Every major crisis in church history has redefined some aspects of the relationship between the center and the periphery

It is still too soon to know how Pope Francis will be remembered for his handling of the Catholic Church’s crisis of clergy sex abuse of minors. His pontificate is currently embroiled in what continues to be the phenomenon’s most difficult moment.

The pope’s legacy on this issue will not be judged only by the credibility of his personal intentions, but even more by his and the church’s ability to deal with the most serious calamity in the history of contemporary Catholicism.

Some things depend on him, other do not. For instance, Francis renewed the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on Feb. 17 by re-confirming half of its original members and appointing several new people to this advisory body. But the commission is only one of many initiatives that needs to be implemented – and it needs to be effective.

The pope was asked about the abuse scandal last month during a meeting with a group of Jesuits in Peru. In the conversation, translated and published by La Civiltà Cattolica, he called the abuse scandal “a great humiliation” for the Catholic Church.

“It shows not only our fragility, but also — let us say so clearly — our level of hypocrisy,” he admitted. The pope also said “it is notable that there are some newer congregations whose founders have fallen into these abuses.”

The challenge before the entire church is how to process this crisis beyond mere short-term fixes, and situate the ecclesial response to it in a long-term path of reform. Every idea of church reform is based on an idea or a set of ideas on the very nature and mission of the church – that is, on an ecclesiology. In turn, every ecclesiology is based on an understanding of church’s tradition and its history.

The problem today is that we have still not identified where the sex abuse crisis fits in the history of the church. We have studies on the effects of the crisis on local churches, on the cultural and anthropological reasons why Roman Catholic priests have abused youngsters, and on the spiritual dimension of the wounds inflicted on the victims. There are also in-depth reports on the system that allowed abuses to continue in particular churches, such as those published in Ireland in 2002  and in Australia in 2017.

But we still do not have a clear sense of exactly when and where instances of sexual abuse started in the global church. We are long past the moment of believing this happened only in the United States during the period following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). We do not have yet a chronology of clergy sex abuse throughout the world. But this must not stop us from beginning immediately to reflect on the ecclesiology of clerical sexual abuse and how it is connected to the need for both institutional and cultural reform in the church.

Let us look briefly at the issues that should be part of an ecclesiology of the sex abuse crisis for church reform.

The first concerns the papacy and the Vatican. In the last ten centuries scandals and abuse in the Catholic Church have been addressed and solved by forms of centralization in Rome. From the Gregorian Reform in the 11th-12th centuries to the corruption of the Roman Curia in the early modern period, the standard defense has been to give more power to Rome and the pope.

It is not clear whether another period of centralization is the answer to the sex abuse crisis in the global Catholic Church today. Today it is clear that local church politics in Chile is part of the complicated relations between the local hierarchy and Rome.

Do we really need another super-tribunal in the Roman Curia to deal with bishops who are unable or unwilling to publicly denounce abusive priests? Can it even work? Or do we need, perhaps, a more decentralized church? The ecclesiology of liberal-progressive Catholicism is usually opposed to giving more power to Rome, and yet it seems to be ambivalent about Rome’s role when it comes to prosecuting abusers.

By Massimo Faggioli February 19, 2018, La Croix

On the other side of the spectrum, a more conservative-traditionalist ecclesiology does not want to hear about Francis, but it is also historically opposed to a more “local” and less universalist ecclesiology.

Every major crisis in church history has redefined some aspects of the relationship between the center and the periphery. The sex abuse crisis is probably going to have an impact on this interplay as well.

Second, where the ecclesiology of the episcopate has been called into question because of the sex abuse crisis, to whom and what issues should bishops be held accountable?

In the last few decades the criteria for selecting bishops were based on the candidates’ adherence to the Vatican’s doctrinal policies on life issues and women’s ordination, not about their ability to serve in a pastoral mission. The exclusion of input from the local churches and the faithful in the process of selecting a bishop needs to be re-examined in light of the sex abuse crisis.

Moreover, since Vatican II the task of the bishop has increasingly evolved into a managerial role, more like a CEO and less like a pastor. The effects of the sex abuse crisis are accentuating this evolution. No ecclesiological reflection can ignore that a spiritual and theological response to the sex abuse crisis is unlikely to come from bishops who now spend a significant amount of their time managing the resources of their local churches in an attempt to avoid parish and school closures.

Third, what does the sex abuse crisis tell us about the ecclesiology of the laity and the clergy? We should not pretend that the sexual abuse crisis has no effect on how the laity and the clergy see each another – especially how Catholic women and our youth view the all-male clergy. In fact, this may be one of the determining factors of what Italian lay Catholic theologian, Marco Vergottini, has called the end of the 20th century “theology of the laity”  and the beginnings of an ecclesiology based more on witness than on sacramental ordination. 

Mandatory celibacy is one of the factors typically raised by those investigating the dynamics of sexual abuse committed by clergy, for example in the Final Report published two months ago by the Royal Commission in Australia.  But perhaps other ecclesiological dimensions should also be assessed, such as the lifestyle of clergy. Too often diocesan priests live alone and are seen as solitary figures that provide services to a community. Far less frequently do they live in common with other priests, a proposal that emerged in the debates at Vatican II but was ignored in the final documents.

Fourth, the sex abuse crisis has shown the need to take a fresh look at the ecclesiology of papal nuncios. Since Vatican II the role of papal “ambassadors” has changed. No longer do they advocate for issues that pertain strictly to Catholics. They are now at the service of the world and humanity.

Pope Francis is supportive of this development, but the current scandal of sexual abuse in Chile shows that papal diplomacy still tends to defend the institution more than the ecclesial community. The institutional independence of Vatican diplomats from the local churches is an asset on some issues, but there is a fine line between independence and lack of accountability.

Finally, there is an ecclesiology of Church finances at stake here. The history of the sex abuse scandal has shown the clerical instinct to protect ecclesiastical assets, but also how sexual abuse and financial crimes are often part of the same picture. The idea of a “poor church” and a “church for the poor” is also a response to the sex abuse crisis.

Francis said as much in his conversation with the Jesuits in Peru.

“It is curious that the phenomenon of abuse touched some new, prosperous (religious) congregations,” he declared.

“Abuse in these congregations is always the fruit of a mentality tied to power that has to be healed in its malicious roots. And I will add: there are three levels of abuse that come together: abuse of authority (mixing the internal forum with the external forum), sexual abuse and an economic mess,” the pope said.

All the above-mentioned points are part of the beginning of a much-needed reflection.

In his classical text on Catholic ecclesiology, Models of the ChurchCardinal Avery Dulles(1918-2008) showed the impact of the various ecclesiological models in the intra-Catholic debate. The American Jesuit theologian described a model as being “an image employed reflectively and critically to deepen one’s theoretical understanding of reality.”

His book, which was published in 1974 and went through revisions in the early 2000s, is still an extremely reliable introduction to Catholic ecclesiology. Certainly it could be updated again in light of the sex abuse crisis.

In the very first chapter, Dulles said, “A model that leads to practical abuses is, even from a theoretical standpoint, a bad model.”

He was referring to the notion of vicarious satisfaction and the indulgences that were among the causes of the Protestant Reformation. But we should ask ourselves if the sex abuse crisis also linked to a model of ecclesiology that needs to be reformed.

 Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

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