The Bishops and the VaticanBy Cardinal Avery Dulles
Although the cardinals and bishops who met in Rome in April acknowledged past failures in their handling of sexual abuse by priests, they focused attention chiefly on the future. The participants at that meeting agreed that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at its June meeting, should adopt a national policy to be reviewed by the Vatican.
The outlines of this policy became clear last week when a panel of bishops released a set of proposals for the meeting this week in Dallas. The proposals, while quite general, raise all the fundamental issues: penance for past mistakes, pastoral care for victims of past abuses, the establishment of intervention teams and lay-dominated review boards, the reporting of cases to civil and ecclesiastical authorities, administrative action against suspected or guilty priests and the screening process for seminary candidates. Going beyond the draft document, the conference could recommend ways of supporting young priests in the observance of their commitments.
Early reactions to the draft fall into two general categories. One school, adopting slogans like "zero tolerance" and "one strike and you're out," favors rigorous psychological testing of seminary candidates, the exclusion of homosexually oriented seminarians, perfect orthodoxy in the teaching of moral theology (especially on sexual questions), immediate reporting of all accusations to civil authorities, public disclosure of the names of accused priests, suspension of accused priests from the active ministry, and streamlined processes for the dismissal of those found guilty of serious or repeated offenses.
This school will have the support of bishops for whom the first priority is to shield the church against disrepute and liability. Draconian measures will also be welcomed by angry parishioners and by priests who feel betrayed by those of their number — too many, though proportionally few — who have brought discredit upon the clergy and upon the church itself.
The draft proposal takes many of these concerns into account, but it also reflects the concerns of a second school of thought, one that cautions against hasty and simplistic solutions and asks important questions. Is it fair, for example, to remove priests from the ministry if the accusations against them are unproved and if they protest their innocence (as did Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when he was falsely accused a decade ago)? This school will insist on the difference between serious offenses, like sexual activity with minors, and lesser offenses like harassment by words or looks that might be ambiguous and inappropriate.
This school will wonder about what measures should be taken against a priest who committed a serious offense long ago but who has repented, reformed and given decades of irreproachable service. Should such priests be removed from ministry even if it can be shown that they pose no discernible threat to young people in the future? Should priests not be treated as innocent until proven guilty?
The draft document, reflecting many of these concerns, represents a compromise between the two schools of thought I have described. On the issue of dismissal from the priesthood, for example, it seeks to steer a middle course, calling for the return to lay status of any who in the future commit a single act of abuse of a minor and all who in the past have committed more than one such offense.
The issue of dismissal from the priesthood is complex and contentious. Theologically speaking, anyone who is ordained remains a priest forever. To return a priest to the lay population is to obfuscate this theological principle. Is it not better, the second school will ask, for the church to take responsibility for its erring priests and continue to care for them as priests rather than dismiss them, as if expelling them from its ranks would protect society from them? There may be a need to limit a priest's ministry, even severely. He may have to be sent to a monastery for a life of seclusion and penance. But involuntary return to the laity should be very rare and (as the draft recognizes) should never be imposed without due process.
The draft document does not explicitly raise the question of homosexuality, but it is a matter of obvious concern.
Noting the large proportion of offenses against adolescent boys, some bishops will seek to screen out all homosexually inclined seminarians. Others will see the issue rather as one of obtaining psychologically mature candidates capable of living up to their commitment to celibacy.
Will the issue of clerical celibacy arise at Dallas? I expect that if it is discussed, the point will be to insist on its being more clearly taught and more faithfully observed. The current rule is firmly in place and has been reaffirmed throughout the 20th century. Priests who make a firm and sincere commitment to celibacy pose no danger to society. The problem comes from the ordination of men who are not convinced of the value of celibacy or are unable to observe it. In our sex-saturated society it is difficult to transmit the church's tradition on this point.
A married priesthood, while it might diminish certain problems, would bring in a host of others, like adultery, divorce or contraception. In addition, the renunciation of mandatory celibacy would violate an immemorial tradition and obscure the Catholic idea of the priest as a person set apart for sacred functions.
The bishops are understandably concerned to show that they are taking bold and decisive measures. But they should take care not to lock the church into positions that will later prove to be unwise. If they yield too much to the present atmosphere of panic, the Holy See can be relied upon to safeguard the theological and canonical tradition. The many levels of authority in the church are a precious resource.
Cardinal Avery Dulles is a professor of religion and society at Fordham University.