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Catholic Governance Must Change

The scope of clerical sexual abuse and coverup is worse than we imagined. Decades of pain and suffering endured by Catholic victims of clergy sex abuse now call us to repent and to reform.

The National Lay Review Board and investigators in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York are to be commended for an extraordinarily honest, thorough and exhaustive investigation and for affirming the thousands of innocent priests who have also suffered greatly in the past two years.

It is also commendable that the Review Board Report named lack of episcopal accountability as a cause of the current crisis and recommended greater use of “fraternal correction,” increased lay consultation in the selection of pastoral bishops, and an in depth study of mandatory celibacy.

Faithful lay Catholics underwrite the Church’s mission. They are now being asked to pay for a scandal of unprecedented proportion which they neither created nor had knowledge of. Yet justice and compassion compel us compensate victims appropriately if we are to ever heal both victims and ourselves.

Many want to get this issue behind us.

However, there is no guarantee that clerical abuse and cover ups will not occur again if underlying problems in Roman Catholic Church governance are not addressed.
There are no structures in the Catholic Church that require Bishops to be accountable to the laity they serve. Ordinary Catholics have no power to remove Bishops who covered over criminal behavior and knowingly transferred priest perpetrators. Neither have we power to help monitor and select our leaders. Bishops are accountable only to the Pope. Since the Pope cannot possibly oversee every Bishop and diocese in the world, some Bishops can in practice be accountable to no one.

We need a system of checks and balances in the Church which allows diverse perspectives to be heard and provides due process for redress of grievances such as malfeasance in office.

We Catholic laity in this new millennium have our work cut out for us. We must claim full adult ownership and responsibility for our Church...especially since many of our leaders seem to have abandoned theirs.

Already canon lawyers in Europe are talking about the need to have governance in the Church rest on baptism, not on ordination. In this way, all Catholics, including nuns and religious brothers, can find appropriate voice in Church decision making. Clericalism, an important root cause of the present crisis, will necessarily diminish if not disappear.

Of course, distinctions must be made between governance and doctrine. Doctrinal decision making about theological, biblical, canonical and moral issues should remain with those who have the specialized call, training and preparation. Yet even these decisions should not only be made by ordained priests. An increasing number of lay Catholics also have excellent and comparable preparation. These married and single women and men could both balance and broaden male celibate decision making. This can only strengthen our Catholic community.

Church governance should include lay representative bodies to help select and approve both bishops and pastors. Catholic laity should help elect the Pope. Maybe we could create a College of Laity along with the College of Cardinals.

It is true that these issues are difficult and complex. Yet there are calls from Cardinals and Bishops all over the world for a new Church Council and decentralization in Church decision- making. Any new Council or decentralized structure, should necessarily have lay theological and biblical experts as well as ordained ones. It must also include lay leaders selected from all spectrums of our richly diverse worldwide Catholic community.

It is past time to admit that the present governance structure of the Catholic Church is fatally flawed.

Some will object quoting Matthew 16: 18-20 “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” They overlook Matthew 18: 15-18 where Jesus also gives the power to bind and loose to the Christian community. The community’s spiritual authority is a
necessary balance to Peter’s.

Perhaps the only good thing to come from this worldwide scandal is that ordinary Catholics are realizing that if we are not part of the solution we contribute to the problem.

If papal and by extension, episcopal, power is to be exercised appropriately, it must be balanced by power exercised by the community of believers. Catholicism will not be set right until an appropriate balance is built into Church governance structures.

If we are to not only survive but thrive, Catholic lay people must take their rightful places as the living stones upon which Christ also builds the Church.

Winter 2004



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