When Philip Nielsen set out as a concerned Catholic layman to respond to what he saw as a lack of transparency in Church governance, he knew he could expect opposition.
Indeed, he has faced plenty since word got out that he was organizing Better Church Governance, a group that plans to investigate the Church’s cardinals and publish its findings in what it calls the “Red Hat Report.”
Using the services of academic researchers, lawyers, editors and investigators who are former FBI and CIA agents, the group hopes to create dossiers on cardinals by examining their priorities and records of handling sexual-abuse incidents and financial and legal matters.
Better Church Governance originally had planned an Oct. 24 launch of its project, but the story broke Oct. 1 in the Catholic Herald and Crux, which obtained an audio recording of the group’s Sept. 30 event attended by about 40 people. Reports by other news organizations quickly followed, some portraying the group, which has a fundraising goal of $1 million, as one being backed by wealthy Catholics. A story in Slate called the effort a crusade against Pope Francis’s leadership, homosexuality in the Church and cardinals who do not adhere to “traditional values.”
In an email interview, Nielsen, a writer and editor with a background in art, architecture and theology who is serving as the group’s executive director, said the succeeding days brought a firestorm marked by persistent misconceptions about the project, although he acknowledged that the group failed to control its messaging.
For example, an email from Nielsen mentioned plans to publicly announce the project Oct. 2 at the Napa Institute Conference on Authentic Catholic Reform, but Nielsen told the Register that by the time of the conference, the decision had been changed to launch Oct. 24. The Sept. 30 meeting was to have been a private RSVP event, yet it was posted on the group’s public Facebook page and on Eventbrite.
Nielsen said he also underestimated both the interest and hostility the project would garner in the media.
The project’s $1-million fundraising goal, for instance, appears to have excited many commentators, he said, but he considers it a modest amount compared to the billions the Church has paid in sexual-abuse settlements worldwide. As for the group being backed by wealthy Catholics, he said that, so far, the typical donor has given a few hundred dollars, and no single donor has represented more than 5% of the funding. A GoFundMe account set up as a temporary measure had raised $1,846 of a $400,000 goal as of Oct. 15.
Nielsen also said the project is not primarily a theological one or focused on homosexuality, but merely notes a cardinal’s theological and pastoral priorities.
“We ask what the cardinals teach, what they make their main initiatives and where they spend their energies,” he said.
However, despite demurrals from the organizers, the “Red Hat Report” also has raised concerns about the possibility that it could be attempting to influence a papal election.
In an Oct. 1 posting on Twitter, canon lawyer Kurt Martens of The Catholic University of America asked whether the group could risk excommunication by preparing its report for the next conclave. He cited Article 80 of Universi Dominici Gregis (The Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff), St. John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic constitution that prohibits “all possible forms of interference, opposition and suggestion whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree, or any individual or group, might attempt to exercise influence on the election of the pope.”
Martens said in an interview with the Register that he posed the question because early news reports said the group wanted to be ready for the next conclave and quoted a spokesman as saying that if more information had been available, Pope Francis might never have been elected.
“You put all those things together, and it looks as if they’re trying to influence the conclave, and they’re not happy with the current pope,” he said. “That is forbidden under Article 80 of the apostolic constitution.”
The origins of such prohibitions, Martens said, go back to civil powers trying to interfere in conclaves, but they have been expanded to include all kinds of pressure groups.
“The point is there is a reason for all those rules when a pope is elected — that the cardinals are absolutely free from outside interference,” he said. “It’s fine to put information together, but you’re walking a very thin line because it could easily be seen as a way to attempt to influence the outcome.”
Having consulted with canon lawyers, the group, Nielsen reiterated, is not seeking to influence the next papal conclave or to dictate Church governance.
“We are simply working to compile known data, investigate the question marks and then make readily available to all accurate information about the actions of Church leadership according to objective standards of scholarship, journalism and investigation,” he said. “Right now, rumors and accusations are rife, and ordinary Catholics are losing confidence in the Church’s integrity. If we Catholics can’t come together to take responsibility and restore trust, secular authorities will do it for us, as we are already seeing in the attorneys general investigations across a dozen states.”
Nielsen said the group sees its task as one of documenting information about cardinals.
“The fact that we are doing so in a methodical and scholarly manner may unnerve some, but canonically it is no different than what countless Church reporters do every day,” he said. “What it does do, however, is save ordinary Catholics from having to obsessively follow all news reports in order to know the credibility of the cardinals who have been entrusted with shepherding them.”
Added Nielsen, “… Pope Francis has spoken about a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ that can arise in Church politics. This is a grave danger, and the way to end suspicion is to speak with clarity and honesty, with parrhesia, as Francis has repeatedly exhorted the faithful. We want, as Pope Benedict XVI’s motto proclaimed, to be ‘co-workers with the truth,’ and to ‘be not afraid,’ as Pope St. John Paul II said.”
Is It Necessary?
Still, Dawn Eden Goldstein, who accepted an invitation to the Sept. 30 meeting with some concerns about what she had read in the accompanying materials, told the Register she asked organizers at the event whether such a project is necessary, given there is no historical precedent for it.
Goldstein, an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, said that she also cited the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, in asking if organizers saw the “Red Hat Report” as their only option, given Lumen Gentium specifies that the laity are to voice their opinions “through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose.”
Goldstein said she was told by Jacob Imam, Better Church Governance’s director of operations, that the group had a list of other options prepared, but that the “Red Hat Report” was the first they were trying to get off the ground. She said she found it disturbing that the group had chosen as its first project something that hasn’t been done, even though they acknowledged other unspecified options were available.
Nielsen, the former research director of the Center for Evangelical Catholicism, a nonprofit group that seeks to advance the New Evangelization, said he was impelled to start the new group after being concerned for years about the lack of knowledge about leaders of the Church and lack of transparency in Church governance.
“The combination of the allegations against [former] Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick and the Pennsylvania [grand jury] report gave it a new urgency,” Nielsen said.
He began by contacting friends and family members, academics and graduate students, and within a week or two, he had gathered about 30 people, although many of those at Catholic universities did not want their names used for fear of reprisals.
Among the few willing to be named was Jay Richards, an assistant professor of business and economics at The Catholic University of America, who has been listed as a research editor for the project.
As for the opposition he has encountered, Nielsen said he anticipated that if the group set out to document individual cardinals’ responses to abuse and corruption, some would have a vested interest in discrediting the project.
“I also knew that certain quarters of the Church would object to lay involvement at all,” he said. “But at the same time, Vatican II called for greater lay involvement, and this seems like an obvious place for that to happen.”
Canon lawyer Philip Gray, the president of the St. Joseph Foundation and Catholics United for the Faith, said he thinks Better Church Governance’s effort is in line with their rights and obligations under canon law, provided they maintain the integrity of virtue and grace and the reports they produce are grounded in truth and justice and respectful of the dignity of the subjects.
“The faithful have a right and at times a duty to manifest to the pastors of the Church and share with each other concerns about the Church, as long as they do so in pursuit of virtue,” Gray said. “That is enshrined, recognized and protected in the Code of Canon Law.”
However, Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, an associate professor of ethics at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, takes issue with Better Church’s Governance’s characterization of itself as an independent watchdog that will investigate abuse and corruption in the hierarchy by producing dossiers on cardinals.
“The Church sorely needs transparency and accountability and professional lay involvement,” he said, “but not at the expense of the hierarchical structure and surely not in the adversarial guise of a watchdog.”
Father Gahl said the reform the Church needs has been enunciated by Pope Francis and consists in a “renewed, joyful spirit of evangelization, with the laity and families at the forefront as protagonists.” This, he continued, will overcome “the dual clericalist tendencies of, first, abuse of power by clerics and, second, by the false attempt to promote the laity by giving them clerical tasks that remove them from their role in the world to sanctify all things in Christ.”
Under the Church’s divinely designed hierarchical structure, Father Gahl added, priests, especially bishops, are responsible for governance because of their sacramental ordination. Although the laity by baptism share in the royal priesthood of the faithful, they are to responsibly support the Church, and the ordained ministers in turn are accountable to them.
The St. Joseph Foundation’s Gray said laity can voice their concerns and still maintain respect for the structure and nature of the Church by looking at how Christ presented his mission to the religious authorities of his time.
“He respected their authority, their person, but he didn’t respect the wrong that they said or did,” Gray said. “He never walked away from a conversation with them. He never condemned their person. It’s very important that when we are critical of an idea or an action that the way we present it is a criticism of the ideal or the action, not of the person.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.