Church leaders have responded to the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church and its cover-up with apologies, with calls for care for the victims and for repentance with prayers and fasting (“Three radical steps to change the Catholic church,” Sept. 19). All well and good, but words are not enough. It is time for bold action. It is time to trust the Spirit. There is need for some structural reforms that have been discussed since Vatican II and are long overdue. Here are some steps that could and should be taken:
Horizontal accountability: Bishops must be accountable to the local church, the people of God, and to their fellow bishops, not just to the Vatican. Vatican II stressed the collegiality of the bishops saying that they are responsible for the whole church, not just their own particular churches. Episcopal conferences should have the responsibility for and authority to reprimand and, if necessary, remove their own members who are charged with crimes and not just report them to Rome. This could be done on the level of ecclesiastical provinces in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity which states that which can be done on a lower level should not be done on a higher one.
Appointment of bishops: In order for the above to have any teeth, the appointment of bishops should also take place on the local level. We should return to the earlier practice of selecting a bishop from within the diocese with the input of the local clergy and lay people, approval of the neighboring bishops, and confirmation (not appointment) from Rome. Bishops have been appointed in various ways in the history of the church, but the appointment by the pope only became widespread in the 19th century. The current system of patronage, the “good ole boy” network, is part of the corruption in the church of which Pope Francis often speaks.
Synodal Governance: More generally, a return to synodal or conciliar governance on all levels in the church as called for by Vatican II and Pope Francis. Could the abuses have gone on so long and been covered up if there were regular pastoral councils or synods in which parents participated and where these complaints could have been aired, where light could have been thrown on clerical secrecy?
Optional celibacy: Celibacy should be optional for diocesan clergy as it is in the Eastern churches and as it was in the early church. Peter was married; Paul was not. Neither was ordained; both are saints. Although there is no evidence that celibacy was a cause of the sexual abuses as some have alleged, it could be a contributing factor and as such should be removed. As everyone acknowledges, this is a matter of church discipline, not dogma or doctrine and as such can be changed. Canon #277 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law can and should be dropped. As long as celibacy is compulsory, it loses its witness value.
Women in leadership: Women should be included in the governance of the church at all levels and in the formation and education of candidates for the priesthood. Setting aside for the moment from the issue of ordination, women can be involved in decisions and policy making. Would the cover-up have happened if mothers of children had been involved in the process? Governance need not be tied to ordination. Once again, clerical exclusivity should be ended.
These are some steps that could be taken to insure that such a scandal never happens again. The current crisis can be a catalyst for some reforms that are long overdue. It is not a time for timidity or “pussyfooting.” We believe that the Spirit continues to guide and renew the church even in dark times such as this.
T. Howland Sanks, Baltimore
The writer is a retired professor from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.