Earlier this week, it seemed like the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops failed as soon as it began, with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s announcement that the Vatican had asked the bishops not to vote on their proposals for responding to the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. church. For many U.S. Catholics, for whom waiting for a previously scheduled annual meeting in November to address the summer’s sexual abuse scandals already seemed like an unconscionable delay, this last-minute order to wait seemed callous, if not outright cruel. With no advance notice and no real explanation, the hoped-for beginning of some official response to months of pain and anguish was pushed off again, to sometime after February’s international meeting of presidents of bishops’ conferences in Rome about sexual abuse.
There are both hopeful and skeptical explanations about what motivated the Vatican’s intervention to delay the vote. The tragedy of the last week, however, is not that bishops were unable to vote on the reform proposals. The tragedy of the last week is that the faithful are left to read tea leaves to understand what their bishops and their pope are trying to do in the first place. And the fund of trust has been spent so far into deficit that the Vatican’s action, which in the past could have been interpreted and explained over time, instead provokes a crisis of faith in church leadership, if not in the church itself. While much of this damage is caused by bad communication, it would be a mistake to understand it primarily as a public relations failure. It is above all a pastoral failure to understand the experience of the faithful and prioritize their needs above the strategic, canonical, bureaucratic and clerical concerns that have thus far governed the church’s response to this crisis.
It is above all a pastoral failure to understand the experience of the faithful and prioritize their needs above strategic, canonical, bureaucratic and clerical concerns.
Distrust in church leadership has been building all summer and fall. From the McCarrick revelations to the Pennsylvania grand jury report to the mess of the Viganò accusations, the church keeps learning about different ways its leaders have avoided responsibility and shifted blame. After the grand jury report was released—on a planned date, with dioceses having received advance copies—the faithful waited an agonizing two days for the Vatican press office to offer a response and another four days after that for Pope Francis’ letter to the church on sexual abuse. While Pope Francis’ choice of silence in response to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s calumnies seems to have been well discerned, the lack of explanation around it left ample room for the worst possible interpretations to fester. The conclusion that the slowness (or outright absence) of answers from various congregations in the Vatican stemmed from a fear of taking responsibility for having ignored reports about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick stretching back into the papacy of John Paul II was almost unavoidable.
With every new revelation of past failures, we wait for the slow and inadequate acknowledgment of error, usually fenced around with excuses about following the best available advice at the time or explanations of why allegations of priests preying on seminarians were not taken more seriously or reported more explicitly. The problem is not that these explanations are untrue but rather that they are not answering the more pressing question: How can we trust that things have really changed and that real reform has begun?
I think the hopeful explanations for the Vatican’s intervention earlier this week are more plausible than the negative spin. It is not hard to imagine that proposals finished less than two weeks before the meeting were rushed or that developing processes for holding bishops accountable will benefit from coordination with other bishops’ conferences and the Vatican. But those reasons could have easily been explained in those terms on Monday or earlier. The delay in the vote could have been announced—by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the U.S.C.C.B. together—as a coordinated decision to allow for a period of consultation and debate in order achieve more substantial reform for the whole church. Or it could have been posed in terms of a challenge from Pope Francis to the bishops to get to the spiritual roots of this crisis—and not simply adopt procedural reforms, as he has suggested in calling the bishops to a retreat. Some commentators would have found this disingenuous, of course, but the better and more hopeful explanation would have been publicly available without requiring Vaticanistas to decode it.
The opacity of the Vatican’s intervention may have done more damage than the intervention itself.
Instead, we got a surprise announcement on Monday morning, which appeared to catch the bishops as flat-footed as everyone else, including even Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who collaborates closely with the pope on the question of sexual abuse. Cardinal DiNardo was left to explain a request communicated in a letter from the Congregation for Bishops, but the letter was not released. While governance by letter is standard ecclesial practice, its inadequacies under these conditions are tragic. The opacity of the Vatican’s intervention may have done more damage than the intervention itself.
People with more knowledge of the inner workings of the Vatican than I have have told me that I should not expect the universal church to operate according to the expectations of the 21st-century American media landscape. They also say that Americans have unreasonable expectations that whatever happens on our shores should command instant attention from everyone everywhere. The church is much bigger than the United States. These are fair and accurate points.
Nonetheless, for the U.S. church, reports in the American media that arrive at a 21st-century pace are how the majority of the faithful find out both about the church’s failures in the sexual abuse crisis and its halting attempts at reform. The failure to acknowledge and plan for that situation is a pastoral failure. It causes real harm and scandal among the faithful; it weakens trust that has already been damaged and betrayed by the failures of church leaders time and time again. As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The Washington Post, such trust “is an exhaustible capacity.” Rebuilding that trust will only happen with God’s grace and significant reform unfolding over years, if not decades.
In the meantime, bishops and Vatican officials need to operate with the understanding that trust is already at the breaking point. Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyo., expressed this concern to other bishops during the U.S.C.C.B. meeting, saying:“I feel that we have no tenderness in our hearts to hear the cries that have come our way for mercy. I feel that we failed to work with co-responsibility for the laypeople.” Those are the feelings that many in the church are struggling with. We need to be able to trust that our pastors recognize them, too.