According to Bishop Shawn McKnight, reforming the Church demands both “authentic communion” and a “genuine synodal process” that involves the laity at all levels.

The shepherd of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, made this argument in an open letter to his flock following the U.S. bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore last month, telling them the U.S. Catholic bishops as a group had shown themselves there as “too insular” and “ineffectual” at addressing the abuse of power by bishops.

And, Bishop McKnight said, the presence and participation in Baltimore of retired bishops who were notorious for covering up clerical sexual abuse demonstrated “episcopal arrogance and clericalism” and was “a slap in the face to all who have been wounded by the clergy.”

Bishop McKnight’s blunt letter echoed the earlier call of the Missouri bishops to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: that the laity needed to be incorporated in a reform of the Church’s pastoral governance at all levels.

In this Dec. 4 interview with the Register, Bishop McKnight explains why he thinks the bishops need to move in this direction, why Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s rise to power must be fully investigated and exposed, and how engaging the gifts of the laity at all levels could help to heal the divisions between shepherds and their flocks.


You just came back from the U.S. bishops’ assembly: What happened that made you write recently that the bishops’ conference needs authentic collegiality and a genuine synodal process? 

After conducting a series of listening sessions with the faithful of the diocese in preparation for the bishops’ assembly in Baltimore, I thought it was important to report back to them on the outcome of the meeting with regard to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.

From my perspective, we have to do a better job of communicating with each other as a Church. With the damage already done to the credibility of the bishops, which the Archbishop McCarrick scandal only exacerbates, we must include the laity more effectively in the way in which we bishops exercise pastoral governance. This is not a matter of bishops capitulating, delegating or ceding authority to the laity; rather, we are called to utilize the gifts [and] talents of the laity, especially in the more important ecclesial matters.

After rereading the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, it seems pretty clear to me that there is more we could and should do at all levels of the Church — from the parish to the diocese, to the conference of bishops, and even at the level of the Holy See.

The whole Church must be engaged to deal effectively with the crisis. Pope Francis has been a strong proponent of the concept of synodality, and if I understand him correctly, that includes the laity as well as the clergy. 

 

What was your reaction to the outcome of the resolution encouraging Pope Francis to conduct a thorough investigation and to fully disclose how ex-Cardinal McCarrick rose to the top quickly? Despite the various explanations given, many people were shocked — in both the Catholic and secular world — that the resolution failed. Do you have any hopes or expectations for the February conference with Pope Francis? 

With regard to the outcome of the specific resolution calling upon the Vatican to release documents on the Archbishop McCarrick investigation, I wasn’t all that surprised it failed. It is very difficult to craft a well-worded resolution from the floor without utilizing a process of consultation among the various committees of the USCCB. It is unfortunate that we had no other opportunity to register the dissatisfaction of the laity and clergy with the whole scandal.

From what I understand about the extraordinary synod in February, the Archbishop McCarrick investigation is not a topic for the meeting. I can understand the frustration many people feel about a man like Archbishop McCarrick rising so high in the Church’s hierarchy.

I believe transparency will require competent and well-qualified laity to be a part of the investigation and that a full accounting of the final report be given to the public.

My concern is that in order to learn from our mistakes, we have to have an adequate understanding of what went wrong. The very process of vetting candidates for the episcopal office (let alone, for cardinals) is now under a cloud of suspicion. Until credibility can be regained in the process, new bishops will not enjoy the same level of trust and confidence as in the past.

 

On a related note, do you think the metropolitan proposal advanced at the U.S. bishops’ meeting would be an expression of genuine synodality?

In response to the Archbishop McCarrick scandal last summer, I thought it necessary to respond concretely and immediately to the perception that bishops are not being held accountable. 

Until another protocol is put into place, I have made provisions for an independent investigator to conduct a thorough examination of any accusation of sexual abuse by the sitting bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City. If there were to be a finding of at least a “semblance of the truth,” I would ask the Pope for a leave of absence until the matter could be thoroughly investigated and the review board of the Archdiocese of St. Louis could make a recommendation to the apostolic nuncio. What is good for priests should be good for the bishop.

With regard to forwarding the matter to the metropolitan archbishop, I’m not sure if that would be any different than what we have now. The important thing is to involve an independent lay board to review any serious accusation against a bishop.

 

Overall, do you believe that authentic collegiality and a genuine synodal process — at the U.S. bishops’ conference and even the diocesan and parish levels — could heal the divisions in the Church? 

I do. The details of how this should take place remains to be seen, but at least in principle I believe we can make the decision to move in the direction of collegiality and collaboration with the laity. We need to evaluate how we might engage a wider sphere of the Church in the clergy’s deliberations on the most important matters facing the Church. 

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.