The Catholic Difference

‘Synodality’ and the Rome Abuse Summit

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Despite Pope Francis’ lecture on the subject at Synod 2015, and notwithstanding the passages on it in Synod 2018’s final report, there is little agreement in 21st-century Catholicism on what “synodality” means. The theology of synodality can be left for another day. In practical terms, however, perhaps synodality ought to mean something roughly analogous to what our British cousins mean by “horses for courses.” There, the phrase is a homely caution against one-size-fits-all remedies to problems. In the world Church today, and with an eye to the “abuse summit” that met in Rome Feb. 21-24, a “horses for courses” understanding of synodality would mean that different local churches should be empowered to implement specific local remedies, tailored to their specific problems and capacities, in addressing clerical sexual misconduct.

The plague of sexually abusive clergy manifests itself in different ways in different ecclesiastical contexts. In the so-called developed world, the plague seems to have largely involved the sexual abuse or exploitation of young men, but there are many other ways in which a subset of Catholic clergy, both priests and bishops, lead duplicitous lives in violation of the promise of celibate chastity they made to God and the Church. Latin American Catholicism has a culturally influenced and destructive habit of denial about clerical sexual misconduct, whether abusive or consensual, heterosexual or homosexual. The Church in Africa faces serious challenges with the sexual exploitation of women by clergy. Each of these situations has its own epidemiology, as infectious disease doctors would say. 

While more than a few German theologians and bishops (and bishop-theologians) deny it, the Catholic Church has a settled ethic of human love, drawn from the Scriptures and developed over centuries by moral reason. The ethic is the same, but the challenges to living it are not uniform among 1.2 billion Catholics. Because of considerable cultural and historical differences across the world Church, particular solutions to the plague of clerical sexual impropriety (and worse) are going to have to be developed to meet particular circumstances. So while the bottom of the bottom line for the “abuse summit” must be an unambiguous, clarion call to the entire Church to live chastity as the integrity of love, there is no single reform template that will address different forms of clerical sexual misconduct in quite diverse circumstances. 

Catholics in the United States must also recognize that the kinds of solutions that are feasible in our country—and that have worked in addressing historical clerical sexual abuse and driving down its incidence—may not be applicable in other parts of the world Church, where the financial and personnel resources the U.S. Church can deploy are not available. To take one example: Diocesan review boards that function quite well in America in handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse may be infeasible in other local churches. On the other hand, what the American Church has learned, often the hard way, about rigorous screening of seminary applicants and about effective priestly formation (both in seminary and after ordination) might well be “transferable” to other ecclesiastical situations.

Misimpressions and prejudices notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in the United States has been more forthright in addressing clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical sexual misconduct than any other local church. Others can learn from this experience. In the abuse summit’s official meetings and in the “Off Broadway” venues where Catholic leaders will conduct more informal conversations, American churchmen in Rome this month should explain the reforms the U.S. Church has implemented, including the extensive use of lay expertise to address clerical sexual abuse and other forms of clerical misconduct; describe the positive effects of those reforms, especially on seminaries; offer to share ideas (and personnel) with other local churches that wish to explore adopting and adapting certain U.S. reforms; and make clear why the U.S. bishops believe it imperative for them to apply to themselves—and to be seen to apply to themselves—the code of conduct they have applied to priests since 2002.

How episcopal accountability is managed may well be another case of “horses for courses,” given vastly different situations throughout the world Church. Lay involvement in that accountability is imperative in the United States; it may be impracticable elsewhere. But those serious about Catholicism’s capacity to embody and preach the Gospel will understand that credible episcopal accountability is essential in carrying out the Church’s mission.

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