Dallas, Rome and Beyond

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

To imagine that the Church is essentially a political body is to make a serious mistake, however. That’s a mistake too many advocacy groups have been making in recent months.

It’s perfectly understandable that victims’ groups should emphasize the imperative of ending clergy sexual abuse, protecting children and young people, and insuring that sexual predators are expelled from public ministry. But when victims’ groups suggest that theirs is the only agenda, and that justice for priests falsely accused of abuse must take a back seat to that agenda, something is wrong.

It’s perfectly understandable that priests’ support groups emphasize that a man should be considered innocent until reasonable evidence of misconduct is brought forward. It’s also understandable that priests don’t want to see the local bishop’s office turned into an adjunct of the local state’s attorney’s office. But when priests’ support groups fail to acknowledge that certain aspects of clerical culture — including a breakdown of fraternal correction among priests — is a large part of the problem of clergy sexual abuse, something is wrong.

It’s perfectly understandable — no, it’s devoutly to be wished — that bishops seek counsel from knowledgeable professionals in dealing with sometimes murky clergy personnel questions. But when bishops mortgage their headship to lay review boards, or when lay review boards suggest that they stand in judgment on the fitness of bishops for office, something is wrong.

The Roman response to the U.S. bishops’ proposed national norms for dealing with clergy sexual abuse marked an important moment in the Long Lent of 2002: the moment when the Holy See and the U.S. bishops’ leadership agreed that the twin problems of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance have to be addressed and resolved in a thoroughly Catholic way.

In the Catholic imagination, things are more often “both/and” than “either/or:” nature and grace, faith and works, word and sacrament, ministerial priesthood and priestly mission of the baptized, authority and collegiality. That’s not waffling. The famous Catholic “both/and” expresses the ancient Catholic intuition that things fit together, in a script with a divine author. Applied to today’s crisis, the Catholic “both/and” means that the Church must promote justice for victims and justice for priests falsely accused of abuse; fraternity among priests and fraternal correction of misbehaving priests by their ordained brothers; lay responsibility and episcopal leadership. Of course this is difficult. But to suggest that it’s impossible, as some advocacy groups have done in the wake of Rome’s complex and nuanced response to the Dallas norms, is to abandon a truly Catholic way of thinking about these problems.

I’m reasonably confident that the new Vatican-U.S. commission formed to refine the Dallas norms will advance what I called for in my book, The Courage To Be Catholic: the authentically, indeed radically, Catholic reform of the Church. When the commission completes its work, however, the challenge of authentically Catholic reform won’t have been met. The bishops will have the tools to deal with the most noxious weeds in the garden; the question of revitalizing the soil so that it doesn’t produce poisonous weeds will remain.

Revitalizing the soil of Catholic life requires a probing study of U.S. seminaries by bishops who have already demonstrated the ability and the guts to reform seminaries. It means reforming today’s vocations guild, so that wise and holy priests are once again in charge of diocesan vocation offices, and those offices are putting a higher premium on effective discipleship than on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Profile in evaluating candidates for the priesthood. It means a thorough investigation of novitiates and religious houses of formation, where serious problems of sexual identity and conduct remain. It means developing criteria for determining when a local bishop has lost his capacity to govern.

And it means the appointment of bishops who have the courage and wit to call Catholics to live the fullness of Catholic faith without scuttling into the catacombs.

Once again, it’s “both/and,” not “either/or”.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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