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Thomas P. RauschFebruary 02, 2004
Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Catholic Churchby Edited by Francis Oakley and Bruce RussettContinuum. 233p $26.95 (hardbound)

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels has pointed out that the sexual abuse scandal so troubling the Catholic Church is more than a crisis about sexual abuse; it is an ecclesiological crisis. The crisis has generated various initiatives on the part of concerned Catholics, among them Voice of the Faithful and Boston College’s “Church in the 21st Century” project. The present book, edited by Francis Oakley and Bruce Russett, represents another response, this time by the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University’s Catholic Center. It collects the papers given at the chapel and the Yale Law School during a weeklong conference in March 2003, which had a size and scope unprecedented in the chapel’s history. Oakley is the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas and president emeritus of Williams College; Russett is Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Yale.

The outstanding group of 16 Catholic historians, theologians, journalists, social scientists and executives who gathered for the conference were asked to examine the roots of the crisis and to propose solutions that would be in keeping with the rich history of the Catholic tradition. What precedents exist for structural revisions that would give greater accountability and responsibility, for both clergy and laity? What might theology contribute toward these goals, and has the theological vision of the Second Vatican Council found expression in canon law? Are there legal, political and financial models that might create greater accountability and participation, without the dangers of government by plebiscite? What might be learned from Catholic Churches in Europe and Asia? And what does the American experience contribute in terms of forms of participation that might balance loyalty with demands for greater accountability? Each contribution makes fascinating reading.

The first, by Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, emphasizes the principle of openness on the part of everyone in the church. While he calls for all the requisite consultative bodies to be in place on the diocesan level, he also warns against using political models for the church, which, he says, transcends human political institutions. In his response to Wuerl’s reflections, Peter Steinfels suggests that when Wuerl speaks of political models, it seems to be democratic models that he really has in mind. His observation that “Catholic institutions and governance incorporate elements of imperial Rome, medieval feudalism and monarchy, Renaissance bureaucracy, modern diplomacy, and the nineteenth-century state” resonates throughout the book.

Francine Cardman, who teaches at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., traces how structures of authority, ministry and decision-making evolved in response to challenges to the church’s mission in the early centuries; the regional councils in the third and fourth centuries took the views of the laity into account in the matter of reconciling those who denied the faith during persecutions. Like them, the ecumenical councils that developed in the fourth century were modeled on Roman administrative structures, with the latter both called and supported by the civil authorities, the Roman emperors. Brian Tierney, who has taught at The Catholic University of America and Cornell, argues that representative government begins in ecclesiastical institutions, for example, the Dominican order, while medieval thinkers drew on principles of Roman law, turning them into principles of constitutional government for the church that in turn influenced the practice of secular government. He explores three themes in medieval ecclesiology: general councils as representative assemblies, natural or divinely ordained rights and the idea of a mixed constitution. Thomas Aquinas, for example, stressed in his political theory the virtues of a mixed constitutional government that combined monarchy with elements of aristocracy and democracy. Another Dominican, John of Paris, went a step beyond Thomas, applying his theory specifically to the governance of the church. Tierney concludes, then, that modern practices of representative government are not alien to church tradition.

Other essays progressively build the case for structural reform. Marcia Colish, currently a visiting fellow in history and visiting professor of history and religious studies at Yale, shows how the practice and faith of the church have never been static. The church has borrowed from the structures of secular governments in every age, and yet has become trapped in the absolute monarchy of the early modern period. Francis Oakley contends that Vatican II attempted to restore an element of constitutional balance to church governance; but, having juxtaposed a sacramental ecclesiology of communio with a papalist ecclesiology of jurisdiction, it failed on both the theoretical and the practical levels. Examples range from the “ultimately toothless bishops’ synods” to the humblest of parish councils. Gerald Fogarty, S.J., who teaches religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, illustrates how the original conciliar government of the American bishops was gradually Romanized (though occasionally Roman interventions were to safeguard the rights of priests). The apostolic delegate assumed an increasing role in the nomination of bishops, with the result that candidates for the episcopacy depended directly or indirectly on a Roman patron.

The remaining essays focus on the contemporary church. The issues addressed include the role of the faithful in the discernment of doctrine, financial accountability and the church in Ireland and Asia. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor in chief of America, looks at groups alienated from the hierarchy--academics, women, divorced Catholics, couples in ecumenical marriages, gays, liberals and conservatives--and the resultant anticlericalism, even among priests, who are completely subject to their bishops but have no say in their selection. The historical, political and practical analysis of the contributors is extremely helpful, though I would like to have seen more of the theological. The church may exercise authority in a top-down way, but theologically it is an interdependent communio of pastors and faithful, even if this is not reflected in its structures. Still, Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Catholic Church forced me to revise my own thinking. It convinced me that renewal means more than simply renewing the way authority is exercised; it must also involve the reform of structures that will provide for greater accountability and a system of checks and balances now almost entirely lacking. This is an important book. After reading it, the old line “the church is not a democracy” does not sound quite so final.

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