The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rome won’t fix the sex abuse crisis in U.S. churches. Let U.S. lay Catholics try.

Rank-and-file American Catholics have more power than the clergy thinks they do.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the group's meeting in Baltimore on Monday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“We have accepted it with disappointment.” That was the public reaction of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo to the latest indignity inflicted on him and his fellow Roman Catholic bishops in the United States. The Vatican had demanded that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose annual meeting in Baltimore this week had cleared its agenda in order to focus on the sexual abuse crisis, must cancel its vote on proposals that would have begun to address that crisis.

Why have the American bishops acceded to this demand from Rome? None of their collective decisions carry any juridical force until the pope ratifies them. They could have held their vote and still left Rome to react as Rome sees fit. The Vatican can easily veto the decisions of local assemblies without also silencing their deliberations.

The simple answer is that our bishops are afraid to irritate Rome. And who can blame them? In what may be a coincidence, Pope Francis just three weeks ago took the rare step of firing 63-year-old Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis over concerns unrelated to sex abuse (concerns described only as “management of the diocese”). Canon law stipulates that the involuntary removal of a bishop must take place only “for grave causes and according to the manner of proceeding defined by law.” No canon-law “proceeding” was made public, and Holley claims that Cardinal Donald Wuerl was using his Roman connections to retaliate for Holley’s having previously stood in the way of Wuerl’s career advancement (a charge Wuerl has not directly addressed). We have no way of knowing who is telling the truth.

It is tempting to blame the bishops for accepting this week’s latest delay in the painfully slow process of reform. But before we point the finger at these unfortunate men, lay Catholics — especially those with the privilege of being paid to voice our own opinions freely and loudly — might take a moment to wonder how outspoken any of us could be under such conditions. The Vatican heads up the world’s largest international bureaucracy, with a million employees and many times as many volunteers. It treats bishops as the regional managers of this massive organization. It hires and fires them with no transparency or possibility of appeal. At a moment’s notice it moves them to new positions hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Any bishop who wishes to continue doing God’s work for his flock will hesitate countless times before defying even an unreasonable whim when it comes from Rome. And this week’s news has made clear, if it was not already clear, that Rome shares none of its American brethren’s impatience to deal with the abuse crisis.

Catholic bishops and priests, I need to know how you’ll fix the church you broke

As others have noted, there is a structural problem here. Bishops are supposed to be successors to the Apostles and chief shepherds of their dioceses. As bishop of Rome, the pope has a unique responsibility for safeguarding the integrity of their common Catholic faith. From this one might conclude that the pope should relate to his brother bishops like a mega-CEO — one unshackled by either employment law or a board of directors. But one might also conclude otherwise. For the great majority of Catholic history, a bishop owed his position to local laity, local clergy, local political authorities, regional bishops and/or the pope. Only recently has so much power been concentrated in Rome.

Even if we had reason to trust that Rome was rushing to coordinate a global solution to the global abuse crisis, a global solution will not be adequate for the particular challenges that the crisis poses in our country (with its unusual legal traditions, unique media landscape, educated and assertive laity, cultural distrust of secretive institutions, and so on). The American abuse crisis will be addressed only when the concrete administration of American dioceses is put into the hands of leaders more responsive to the demands of rank-and-file American Catholics. But these days Rome seems more open to power-sharing with the Chinese Communist Party than with its own bishops. The party may soon be granted a role in the selection of the Chinese hierarchy, but when American bishops wish to formalize preliminary measures against abuse in their own dioceses, Rome suddenly sees a threat to its apparently fragile authority.

This might seem to present American Catholics with a Catch-22. Centralized Roman governance stifles reforms, but we need reforms to move us away from centralized Roman governance. The solution, however, is for laypeople to recognize that within our own national borders, we are not nearly as powerless over the clergy as we sometimes think we are.

Church history has been full of battles between clerical and lay leaders. Each side has weapons proper to it, and neither side has a monopoly on truth or righteousness. Those lay leaders in the past were often Catholic emperors, kings or lords. In their battles with popes and bishops, they took actions that we can only find shocking: They blocked the selection of bishops, defied interdicts, executed papal ambassadors. No one can be nostalgic for those days. But at least our history ought to remind us that spiritual power rarely checks itself. It always needs to be balanced by temporal power. And temporal power is rightly placed in the hands of the laity. In the American republic, the kings and lords are all of us.

The next archbishop of Washington should be a humble priest

The American Catholic laity needs to start thinking hard about how to make use of the legitimate machinery of secular politics and society as a source of pressure on the hierarchy. We now know that lawsuits and aggressive journalism can do some good for the church. We may soon see what large-scale criminal investigations can do. New grounds for civil suits may also be found, especially by former seminarians in the #MeToo era. The corporate structures of religious nonprofits are vulnerable to new regulations at the state level. The United States’ amicable foreign relations with Vatican City are not a given.

Some Americans will be reluctant to target the Catholic church with social, political and legal pressures. But if lay Catholics themselves lead the coalition that creates those pressures, then other concerned Americans will not hold back for long. And when church leaders face concrete threats to the goods that only their earthly city can protect — wealth, reputation, even personal liberty — then we can expect them at last to extract from Rome the necessary reforms in governance structures. In light of this week’s “disappointment,” we may hope that some of them would be quietly grateful for our help.