success stories

Posted February 26, 2004

Book: Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Catholic Church
Edited by: Francis Oakley and Bruce Russett
Continuum, New York, pp. 240

Excerpts from the Introduction

How Did We Get Here And Where Do We Go?

Mindful of its mission as a Catholic intellectual and spiritual center of excellence, the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University maintains a vigorous lecture program, bringing in distinguished Catholic speakers to examine topics of the day from the perspective of faith.

. . . .It brought together on campus an international mixture of prominent participants: bishops, priests and women religious, and laity. Although the scandals surrounding the issue of sexual abuse had provided the impetus for the conference, its purpose was neither to focus on those scandals as such, nor to criticize particular individuals. Rather, it was intended to open up for discussion the larger and deeper questions concerning the conditions that had permitted such a crisis to occur. Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh presented the keynote address, and Peter Steinsfels followed with a commentary. Leading Catholic historians, theologians, journalists, social scientists, and foundation executives then went on to examine the roots of the crisis and to propose solutions in accord with the long and varied history of the Catholic tradition. Some of the questions speakers were asked to address included the following:

Historical Perspectives: What are the historical antecedents to the contemporary hierarchical and centralized institution, and to potentially different structures? What precedents may exist for structural revisions that might give greater accountability and responsibility, with lines of influence running upward as well as downward?

Theological and Canonical Perspectives: The Church at Large: What models exist for structures t create greater participation and accountability, without the abuses of government by plebiscite? What structures for financial accountability must be created? What can we learn from the experience of Catholic churches in Europe and Asia?

Challenge and Opportunity in the American Church: What is the American experience — negative and positive — with various forms of participation? What possibilities are already being tried? What difficulties and opportunities exist for greater participation on issues of governance? How is loyalty to be combined with demands for greater accountability?

Excerpt from Book:

. . . .Sexual scandals in the United States and elsewhere, are but symptoms of the church’s much more fundamental problem: its current institutional structure of government is extraordinarily centralized and hierarchical. In 2002 Pope John Paul II warned a group of Austrian bishops visiting the Vatican, “The church is not a democracy, and no one from below can decided the truth.” Yes, the church is not a democracy, because it lacks institutions of democratic accountability, and that is the problem. Saying the church is not a democracy is not just saying that democracy in the church would be bad, but continues a hierarchical suspicion of democratic government itself, as manifested in nineteenth-century papal pronouncements like Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of the heresy of “Americanism.” Saying the church is not becomes the assertion of a point of pride that it is not like those “others.” The church’s lack of democracy is embedded both in its culture and in its lack of adequate institutions to constrain abuses of power. Consequently we have one of several central and pernicious myths: the myth that democracy is irrelevant to good governance in the church.

Some historical reasons are evident. Over the centuries the church periodically faced powerful and hostile secular authorities who threatened its independence. Rome’s response, understandably, was to seek temporal as well as spiritual power, and eventually to construct a centralized, hierarchical, even monarchical, institution capable of resisting those threats. That institutional structure corresponded with that of temporal authorities in a long era of monarchy in which secular monarchs often claimed to be ruling by divine right. Church authorities could not, in those conditions, claim anything less than divine right for themselves. Even so, just as parliaments and representative estates arose in the national kingdoms, so too in the church a conciliar tradition was in tension with strong papal claims. The powerfully centralized church structure as we know it coincided with the rise of absolutist monarchies from the late sixteenth into the nineteenth centuries. It was solidified by the First Vatican Council, in a Rome beleaguered by revolutionary forces. Its centralization has been deepened and extended since the time of the Second Vatican Council, to a degree that sharply contrasts with many other institutions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ era of widening democracy.

. . . .Many contemporary institutions have created systems giving voice and authority to all members. Some are finding that their governing structures, though designed to promote responsibility to those below, have been subverted or captured. The top leadership is not responsive to the interests of those below, and this can lead to a situation where the organization is hijacked and looted by the leader and his co-opted board of governors. Obviously examples are those multinational corporations of which the directors are unwilling to restrain their chief executives, and ordinary shareholders lack the information or the ability to exert control. These abuses have spurred efforts to restore greater accountability. The absence of such mechanisms creates the fundamental problem identified by Lord Acton, who coined his famous aphorism as a commentary on the Renaissance popes: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The church is not immune to this problem, but its governing structures stand out as an anomaly. John Beal documents how the writing and interpretation of canon law has constrained the diffusion of information and discussion in favor yet another myth, that of special holiness for the upper hierarchy. Gerard Mannion makes it clear how pervasive the effects are in Europe as well as North America. We like to think that the church leaders are especially motivated to serve God and humanity, to care for the well-being (eternal as well as temporal) of those in their charge. And it is reasonable to assume that they are so motivated, and well intentioned. Yet they are also human, meaning subject to the failures induced by original sin. Holiness and spirituality give some protection against such failures — but cannot be a sufficient protection. No one is free of imperfection or self-centeredness. Church leaders, like all of us, will sometimes fail. History is full of examples. Recognizing this practical and theological insight, the problem then is to mitigate and restrain such failures.

. . . .Institutions evoke three kinds of behavior form their members: exit, voice, and loyalty. Exit means leaving the church, with little likelihood of return. (“I’m out of here.”) Many are doing just that — but none of the contributors to this volume is doing so. Loyalty in this context means simply accepting without protest whatever the hierarchical authority decrees or does. (“Just as you say, father.”) Voice implies loyalty to the community and to the institution, but not uncritical silence. It means speaking up, insisting on being heard and heeded. It is not a course of action for the faint-hearted, and it requires a long-sustained effort. Let us therefor “make a joyful noice:” not joyful because we are satisfied with the status quo, but joyful because we see a chance to reinvigorate the institution we love.

Table of Contents:

How did we get here and where do we go?
Francis Oakley and Bruce Russett

1. Reflections on governance and accountability in the Church
Donald W. Wuerl

2. Necessary but not sufficient: a response to Bishop Wuerl’s reflections
Peter Steinfels

Part One

Historical Perspectives on a Changing Church

3. Myth, history, and the beginnings of the church
Francine Cardman

4. Church law and alternative structures: a medieval perspective
Brian Tierney

5. Reclaiming our history: belief and practice in the church
Marcia L. Colish

6. Constitutionalism in the church?
Francis Oakley

7. It shall not be so among you! Crisis in the church, crisis in church law
John Beal

8. Episcopal governance in the American church
Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J.

9. Accountability and governance in the church: theological considerations
James L. Heft

10. The sex abuse crisis: the view from recent history
John T McGreevy

11. The impact of the sexual abuse crisis
Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

12. Financial accountability: reflections on giving and church leadership
Francis J. Butler

13. “A haze of fiction” : legitimation, accountability, and truthfulness
Gerard Mannion

14. A new way of being church: perspectives from Asia
Peter C. Phan

15. Standing in the fire
Donald Cozzens


Monarchy, democracy, or “decent consultation hierarchy”?