Analysis: Making sense of the Vatican’s request for the USCCB to delay vote on abuse measures

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, pray during Mass Nov. 12 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The Holy See has asked the U.S. Catholic bishops to delay voting on accountability procedures for bishops over how they handle abuse cases, along with proposals for a lay commission to investigate cases of episcopal misconduct.

It was a last-minute request, which came as a surprise to those at the Baltimore meeting of bishops taking place this week. It quickly led to accusations that the Vatican is dragging its feet on anti-abuse measures and simply doesn’t get the urgency of the situation. Some also alleged that the decision appeared at odds with Pope Francis’ vision for a synodal church in which problems are addressed collectively.

Nevertheless, three things are worth bearing in mind when trying to make sense of the decision that emerged two days after Francis met with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal ambassador to the United States, in the Vatican.

First, “synodality,” meaning “walking together,” prevents one local church from running ahead of the rest. The Congregation for Bishops has asked the U.S. hierarchy to hold back on voting on its new proposals until a global summit of bishops conference presidents meets in Rome in February.

When it comes to combatting abuse and sexual misconduct, many child-protection experts argue the church needs a better coordinated and centralized approach. It might be described as a “one-church” policy in which everyone keeps children safe and holds accountable those who fail to do so.

“We have learned we need a central authority,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the church’s leading authority on anti-abuse measures, who sits on the pontifical commission for child protection, told me last year.

“Different countries and local churches need to support each other so that no one is doing something alone.”

In other words, the church’s global sex-abuse crisis is not about a single country or region coming up with new initiatives but needs to be faced collectively. The Western church may be able to get its house in order in 2018, but little will be achieved for global Catholicism if ten years later Africa and Asia find themselves embroiled in similar scandals.

Second, the Holy See is believed to have raised canonical problems with the proposals over episcopal accountability. Part of the sensitivity here is over the specific role the pope has when it comes to oversight of the world’s hierarchy, with the Successor of St Peter alone having authority over bishops. This makes it extremely difficult to set up internal church structures that circumvent or impinge on the authority of the pope in this area.

This is crucial because it goes to the heart of the communion shared by the pope and the bishops, the successor of the apostles in their local dioceses, which is the umbilical cord ensuring the universality of Catholicism between Rome and the churches around the world.

At a more practical level, if the U.S. bishops pushed forward with new accountability measures, they could have found Rome later ruling they were in breach of canon law, which would leave another embarrassing mess to fix.

Third, while the pope has called for a “cautious decentralization” in decision-making, that does not mean that everyone does their own thing. Earlier this year, for example, Francis hit the breaks on the German bishops’ attempt to advance plans to give communion to non-Catholic but Christian spouses of Catholics.

For the pope, however, processes are as important as outcomes. By calling a summit on the abuse crisis in February, Francis is seeking to grapple with the issue collegially with the world’s bishops.

There is a distinction between collegiality and synodality: While the “synodal” church means everyone, laypeople and hierarchy alike, collectively “walking together” and solving problems, “collegiality” concerns the governance of the church by the pope and the bishops.

This, according to Catholic teaching, takes working “with Peter and under Peter,” and so big decisions about accountability for bishops, which has a direct bearing on the Petrine ministry, require papal involvement. New plans to hold bishops accountable could well emerge from the February summit, but the pope will have to sign off on them. 

With this in mind, the Vatican is not preventing these matters being discussed by the bishops during their Baltimore meeting. Indeed, during the session following the announcement of the Vatican’s decision, Cardinal Cupich stood to “urge the USCCB to take up the discussion as scheduled, fine tune the documents, and then take a resolution ballot to make clear to our people where we stand, but also to give the president of our conference a clear indication of the mind of the bishops in the United States as he prepares to participate in the February meeting,” as he put it in a Nov. 12 statement. Underscoring the Vatican’s recognition of the urgency of the issue, Cardinal Cupich continued, “I urged that we should meet again in March to take up our proposals, informed by the input of other bishops conferences and the results of the February meeting, and then take a final vote as an action item. I realize that another meeting will create logistical challenges for the conference staff and the bishops’ schedules, but there is a grave urgency to this matter and we cannot delay.”

The two victim-survivors who addressed the USCCB shared their “deep disappointment” with the National Catholic Reporter, raising the important question of how Rome can better communicate their position to the U.S. church, and demonstrate that they understand the vital need to address the accountability issue. One lesson from these events is that good internal communication is an aid to communion.  


  • pope francis
  • usccb
  • clergy sexual abuse

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