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Pope’s new motu proprio on reporting sex abuse has the ‘fatal flaw’ of clericalism: theologian

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May 24, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis’ new guidelines on clerical sex abuse and episcopal accountability have not been met with universal acclaim.

Called “Vos estis lux mundi,” the new motu proprio was promulgated on May 9 and comes into effect on June 1. Many commentators note that it leaves bishops accountable only to other bishops.

Writing in First Things, Phil Lawler says that “Vos estis lux mundi” is an inadequate response “to a burgeoning scandal.”

He does praise its strengths, however, saying that its insistence that every Catholic diocese and eparchy in the world have a reporting system for abuse complaints is a “major advance.” The new motu proprio also decrees that victims are to be treated with respect and compassion and given both material and spiritual support. Above all, cover-up of abuse is now itself a canonical crime.

However, Lawler, too, doubts the document deals adequately with the problem of holding bishops accountable. He points out that, under the new rule, complaints about a bishop should be sent to the metropolitan archbishop of a region, but that the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was himself a metropolitan archbishop. Complaints about metropolitan archbishops are to be sent to the Holy See, but complaints about McCarrick sent to the Vatican went unanswered.

“The sad history of the McCarrick scandal demonstrates that policies are only as reliable as the officials who enforce them,” Lawler wrote. “If Catholics have lost confidence in their bishops, the procedures set forth in Vos Estis will not reassure them.”

In his opinion, other weaknesses in the new law include a lack of specified penalties.

“Vos Estis requires that abuse charges must be investigated thoroughly,” Lawler wrote.

“But the document does not say what penalties should be imposed if the charges are confirmed. Notice that when Pope Benedict XVI finally took disciplinary action against McCarrick, the penalty was mild; already retired, McCarrick was asked to withdraw from public life. More to the point, the ecclesiastical sanction was generally ignored—both by McCarrick, who continued to maintain a high public profile, and by his friends at the Vatican—and eventually overturned by Pope Francis,” he continued.  

“Moreover, the penalty was imposed secretly, so that McCarrick’s punishment (such as it was) could not have deterred other prelates from misconduct. Were it not for the dramatic testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal representative in Washington, we would not know that any sanction had ever been imposed.”

Lawler noted also that there was no condemnation of consensual homosexual relationships conducted by clergy. The editor and author believes that the latter are examples of “grave misconduct” and give scandal to the faithful.

“In short, the motu proprio institutes different procedures, but does not guarantee different results,” Lawler stated.

“To restore confidence, the Vatican must show a willingness to identify not only the prelates who have sinned, but also the officials who have protected them,” he continued. “Once again it is significant that Vos Estis, written in response to the McCarrick scandal, says not a word in response to the clamoring for an account of how a corrupt prelate advanced through the hierarchy and prospered despite his known misconduct.”

Lawler finishes his article with a knock-out punch, pointing out that under the provisions of the new law, all the Vatican officials who knew about the charges against McCarrick and yet did nothing would be “subject to investigation” ― including Pope Francis.

“But if any such investigation has been made, we have not heard about it. So the crisis of credibility continues,” he wrote.  

Should the laity have a role in Church governance?

Theologian Adam A.J. DeVille, writing for Catholic World Report, believes that the Pope’s new directives enable clericalism.

“This is their fatal flaw,” DeVille wrote.

“As the document’s third paragraph says, ‘this responsibility falls, above all, on the successors of the Apostles,’ because, it claims, bishops are apparently the only ones to ‘govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power,’” he continued, and called this claim “dodgy”:

“Given this dodgy claim, the provisions unfolded in the rest of the text rely on the local ‘ordinary’ (a bishop) to receive and transmit reports, usually to the relevant metropolitan (a bishop) or patriarch (a bishop); some reports can be sent to the papal nuncio (a bishop), or to Roman dicasteries headed by (you guessed it) a bishop—who operates on the authority of, and reports to, the bishop of Rome.”

DeVille believes that Catholics no longer trust bishops “as a body” and, since Francis’ process completely relies on them, his “entire proposal must be regarded as dead in the water.”

The professor argued that there is no reason why bishops should have a monopoly over the governance of the Church and declares that “nobody, in any organization, above all the Church, should be entrusted with a monopoly on power in any context for any reason.”

He suggested that the Church should be governed by bishops, clerics, and the laity ― or “laics,” to use his preferred term. There is much “theological justification” and “historical precedent” for this “tripartite” form of Church governance, he argued, and if adopted, it would be impossible for bishops to cover up for abusers.

This is radical departure from traditional Catholic ecclesiology, that holds that bishops are the appropriate governors of the Church. Although historically Catholic kings, queens, and landed gentry exerted influence over the governance of the Church at a local level, the tripartite form of Church government proposed by DeVille more resembles that currently used by the Anglican communion.

Dr. Alan Fimister, Assistant Professor of Theology at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, believes that the laity should not be saddled with the responsibility of clerical administration.

“Monarchical episcopacy is the system of government instituted by Christ,” he told LifeSiteNews.

“The ancient system whereby bishops are elected by the clergy and laity of the local church is certainly ideal but in order to restore it one would have to restore the routine excommunication of notorious public sinners and heretics which it assumes (and I am all in favour of that),” he continued.  

“On the other hand, the function of the laity is to conform the temporal order to Christ[,] not to supervise the minutiae of clerical administration. To assign them this role is the last word in clericalism.”

Fimister quoted Vatican II in saying: “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.”

“The attempt to turn the laity into little clerics is often associated by those who have so utterly abandoned the social Kingship of Christ that they can't think of anything else for the laity to do than be extraordinary ministers or sit on committees with the clergy,” Fimister concluded.

‘Pope Francis has given the Church a tool for investigating and disciplining clerics that is very much to be wielded by other clerics’

Journalist Christopher Altieri, also writing for Catholic World Report, wondered if the new law will work. He noted that the “old law” for judging and removing bishops, called “As a Loving Mother” and established by Pope Francis in 2016 to cut through a lengthy juridical process, hasn’t been used very often. Altieri was perturbed by the pontiff’s claim that “rather many bishops have been judged,” as he can think of only two.  

“Without meaningful transparency in these and other regards, it is difficult to imagine any paper guarantee capable of restoring confidence in the Church’s ability to administer justice,” Altieri wrote.

“One wonders, as well, why Church leaders should be more eager to use a new law providing a framework for criminal investigation, when they were apparently so reticent to use the law that made it possible to deal with wayward bishops without having to try them.”

Altieri notes that, although Buffalo diocese whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor is out of a job, Bishop Malone and his auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz are still in office and, despite their mishandling of the Buffalo sex abuse crisis, there seems to be no ecclesiastical will to oust them.

Like DeVille, Altieri is concerned by the lack of lay involvement in decision-making. Although the new motu proprio allows for “willing and qualified lay” assistance, it does not require lay involvement in reporting cases, investigating them, and disclosing the findings to the public. The journalist suggested that this is a form of clericalism.

“For all his talk of clericalism being the root of the crisis in the Church — he’s not wrong — and his constant reminders that we’re all in this together, Pope Francis has given the Church a tool for investigating and disciplining clerics that is very much to be wielded by other clerics,” Altieri wrote.  

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