National Catholic Reporter ®

November 1, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.10

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“Mixed commission” work completed, results to be announced; meeting with Chicago shakers; priests who should be 

“In a contemporary Catholic parish where the pastor is reasonably open and reasonably secure, the generosity of the service of the laity in the ministry of the parish has never been equaled in the whole history of Catholicism.”

Fr. Andrew Greeley


The Vatican/American “mixed commission” charged with amending the Dallas sexual abuse norms has apparently completed its work. As of this writing, we do not yet know how it settled the differences between the norms and the Code of Canon Law that led to the Oct. 14 Vatican call for revisions. To judge from its members, however, the group appears to be top-heavy with critics of the policies adopted by the U.S. bishops in June.

       From the Vatican, participants are Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Colombian, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Archbishop Julian Herranz, a Spaniard, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Italian, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, another Italian, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. The four men represent the four Vatican offices involved in the review of the norms. 

       For the Americans, members are Cardinal Francis George of Chicago; Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas Doran of RockfordIllinois; and Bishop William Lori of BridgeportConnecticut.

       On Oct. 30, the director of the Vatican press office, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, released a statement. It said: “On the days of Oct. 28 and 29, the mixed commission of the Holy See and the Bishops’ Conference of the United States of American met in the Vatican for the revision of the ‘norms.’ The suggestions elaborated by the mixed commission will be carried to the general meeting of the American episcopal conference, which will be held in Washington Nov. 11-14. The document approved by the bishops’ conference of the United States will then be sent to the Holy See for the further recognitio.”

       In terms of which way the body leans, it’s noteworthy that Castrillón, Herranz and Bertone are the three Vatican officials who have been the most critical of the American response to the sexual abuse crisis, both before and after the bishops’ meeting in Dallas

     Castrillón was the first to comment publicly. It came during a March press conference to present John Paul II’s Holy Thursday letter to priests, where most questions came in English from the American press, a fact that Castrillón said provided “an x-ray of the problem.”

      The U.S. crisis developed in a culture of “pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness,” Castrillón said.

       Bertone has also been publicly skeptical of some of the motives in the sex abuse crisis.

       “There is a well-founded suspicion that some of these charges that arise well after the fact serve only for making money in civil litigation,” Bertone said in an interview with the Italian journal 30 Giorni.

       In a separate interview with CNN, Bertone called it a “strange fact” that in the United States the church is forced under civil law to pay for the misdeeds of “single individuals.”

       Bertone also voiced doubts about requirements for bishops to report accusations of sex abuse to civil authorities.

      “If a priest cannot confide in his bishop for fear of being denounced,” Bertone said, “then it would mean that there is no more liberty of conscience.”

       Herranz delivered the most sweeping critique in an April 19 address in Milan, criticizing a climate of “exaggeration, financial exploitation and nervousness” in the United States.

       Herranz has also complained about the way the U.S. bishops have sought to skirt some the procedural requirements of canon law. “To ignore these processes … would denote a lack of the most fundamental sense of justice,” he said.

       In the internal Vatican debate leading up to the Oct. 14 Vatican response to the American norms, Castrillón, Herranz and Bertone advocated a tough negative stance, while Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, preferred a discrete silence. 

       The fourth participant from the Vatican side is Monterisi, the secretary in Bishops, a holdover from the previous administration of Brazilian Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, who has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his new boss, Re.  Monterisi, who served as papal nuncio in Bosnia, has as his Vatican sponsor the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, whose clashes with Re were allegedly responsible for Re’s  “exile” from the ultra-powerful role of sostituto, responsible for day-to-day church operations. 

       TheVatican side is therefore composed of three men with serious reservations about Dallas, and one whose attachment to the more flexible line advocated by his boss is unclear.

       For the Americans, it was no surprise that Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops’ conference, tapped some old Roman hands to handle the negotiations. Doran’s appointment makes sense, given that he worked for eight years on the Roman Rota, the main appellate court in Rome, and that he now sits on the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s Supreme Court. He is also poised to assume the chairmanship of the Canonical Affairs committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference. 

Levada likewise put in six years in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in 1997 he took part in a mixed Vatican/U.S. commission which put the American lectionary in final form. 

George served in Rome as vicar general of his religious community, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, from 1974 to 1986, developing an insider’s knowledge of the Vatican. Lori has no special Roman expertise, but he is a member of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

Both Doran and George were critical of the Dallas program before the June vote (Doran said the norms would require bishops to “rat out” their priests), though reports suggest that both have implemented it in good faith. Doran has also used strong language to denounce priests who dishonor their vows by committing acts of sexual abuse.

Having spoken to several U.S. bishops since the announcement of the commission’s members, it seems the biggest mystery is why Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the leader of the ad hoc committee on sex abuse that drafted the Dallas norms, was not appointed.  It’s a puzzling omission, given that Flynn would be in the best position to explain the reasoning for points where Dallas veered away from existing canon law.

My sense, given the composition of the group, is that the changes recommended by this mixed commission will be more than cosmetic. I suspect they will at least insist upon a narrowed definition of sexual abuse, restoration of several procedural guarantees provided by the Code of Canon Law, and a specification that the lay review boards created in each diocese are advisory rather than decision-making. 

Among the most vexing issues will likely be that of prescription, the canonical term for the statute of limitations. Currently the Code specifies that a sex abuse charge cannot be prosecuted if it occurred more than ten years in the past, with the clock starting on the date of the victim’s 18th birthday. (If a priest abused a child at age 14, the statute of limitations would thus be 14 years). If the mixed commission were to insist on observing the statue of limitations as it stands, it would mean that the vast majority of the 300 priests removed from ministry since Dallas would be eligible to be reinstated, and most bishops I know think that would be pandemonium. 

There are other instances in the Code where there is no statute of limitations – solicitations in the confessional, for example. The mixed commission will have to decide if this is a case of sufficient gravity to warrant a similar exception.

      While in Boston Oct. 27, I had dinner with the venerable Monsignor Frederick McManus, a former professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, who reminded me of a precedent that’s worthwhile to recall. In 1970, the U.S. bishops adopted a set of 23 new procedural norms concerning annulment cases, the thrust of which was to simplify and expedite the process (especially in terms of appeals). The pastoral instinct beneath the norms was that many civilly divorced Catholics were entitled to an annulment, but the length, expense and difficulty of the process inhibited them from seeking it. In terms of numbers, the norms worked; annulments went from 600 per year in 1968 to well over 40,000 in recent years. Americans, who compose only six percent of the world’s Catholics, are granted 80 percent of the world's annulments. 

In 1972 and 1973, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent letters critiquing the norms, and the Vatican threatened to deny final approval. The American bishops successfully argued their case, however, and held off rejection of the norms until the new Code of Canon Law was adopted in 1983. It required some modifications in the way U.S. tribunals work but allowed the heart of the American approach to remain intact. America still leads the world in annulments, and while there are certainly grounds for critiquing both the process and its underlying theology of marriage, our tribunals bring healing and a second chance to tens of thousands of American Catholics each year. The defense of the special American norms three decades ago thus seems to many U.S. canonists and bishops a real pastoral accomplishment. 

I ran this comparison past Monsignor Thomas Green, also of Catholic University, who said one difference is that the American Procedural Norms issued in 1970 had been worked out between bishops and canonists, while Dallas was almost entirely an episcopal initiative about which many canonists harbor reservations. Otherwise, he said, the analogy seems to hold. 

Obviously 2002 is not 1972, but the situation does seem familiar: The American bishops have adopted a set of norms that depart from customary canonical practice, which they believe reflect the needs of their pastoral situation. The Vatican, which feels keenly its responsibility for the universal church, is understandably cautious about precedent-setting local exceptions. 

The question now is whether the U.S. bishops, thirty years later, will enjoy the same success in making the case for American exceptionalism.

Three footnotes.

Invoking this precedent is something of a double-edged sword for the Vatican. There are some in the Roman curia who have long objected to the way American marriage tribunals function, and the failure to resist those norms more strenuously is a matter of regret. Hence while the U.S. bishops may draw courage from the memory of the battle thirty years ago, some Vatican personnel will recall it as an object lesson of mistakes not to repeat this time around.

On the other hand, the American bishops do have an ace in the hole this time. Dominican Fr. Augustine J. DiNoia was appointed last spring as the new under-secretary in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s “supreme” congregation and a central player in the sex abuse crisis. DiNoia was the chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, hence he knows the American conference from the inside out, and he is a moderate, very astute figure who enjoys the trust of his Vatican superiors. He is in a position to shape attitudes towards the American situation, and I have no doubt that he will be much sought after as this process unfolds.

Finally, I have written before that one wild card factor is the papal motu proprio entitled Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela of May 18, 2002, and the norms on sex abuse it enacted, which have so far not been published. Re’s letter to Gregory of Oct. 14 referred to potential conflicts between these new Vatican norms and the Dallas policies. Green, however, told me he has seen the unpublished norms, and while the mixed commission will have to do some housekeeping in terms of references and citations, he does not think there are any serious conflicts between Dallas and the secret Vatican norms. The big issues before the commission, he said, will be those already in the public domain: the definition of sexual abuse, the due process guarantees to be observed, and the role of lay review boards.

* * *

My cross-country tour promoting “Conclave” continues, and hence “The Word from Rome” this week is in reality more like the word from a seemingly endless blur of airports, hotel rooms, TV studios and speaking venues.

As time and opportunity allows, I’ve been trying to drop in on the bishops in the places I’m speaking, in part as a courtesy call, in part to take their temperature heading into the November meeting of the U.S. bishops. I had the good fortune of seeing Howard Hubbard in Albany, for example, and John Cummins in Oakland. Although I wasn’t able to see Walter Sullivan in Richmond, Bob Kaiser and I did chat with Monsignor Robert Perkins, his vicar. 

We’re living through a season in the American church when it is again fashionable to bash bishops, and God knows some have done things that cry out for critique. But the truth is that many of our bishops are men of integrity, honesty, and good pastoral sense, and they need support now more than ever. If we are to find our way out of this crisis, the generalized antagonism that has taken over public conversation in the church, leaving a large swath of the American Catholic population hostile to bishops as a class, must be overcome. 

Men such as Hubbard and Cummins remind us that for every highly publicized bishop who has betrayed his people’s trust, there are others who have done things right, and Catholics are fortunate for their service.

* * *

While in Chicago, I had the opportunity of dining with a couple of local legends. The night of Oct. 21, I shared seafood and scotch with Tim and Jean Unsworth, two longtime stalwarts of the WindyCity’s Catholic scene. Tim writes a much beloved column for NCR, and Jean is a renowned artist.

      Tim is also a frequent commentator for Chicago-area TV on Catholic affairs, and it’s easy enough to understand why. A former religious brother, he is insightful, lovingly critical of the institution, and funny as hell. He spent the evening spinning yarns about his various clerical contacts across the Chicago area, some of whom occasionally gather in a supper club under the charming name of “Romeo” – “retired old men eating out.” 

       Anyone who does not know Tim’s column is missing one of the best bits of Catholic writing around. 

       The next morning I had breakfast with Fr. Andrew Greeley, who I’m proud to say is a colleague and friend, even if he does think I sometimes go a little too easy on the boys in Rome. (Over breakfast, Greeley was generous enough to chalk this up to a matter of differing generations).

       If you have any doubt about the cultural orbit Andy Greeley occupies in Chicago, a quick anecdote should erase it. I arrived at the Ritz-Carlton on Michigan Avenue a little early, and was brusquely refused access to the coffee shop (turns out Jiang Zemin was in town, and a knot of Falun Gong protestors was across the street). Hotel security examined my documents and subjected me to something just short of a full-body cavity search. Then Greeley walked in, and suddenly I went from bum to VIP. 

That’s the “Greeley effect” in Chi-town.

     Greeley is, of course, one of the most prolific writers on the Catholic scene. A.J. Liebling once boasted, “I can write faster than anyone who can write as well, and I can write better than anyone who can write as fast,” and the remark describes Greeley too. Par for the course, he showed up for our breakfast toting his latest book (apologizing that he had also just completed a Blackie Ryan novel the day before, but did not yet have a print copy). He also wanted to share two major essays he had just finished.

      One of the charming things about Greeley is his tell-it-like-it-is style, which leaves him willing to say almost anything to anyone. The two essays he brought along are classic cases in point. In one, he tells an audience of liturgists that they should shut up, forget what they’re told at professional seminars, and listen to the laity. In the other, he tells the National Catholic Educational Association on the occasion of their 100th anniversary that they should be ashamed of themselves for their timid defense of Catholic schools.

      I’ve always felt that one of Greeley’s most attractive qualities is his confidence in the American Catholic laity. He writes in the essay on liturgy: “In a contemporary Catholic parish where the pastor is reasonably open and reasonably secure, the generosity of the service of the laity in the ministry of the parish has never been equaled in the whole history of Catholicism.”

      Greeley’s bottom line is that liturgy is an empirical craft, not an abstract science. Find out what works, and do it.

      “If an innovation does not seem to work with the laity, first find out why not and then either change it or drop it, no matter what you heard at the last study day or conference,” he writes. As a means to this end, he proposes the use of focus groups in parishes.

      In his essay on Catholic education, Greeley again argues that our schools are among the best things American Catholics have ever done, and that their greatest successes have come precisely with the most disadvantaged, poor, and under-prepared kids. Yet the broader American culture remains hostile to Catholic schooling, Greeley says, because it remains hostile to Catholicism.

      His answer? Stop making apologies and be Catholic. As one practical application of this idea, Greeley suggests resurrecting practices such as outdoor May crownings and Corpus Christi processions. Attempts to blend in and water down our differences, what Fr. Robert Baron calls “beige Catholicism,” simply don’t work, Greeley concludes. They don’t adequately reflect the “sacramental imagination” that is the core of Catholic psychology.

      Having grown up in the Catholic education system in the post-conciliar period, and then having taught in a Catholic high school in Los Angeles for four and a half years in the early 1990s, I’m with Greeley on this one. Our schools are by and large terrific, but they could do with being a lot more identifiably, palpably Catholic. I’ve long felt it’s unfortunate that the defense of Catholic identity has become identified with a narrow band of conservative opinion, because there’s a real issue having to do with passing on the faith to the next generation that concerns most reflective Catholics I know. 

      I’m thankful Greeley is putting the challenge on the table. I hope a few daring Catholic educators pick it up.

* * *

      Robert Blair Kaiser and I spoke together Oct. 24 in the Minneapolis area, where we had the pleasure of being the houseguests of Terry Dosh, a former Benedictine monk who remains one of the most “priestly” persons you’ll ever meet … generous, humble, and evidently prayerful. Terry edits a newsletter that appeals to progressives entitled “Bread Rising,” which is well worth the $19 he asks if you want to stay abreast of conversations on the Catholic left.

      Before our lecture, we had the chance to sit down with Terry, Bill Hunt, and Jim Shannon for a chat about the priest shortage, the sex abuse crisis, and the current state of the church. Hunt is a former priest who was a key aide to former Archbishop Leo Binz of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Shannon was an auxiliary bishop of the same diocese who became a symbol of the American resistance to Paul VI’s 1967 birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae when he resigned rather than support its teaching.  (He is the author of Reluctant Dissenter, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York: 1998).

      Not surprisingly, all three see mandatory celibacy as a central factor in the shortage of priests in the western church. All believe that Catholicism will have to expand the pool of people from whom it draws its ministers in order to bring the sacraments to its people. Dosh argued, in fact, that Catholic communities should call forward their own ministers, and inevitably many of them will be married.

Our brief discussion could only hint at the theological complexities imbedded in these issues. What it did establish, however, is the deep intelligence, the love of the church, and the indelibly priestly character of men such as Hunt, Dosh and Shannon. In the complicated, multi-layered debate over a married clergy, here’s one datum that ought to count for something: We are denying ourselves the priestly service men such as these three could offer. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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