What if those institutions, even dramatically reformed, prove insufficient to our present moment? Surely there is room in the Church today to contemplate the recovery of institutions that were once common but have, often for no good reason, fallen into desuetude?
The Church has received some direction by what is, admittedly, Pope Francis’ ongoing, halting, incomplete, and often absurdly caricatured synodality. This does not mean the messy and hotly contested salons in Rome, of bishops talking loudly and confusedly about various issues. As I have argued here – those are not real synods, properly speaking. We have none in the Catholic Church today even as, slowly, inexorably, the dynamic towards synodal governance has been building, especially given extremely rich reflection in a little-noticed document by the International Theological Commission, “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church Today.”
But despite its richness, that document remains an abstraction. For all the times the pope pronounces “synodality” – and rightly causes anxiety in some circles – it has still not achieved the kind of institutionalization it must possess for the good of the Church. It urgently requires concrete and transparent institutionalization in particular forms before the term becomes hopelessly hijacked and traduced by those who use “synodality” as a cover for the remnants of 1960s Catholicism.
Today, to put it bluntly, we do not need to hear more of “synodality” or more documents about it. We need synods.We need fully functioning, institutionalized synods with powers of legislation, election, and deposition: diocesan synods, regional synods, and even parish synods – “councils,” if you prefer. These are the kinds of institutions we need to keep us on a path of serious reform.
In my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, I argue that the reforms the Church needs today are not “iconoclastic” as far as institutions are concerned. But that some sort of “spiritual” solution (“just pray and fast more!”) will also prove ineffective, because the Church, like Christ, has two natures. We must attend to the human-concrete-institutional “nature” of the Church just as much as the incorporeal-spiritual-divine nature.
Thus we must, of course, pray and fast, but do so in a clearly focused way, seeking the creation of institutions of accountability that will slowly lead us out of this crisis and seal off the escape hatches popes, bishops, and priests have used to hide evil.
Our lack of institutions that force bishops to be accountable has allowed them to act for decades like absolute monarchs, hiding their own abuses of sex, money, and power; shuffling around abusers without telling anyone; and spending vast sums of the faithfuls’ money settling abuse claims, or paying for flowers, booze, and rent-boys.
All this must stop, and diocesan and regional synods (mirrored by parish councils, all of them having voice and vote) are an enormously important, but entirely neglected, part of Catholic tradition. To prevent future outbreaks of abuse, we need real parish councils and diocesan synods similar to those that participate in the governance of apostolic Churches of the Christian East.
Mandatory parish councils with voice and vote would be required to work with pastors to pass annual budgets and approve all spending, closing off loopholes that allow clergy to steal from parishes on a massive and prolonged scale, such as we learned of recently in California.
Parish councils, working with bishops, would be consulted confidentially before a priest is removed or a new one installed. Bishops would have to disclose the reasons for such changes to the council, thereby closing off possible “coverups.”
In a similar way, diocesan synods would operate with voice and vote, allowing parish representatives to hold their bishop to account by requiring publication of an annual budget and audit. An annual synod forces a bishop to give an accounting of his stewardship, and allows the diocese to ask tough questions without infringing on his legitimate apostolic authority, leaving entirely out of the question any fears of their “voting on doctrine.”
Synods, properly understood, are not an occasion for bossy “Susan from the parish council” to tell the priest or bishop how to catechize or baptize or absolve. They are not a cunning mechanism for dethroning the episcopal-papal structure and replacing it with a congregationalist or presbyterian one. Properly established and protected, they will not be able to be used as tools for voting to alter divine and Catholic truth once entrusted to the apostles.
They are, rather, as I argue here, a form of love. To love the Church in such a time as this is to love her institutions such as the papacy and episcopate, but to love them in a tough-minded non-sentimental way by requiring them, for their good and ours, to be accountable in ways none of us has yet seen.
*Image: The Miracle of the Holy Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre by William Holman Hunt, c. 1899 [Fogg Museum, Harvard, Cambridge, MA]