Moral leadership of American hierarchy under scrutiny at Rome meeting

Moral leadership of American hierarchy under scrutiny at Rome meeting

Philip Lawler

Secular news outlets can be forgiven for missing the most important aspect of the meeting late in April between US cardinals and Vatican officials. But will the US bishops themselves catch the message?

Pope John Paul II summoned the American cardinals to Rome to discuss two scandals. One scandal involved the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. The other involved the abdication of responsibility by Catholic bishops.

Only a tiny minority of American priests have been guilty of molesting children. But the majority of bishops bear the blame for the corruption of the American hierarchy. And it was that corruption which allowed pedophile priests to flourish.

News coverage of the "Vatican summit" has been dominated by questions about the new policies and procedures that the US bishops will adopt to discipline and remove pedophile priests. But policies alone will not solve the problem. Procedures and guidelines are tools; they are useful only if the people in authority - the bishops - are prepared to use them properly.

The Catholic faithful are looking for clear indications that their bishops are ready to acknowledge their failures, take up the responsibilities that they have neglected, and root out the corruption within their own ranks.

To understand what happened in Rome, begin by comparing the statements made by American bishops before the meeting with those made afterwards.

Less than two weeks before the meeting, in a press briefing in Rome, Bishop Wilton Gregory (the president of the US bishops' conference) told reporters that Pope John Paul II wanted the American bishops to solve the sex-abuse scandal by themselves. Within 36 hours, broke the story that the Holy Father had summoned the US cardinals to Rome.

Had the Pope suddenly changed his mind? No. Bishop Gregory was doing a bit of "spin control," trying to emphasise the Pope's confidence in the American hierarchy. But the Pope's action - an unprecedented summons to Rome - showed that there was a definite limit to his confidence in the US bishops.

Still, in the days leading up to the "Vatican summit," Bishop Gregory and other American prelates told reporters that the main purpose of this extraordinary meeting would be to brief the Pope on their activities. Some prelates, speaking more expansively, suggested that the American delegation might call for an end to priestly celibacy. One cardinal spoke to the Los Angeles Times anonymously that the US cardinals would make a forceful argument for the removal of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.

As soon as the meetings opened in Rome, all such discussion ceased. Issues such as priestly celibacy were not on the agenda, the cardinals now told reporters. Cardinal Roger Mahony - widely believed to be the "anonymous" prelate who spoke to the Los Angeles Times - informed the media that there was no discussion of Cardinal Law's status. The American bishops no longer made any effort to suggest that they were in Rome to give the Pope the benefit of their opinion.

Clearly, something had happened at the Vatican. The American bishops realised that they had been summoned to account for themselves. The focus of the meeting was not on Catholic teachings, but on the moral leadership of the American hierarchy.

In his address, Pope John Paul made the message plain: "It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life."

The Pope was not looking for a "zero-tolerance" policy. He was asking for clear moral leadership from the American bishops.

Final statement

The same note was sounded in the final statement issued at the conclusion of the Vatican summit:

"Given the doctrinal issues underlying the deplorable behavior in question, certain lines of response have been proposed:

"a) the pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care;

"b) a new and serious apostolic visitation of seminaries and other institutes of formation must be made without delay, with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church's teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood."

Thus the Vatican meeting concluded with a call for more forthright moral teaching, more vigilant enforcement of Church discipline and more careful oversight of Catholic seminaries. By implication, the final statement points to a failure of leadership among the US bishops, who hold the responsibility in all these areas.

The success or failure of the Vatican summit will hinge on the bishops' willingness to seize their moral authority now, and exercise the pastoral leadership that they have avoided for much too long.

Guidelines might be useful. Procedures might help. But the real question is whether the American bishops will do their duty.

Philip Lawler is editor of the monthly magazine 'Catholic World Report' and the online service Catholic World News (

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