Calls abound for the convening of an extraordinary synod of bishops to consider … what? Some have suggested a synod on the life and ministry of clergy, but is that really the issue?

Behind all the words written about it, it seems the need is not a synod of bishops, but a synod about bishops, and specifically about how they make decisions in their dioceses.

From the earliest days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has decried a “self-referential” Church. He has consistently called for a larger exercise of synodality in Church governance, broader inclusion in decision-making. Synods are nothing new to the Church. They have been a mechanism for Church governance and discipline since the early Church.

In 1959, just after Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, two cardinals (Silvio Oddi, then a nuncio in the diplomatic corps, and Johannes Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands,) made separate proposals for a permanent body to assist the Roman pontiff in pastoral governance and legislation for the Church.

This idea was taken up by the Council and made part of the document on the pastoral office of bishops, Christus Dominus (5). In 1965, Pope Paul VI established the synod of bishops as an ongoing institution for the Church.

The world synod of bishops has generally met every three years to consider topics of sweeping significance in the pastoral life of the Church.

An “extraordinary” synod, however, is intended “to treat affairs that require a speedy solution.” Recall, however, that “speedy” is understood in the Church’s pace and that a world synod is neither simple nor quick in its planning or execution.

 

‘The Worst Crime’

This is not the first crisis the Church has faced, and likely not the last. We do well to sort through the panicked emotion to consider the focus of the present crisis as well as its broader context.

In 2002, as the Church reeled from widespread public reporting on clergy sexual abuse, the focus was on priests. The role of the bishops in the 2002 crisis was absent from the conversations. In truth, the situation had evolved because of the action — or more accurately, the inaction — of the bishops.

The case that first shocked us with the reality of clergy sexual abuse occurred in 1985, when a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, entered a guilty plea to 11 counts of the sexual abuse of minors over two decades and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. That alerted the Church and her leadership to the truth that such cases would be handled differently from then on, at least in state courts.

What should have been a wake-up call resulted in many in diocesan administration pushing the snooze button. There was a momentary ripple in U.S. chanceries, some attention to the criminal provisions of the still-new Code of Canon Law among canon lawyers, but little substantive response of note — that is, except among trial lawyers and secular journalists.

The provisions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law were clear in directing diocesan bishops how to respond to an allegation of this sort. Additionally, a 1962 Vatican documentCrimen Sollicitationis, provided detailed instruction to bishops in matters that included what it labeled “the worst crime” (de crimine pessimo). The “worst crime” was any sexual behavior by a cleric with a person of the same sex, but in the same section the document also included sexual activity with a minor of either sex. By the mid-1980s, that document, which was to be locked in the diocesan confidential archive, was largely unknown to bishops and their canon lawyers.

In 1991, the document was republished to U.S. bishops with instructions to keep it in the confidential archive and not to discuss it openly.

The document was significantly updated and republished in 2002, but in that moment of scrutiny on the Church’s actions, its existence soon became known, and the Holy See insisted on a strict application of its provisions.

We might wonder, though, if bishops would have continued to ignore it, if accountability had not been imposed by a national review board, external audits and the presence of a lay review board in each diocese.

There is wisdom to the practice of the Church, and painful lessons captured from centuries past are often reflected in the Church’s law. Each canon of the Code of Canon Law is, as it were, a portrait of a mistake made in our 2,000-year history and a promise to be diligent in avoiding it again in the life of the Church. However, at the root of the crises in 2002 and today is a simple but terrible truth: Many bishops ignored our own law and its lessons. The wisdom of the Church was lost, at least for a time. Following canon law would have accomplished the goals of removing offenders and giving victims their “day in court,” albeit an ecclesiastical court, if not a state court.

During the 2002 crisis, many priests grew disheartened by seeing that the bishops had diverted attention away from their own inaction, their own inattention to the requirements of canon law. The study they commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, published in 2004, looked into the roots of sexual abuse by priests and deacons, but there was no mention of bishops or their inattention to the crimes committed.

The 2002 crisis was about the priest-offenders; the current crisis is about the bishops.

New law wasn’t needed during the first crisis. The law existed, but it hadn’t been followed. What was needed was external accountability to ensure that the law was followed in the future.

In 2002, there was public shock at learning the number of victims and number of abusers. In 2018 that has yielded to public rage at the shepherds who were not protecting the flock through it all. The 2002 reforms — a layer of accountability imposed on the bishops — seem to be working, as begrudgingly acknowledged in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report. That fact, however, does not reduce the deep sense of betrayal that the laity and clergy feel when they learn of the inaction of the bishops before that, and now learn of the inaction of bishops when the accusations were against brother bishops.

 

Breaking ‘Path Dependence’

And so there is a certain irony to the call to convene a synod of bishops to look at the inaction of bishops. Many believe that the majority of bishops still do not understand their role in creating the situation that now causes so much grieving and distress in the Church, so much scorn from the secular media, and so many calls for legislative reform to state statutes of limitations.

Would such a synod of bishops be “self-referential,” in the words of Pope Francis?

This certainly isn’t the first time in history that bishops have made mistakes. Historically, when some bishops engaged in profligate spending without any safeguard, a structure — an added layer of accountability — was created to provide fiscal controls.

Hence, in each diocese today, there exist a college of consultors and a finance council, whose advice or consent is required for certain financial and real estate transactions. More recently, when it was learned that some bishops had failed to submit diocesan finances to external audits, the U.S. bishops agreed to submit proof annually to their metropolitan archbishop, via a form signed by diocesan finance council members, an added layer of accountability. The diocesan review board, an addition from the 2002 crisis, is another example: an added layer of accountability to address repeated failures of bishops to follow the law.

None of these issues required new law, but they did require adding accountability to enforce compliance with existing law.

The question of the moment is how to provide accountability so that an allegation, especially against a bishop, is given a wholehearted, thorough response in an open process.

Can we step away from the emotion of the moment to notice that the remedy often given to mistakes made by bishops is often the same: to add a new layer of accountability, to broaden assistance in decision-making, or in a worst-case scenario, to remove the decision-making from bishops entirely?

Although the phrase may hold a negative connotation, not intended here, the “monarchical episcopate” — the concentration of decision-making in one person — has been the reality of our Church for many centuries. That mode of pastoral governance evolved in the feudal era, when neither literacy nor communication were instant and universal. That has changed, but the systems and structures of decision-making in the Church have not.

Change is needed.

Institutional inertia — called “path dependence” in organizational theory — prevents change unless an external force intervenes. Path dependence suggests that an organization will function as it always has, even if everything has changed around it. Today in our dioceses, there is an almost-universal recognition that change is needed in how decisions are made, at least in certain matters.

An extraordinary synod of bishops about bishops may be needed, but about what specifically? Bishops investigating other bishops has not turned out well, and crisis after crisis, apology after apology, has not served to bring about believable change. A self-referential synod is, perhaps, missing the mark. Adding yet another structure of accountability to fix a broken system is not the answer.

The solution is larger than a single extraordinary synod can bring about. Is it time to stop addressing one issue, one crisis, at a time? We need to examine accountability and assistance in decision-making for bishops, but perhaps it is time to courageously re-examine how dioceses are governed.

Structures of administration largely unchanged since the Middle Ages need to be exposed to the modern world, redefined so that the local Church can function as the Body of Christ in a way that changes but does not diminish the role of the diocesan bishop, bringing collaboration and mutual accountability instead of tension, suspicion and mistrust.

That would be extraordinary indeed.

Msgr. William King, JCD, is a former vicar general of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Editor's note: the original column was updated after publication to more fully represent a citation of Crimen Sollicitationis regarding the "worst crime."