Our pilgrim church, “at once holy and always in need of purification,” must constantly follow “the path of penance and renewal” (“Constitution on the Church,” No. 8). As in the United States eight years ago, in Ireland, Germany, India, and in Rome, steps are now being taken to institute strict accountability for the sexual abuse of minors. But direct efforts to correct and prevent abuse of minors are only the most obvious part of a larger healing needed in the church. The less obvious part is the reform of structures of church governance that turned a deaf ear for so long to the victims and repeatedly disparaged bishops who were seeking remedies to the problems haunting their dioceses. At all levels, right down to the parish, much of the church has proven deficient in its ability to listen and interact with adult believers. But at the center of the present crisis are found members of the Roman Curia.
The Latin word curia means both administration, as in a government apparatus, and court, as in a company of hangers-on whose life revolves around flattery and the favor of a ruler. Pope Benedict made a good start on responding to the Irish scandals, but that promising beginning was upended by the misguided statements of others in the Vatican. For weeks we witnessed the hard issues of sexual abuse being dodged while elderly and retired Curial officials, prodded by the press, made the red herring of Pope Benedict’s possible past mistakes the focus of their attention. Intelligent leadership was obscured by a black cloud of flattery. As it turned out, some of these same prelates stood at the very heart of the crisis, accepting payments from friends, like the disgraced Marcial Maciel, and offering high-level support to bishops for stonewalling civil authorities. What appeared to be vigorous emotional support for the pope turned out to be smokescreens for their own unconscionable actions. In those trying weeks, we witnessed the Vatican at its worst—as the last Renaissance court.
Beyond taking responsibility for the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by clerics, the renewal of the church must include the reform of the Roman Curia proposed by the Second Vatican Council and begun by Pope Paul VI. The interpersonal and institutional practices that blocked proper handling of abuse cases must be rooted out. Many American bishops can testify to their frustration in their attempts to get support from Vatican offices for disciplining offenders. Along with the victims, many bishops have suffered because of this. Favoritism and personal influence can never be wholly eliminated, but they can be held in check. Institutional reform is not the most elevated religious activity, but it is religiously necessary; and it is precisely the kind of endeavor for which God blesses us with the gift of wisdom.
To begin with, a system that effectively grants favored individuals virtual life-tenure as heads of offices must be ended. There must be term limits for senior officials and rotation back to regular pastoral roles for secretaries and prefects of congregations, as there are for ministers in secular governments and for major religious superiors. (In 1967, Paul VI tried to set five-year terms, with the possibility of one renewal.) In addition, communication and interaction between Vatican offices need to be improved. Crises occur, we are told, because communication within the Vatican itself is “broken.” To stimulate the needed give-and-take will require overcoming a culture in which major offices function as baronies immune to influence from others. Interagency committees, protocols for inter-office consultation and coordination would help; but recruitment of personnel with listening skills and readiness to cooperate with others, not just their superiors, are equally necessary, as are leaders who encourage open communication both with their peers and their subordinates.
Likewise, two-way communications must open up between bishops and the Holy See. In an age of globalization, centralized church government has a special role to play, but overcentralization was a contributing factor to the dysfunction that has prolonged this crisis for more than two decades. Curial officials expected deference and bishops gave it. Centralization will be healthy only insofar as there is genuine subsidiarity within the church, with dioceses and bishops’ conferences able to carry on their pastoral activities without undue intrusion from favored cliques and individuals in Rome.
Finally, the council called for laymen and laywomen to be given greater voice and to take greater part in church affairs. Diocesan pastoral councils, presbyteral councils and parish councils must have a say in the running of their local communities. Pastors or bishops who dissolve them or refuse to work with them regularly should be regarded as delinquent. For the good of the whole church, the faithful need to be heard and fully engaged in local church life. Bishops and people, priests and people must act as the one body of Christ.