Three bishops — one in England and two in the United States — are calling for Pope Francis to convene an extraordinary synod of bishops on the life and ministry of clergy to deal with the sex abuse crisis.
The idea has drawn support from some Church analysts who spoke with the Register, but others caution that there might be better alternatives.
Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, England, published an Aug. 22 letter he wrote to the Holy Father calling for an extraordinary synod on the life and ministry of the clergy. Noting the sexual abuse scandals in Chile, Australia, Ireland and in England, Bishop Egan said he wanted to offer “a constructive suggestion.”
“I suggest the Synod be devoted to the identity of being a priest/bishop, to devising guidance on life-style and supports for celibacy, to proposing a rule of life for priests/bishops and to establishing appropriate forms of priestly/episcopal accountability and supervision,” Bishop Egan wrote.
He also suggested the extraordinary synod could begin with a “congress” that included lay involvement and specialists on the sexual abuse crisis and the protection of the vulnerable.
A week later, in Dallas, Bishop Edward Burns published an Aug. 29 letter, joining Bishop Egan in suggesting to Pope Francis that a synod on the life and ministry of clergy could draw together bishops and laity to address protecting children and reaching out to victims as well as the identity and lifestyle of clergy and their human formation.
“At the same time, to address abuse of power, clericalism, accountability and the understanding of transparency in the Church,” continued Bishop Burns.
On Aug. 30, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia reportedly told the Cardinals Forum that he had written to the Pope requesting that he cancel a synod on young people and instead hold one on the life of bishops. A spokesman for Archbishop Chaput declined to provide a copy of his letter or further details, saying that he considers it private correspondence.
Why An Extraordinary Synod?
The synod of bishops was established as a permanent structure within the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as an expression of the collegiality. Every synod of bishops is meant to provide counsel to the pope in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens her ecclesiastical discipline.
Canon law describes synods as “a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.”
Bishops have met in ordinary synod sessions typically every three years on matters of general pastoral importance. But extraordinary synods are gatherings of a smaller group of bishops organized to address matters in need of a “speedy resolution,” according to canon law.
While there have been 14 ordinary synods, there have been only three extraordinary synods. The most recent, in 2014, addressed family and marriage issues and was followed the next year by an ordinary synod on the same matter.
The current calls for an extraordinary synod have noted the urgent need for a coordinated response to the global crisis in the Church involving the mishandling of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy as well as a more comprehensive examination of factors that have contributed to the problem.
William Newton, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, acknowledged the merit in calls for an extraordinary synod.
“It does seem that it is has a sort of Church-wide dynamic to it and the synod of bishops is a useful mechanism to deal with issues which are Church-wide,” Newton said.
A synod creates an opportunity for more than just passing regulations and judging those at fault, according to Newton. He says there is a deeper-seated issue with clergy who are living isolated lives in a changing world. He said a synod could take action that “edifies and energizes” the vast majority of priests who are serving the Church well.
Reasons for Caution
Yet some theologians and canonists have question whether an extraordinary synod is a feasible response to the current situation.
Although extraordinary synods are meant to act quickly, it would still take too long to organize an extraordinary synod, canon lawyer Philip Gray told the Register.
“You’re looking at such a long enough passage of time the crisis is going to be old news,” Gray said.
One reason the synod might not be adequate is that it is a purely advisory body.
“A synod of bishops is a creature of the pope and is very limited in what it can propose,” Edward Peters, a canon lawyer who teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, told the Register.
“A synod can make, for the most part, only structural suggestions, but such suggestions would be of very limited usefulness in dealing with the kinds of problems exposed in, say, the McCarrick case.”
In addition, Peters notes that the extraordinary synod, which, despite participation of lay specialists, is essentially a gathering of bishops, would face a credibility issue.
“I question the prudence of convoking a synod on this matter as long as so many figures who would be important in such a gathering are themselves under suspicion of malfeasance in office,” Peters said.
The Need For Action
An alternative to an extraordinary synod, according to Gray, is having the cardinal and bishops in Congregation for the Clergy — the Vatican office whose mission it is to oversee issues affecting priests — passing new regulations in an updated edition of its Directory on the Life and Ministry of the Priests.
“They already have member bishops whose main purpose is to assist the cardinal-prefect in formulating policies and … addressing issues in the Church on an ordinary basis,” Gray said.
Newton, for his part, is skeptical that action at the level of a Vatican congregation is sufficient.
“At a human level, you can’t just throw things down to a department’s hole when they get really serious. People need to meet face to face and look into each other’s eyes and express and hear the other person,” he said.
Ultimately, however, it would be up to Pope Francis to implement what a synod can only recommend. That also means that the Holy Father doesn’t need to wait for a synod in order to take action, Peters noted.
“A pope does not need a synod of bishops to authorize his directly taking evidence of criminal or negligent behavior by bishops, nor to set up a panel of bishops to investigate such allegations,” Peters said. “Either way, though, judgment in such matters and over such persons is reserved to the pope not only by Canon 1405 but, I would argue, by divine law itself. A synod of bishops cannot change that fact.”
Whatever course of action is eventually undertaken, Gray recognized the need to remember that at the core the Church is engaged in spiritual warfare.
“The secularization within the Church has diminished in most people’s consciences — bishops and priests as well — a recognition that the devil is working very hard to destroy the Church from within,” Gray said.
“So the need to recognize that this is a spiritual war is very important to keep at the forefront.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.