The Church Needs Our Help — Let’s Get to Work

COMMENTARY: Now is the time for the entire People of God to rise up, roll up their sleeves.

(photo: Unsplash)

As Catholics around the world continue to reel from seemingly endless revelations of abuses of sex and power, do we want to give the devil another unearned victory?

Instead of finding solutions to the crisis, we Catholics are allowing Satan to play both ends against the middle, getting us to fight amongst ourselves about “clericalism” and “lavender mafias” and so forth, all to his advantage.

But let’s remember that Lent is about driving Satan back into the desert and being purified of our illusions so that we can more clearly see and hear the voice of the Lord.

What is the Lord calling the Church to now? The answer to that question is always the same and ever new. He is calling the Church to purification and perfection — as he always does — but one of the ways to do that in 2019 is to introduce new structures of accountability, some examples of which were recently highlighted by Peter Jesserer Smith’s excellent article for the Register of March 12 (“Laity Mobilize to End the Sex-Abuse Crisis and Reform the Church”).

Today we need a lot more people willing to play new — and permanent — roles in the governance of the Church. We need profound change to overcome the sex-abuse crisis. We need to take to heart what soon-to-be St. John Henry Newman once said, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” (Essay on Development).

What changes do we need in 2019 and beyond? 

I began writing about sex abuse in 1992 in Canada, but only since the summer of 2018 would I say the answer to that question has itself changed.

Previously many Catholics — and I was one of them — were in the habit of thinking the crisis confined to a diocese or two or three, or some wayward religious order, and the change was simple enough: Swap out the bad priests for good, or wait for the pope to change bishops, and then we could all get back to the status quo ante of living our lives in the fullness of the faith.

But since last summer, I have not talked to a single Catholic in North America, Europe, Australia or Malta who thinks the Church should return to the status quo. Today, there is a real and palpable desire for serious and far-reaching changes in which everyone in the Church — from the pope to parishioners and everyone in between — holds each other accountable.

The previous “conservatism” I subscribed to and found in most Catholics — by which I mean the idea that we can hang on to things as they are, but just make a few personnel changes — has been giving way for nearly a year now since news of Theodore McCarrick broke and then was followed by news about Cardinal Philippe Barbarin in France, the entire episcopate in Chile, and now West Virginia’s ex-Bishop Michael Bransfield — among scores of others.

This cascade of scandals has led to a desire for major change. But many have felt frustrated by an apparent lack of serious models for the Church to adopt in any effort to change its policy and structures.

I offer some concrete proposals in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019). For the Church to begin to recover from the abuse crisis, not only do we need prayer and fasting, deeper conversion to the Lord, a rooting out of bad theology and immoral practices. But the Church also needs structural reconfigurations in parishes, dioceses and national episcopal conferences to introduce accountability at all levels.

The book does this by re-introducing structures and procedures that were once common in the Latin Church in the West but were gradually lost. It is, therefore, a deeply “conservative” and “traditional” book, for its proposals are all grounded in the truly conservative character of Catholic Tradition, most of which has been forgotten by the contemporary Church. The book, then, is something of an aide-mémoire to help us recall what worked in the past and why it can work again now and in the future.

The new structures the Catholic Church needs still exist today in other apostolic churches. Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed finds its inspiration — like my earlier book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy — in various Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches (above all the Armenian Apostolic Church). Compared to the Western Church, these Eastern communities of the Church have remained more locally grounded and less encumbered by the increasing centralization the Catholic Church has seen since the end of the 19th century. As a result, the priest in a parish or bishop in a diocese both remain more responsive to local expectations of accountability.

I deliberately look Eastward not only because I am myself Byzantine Catholic, but also because the Orthodox witness defuses the anxious nonsense one sometimes hears from Catholics who are convinced that structural changes will bring about a liberalization of doctrine.

Orthodox and Eastern Catholic experience shows this to be false. They have preserved their rich and liturgical traditions far better than the West has in the last 60 years, and Orthodoxy’s theological patrimony has been subject to far less of the wild and crazy experimentation we have seen in too many dubiously Catholic theology faculties in the West. In sum, Orthodoxy’s deep conservatism and traditionalism exist within, and not in spite of, its much more localized and synodal structures.

Let me just give one concrete example of this at the most basic level of the Church: a parish council. Western canon law says parish councils are mere options; no priest has to have one, and even if he has one, he is under no obligation to listen to them at all; they have no determinative power or votes.

The Armenian Church, by contrast, says every parish must have one; that the council must work with the bishop to determine when a new priest is needed and why; and that it must have its voices and votes respected by both priest and bishop. The adoption of such an approach in the Catholic world would, at one stroke, cut off the possibility of a bishop ever again moving an abuser out of a parish, while not telling the people why, and dropping that abuser into another parish, again not telling them why. At the same time, it forecloses the possibility of priests abusing the finances of the parish — stories of which are not hard to come by today — by requiring that all major spending decisions be mutual decisions between priest and people.

Moving up to the diocesan and national levels, I argue for similar reforms, including the local election of bishops, who are held accountable in annual synods with their people — as they are in the Armenian and dozens of other real churches. This experience requires that one problem we have seen in the Catholic world — of bishops making huge payments in secret to bind victims in silence and make them go away — could not happen, for the annual synod has the right and in fact fiduciary obligation to review and approve all diocesan spending.

No more can bishops escape from telling their diocese what they did and why. No more can they act as the last remaining sovereign “princes,” aloof from their people and indifferent to them. If they were guilty of abuse, or of cover-up or other massive malpractice, the people have to be told, and the bishops in the region — following ancient practice still used in the East today — can be called in to discipline each other at the behest of the people. This has happened recently here in both the United States and Canada when the synod of the Orthodox Church of America disciplined (and in fact deposed) a bishop found guilty of sex abuse back in the 1970s and ’80s and disciplined and deposed other bishops and clergy for sexual and financial abuses.

Such proposals are not, as some pundits like to tell you, “clericalizing the laity.” My proposals are nothing more or other than a manifestation of charity — not as some syrupy emotion, but as “tough love”: The council loves its priest and the diocese its bishop enough to cut off the occasions of sin these men experience around sex, power and money.

The council loves these men enough to hold them accountable. It loves them so much it does not want to see them go to hell without first being challenged in concrete, unavoidable ways by their people to repent before it is too late.

In addition to these proposals, I also call for a change that is not so much structural as psychological: We need to stop the personality cult that has developed around the papacy (and, to a lesser extent, around any man claiming the title “Father” in the Church), for it has paralyzed the Church and done deep damage to it, a point that was obvious to some of us decades ago but which is now obvious to almost all Catholics since 2013.

This personality cult, this overreliance on the person of the pope, gave rise to the degrading spectacle last November of the U.S. bishops standing around waiting for late-night emails from Rome telling them what they could or could not even discuss — a prospect that put me in mind of Bismarck’s observation in 1870 that the bishops were reduced to being the “pope’s postmen” instead of successors to the apostles with authority to act in their own right.

After February’s largely wasteful and wasted summit in Rome, it is heartening to see some bishops taking a step in the right direction. But now it is time for the entire People of God to rise up, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Adam DeVille is the author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019.