By John L. Allen Jr.
Heading into this week’s fall meeting of the Catholic bishops of the United States in Baltimore, the forecast was for dramatic action on the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Church for the last six months, during what some dubbed its “summer of shame.”
All that changed on Monday, when the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, announced that late Sunday the bishops were asked to stand down by the Vatican, awaiting a three-day summit in February in Rome convened by Pope Francis for the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world to discuss the abuse crisis.
Some bishops are still pressing for non-binding votes on some of the action items, such as a new code of conduct subjecting themselves to the same “zero tolerance” policy as everyone else, as a way of sending a signal to Rome ahead of that February gathering. For right now, it remains to be seen what may result.
So, what gives? Could the Vatican actually be this tone-deaf, or is there some other explanation for the request for a delay?
Early answers seem to be: Yes, the Vatican really could be that tone-deaf. And yes, there may also be something else going on.
In terms of the capacity to send precisely the wrong signal at the worst possible time, it sometimes seems as if the Vatican almost has a patent. Bear in mind that just last month, a summit of bishops from around the world, called a “synod,” walked up to the brink of apologizing for the abuse scandals and reaffirming its commitment to “zero tolerance” — both of which have been staples of official Catholic rhetoric for more than a decade now — only to back off due to opposition from bishops from Africa, parts of Asia, and even several leading Italian prelates.
Also bear in mind that last week, the Catholic bishops of France brought out strong new anti-abuse policies, including an independent lay investigatory panel, and the bishops of Italy are expected to roll out their own new measures on Thursday. Granted, to some extent both conferences are still playing catch-up ball with respect to the United States on the abuse crisis, so the issues are somewhat different.
Nonetheless, it’s curious why bishops from other parts of the world are being encouraged to move full steam ahead, while only the Americans have been asked to slow down.
Before ascribing this entirely to Rome being obtuse, there’s another factor that should be considered.
The Catholic Church is governed by a legal code known as canon law, and according both to bishops and canon lawyers, there were serious problems under that code with many of the proposals prepared for this week’s meeting. During Monday morning’s session, DiNardo acknowledged that the action items on accountability for bishops were only finalized Oct. 30, and the Vatican had flagged several areas where they would be difficult to reconcile with Church law.
Had the bishops gone ahead and voted, the result could have created a scenario in which their proposals had to be vetoed in Rome, creating a set of optics that no one really wanted.
In other words, a plausible case can be made that to some extent, this is the Vatican saving the American bishops from themselves.
In reality, however, that explanation simply redistributes the blame rather than making this situation anything less than a disaster. The bishops are at fault, perhaps, for not doing their homework but Rome still is at fault for not encouraging a vigorous response earlier in the game, and for tying the US ability to act to a brief global summit three months from now in which the commitment levels of the various parties almost certainly won’t be the same.
In other words, the US bishops’ meeting this week shapes up as another missed opportunity. All eyes will now turn to the February meeting in Rome, because it’s not clear how many more missed opportunities the Catholic public in this country, at least, will be willing to forgive.
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