National Catholic Reporter ®

November 8, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.11

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Issues loom as bishops take up revised norms; liturgy ‘as the life we want to lead’; pontificating about pontiffs in Milwaukee; my wife and her Prince of Peace
[Concerning the American sex abuse norms . . .] 

The handwriting was on the wall since the wall went up. 

The Nov. 4 release of the revisions to the American sex abuse norms, worked out by a commission from the Vatican and the American bishops, has so far not generated much media interest in the United States. I suspect this is in part because the mid-term elections drowned out other stories, in part because the results were so widely anticipated. 

     As I anticipated in last week’s column, the commission tightened the definition of sexual abuse, restored some due process guarantees for accused priests, and clarified that lay review boards are advisory only. I was hardly alone in predicting that things would shape up this way. Those of us who have been covering the story have been aware of the key Vatican concerns since at least April, when the American cardinals came to Rome for a summit with officials from the Holy See. 

     The handwriting was on the wall since the wall went up.

     Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, issued a statement saying that the mixed commission “substantially confirmed the decisions made” in Dallas. Now its results must go before the U.S. bishops during their Nov. 11-14 meeting in Washington, D.C., then return to Rome once again for the recognitio – the formal legal recognition that would make the program particular law, i.e., binding and obligatory, for all American dioceses. 

     Item one from the commission is a more restrictive standard for what constitutes “sexual abuse.” 

     In place of the broad “physical and non-physical interactions” definition in the Dallas charter (borrowed from the Canadian bishops’ document From Pain to Hope of 1992), the commission reverted to the language currently in the Code of Canon Law: “An external, objectively grave violation of the sixth Commandment.” 

     By way of explanation, the commission added that, “a canonical offence against the sixth commandment need not be a complete act of intercourse. Nor, to be objectively grave, does an act need to involve force, physical contact, or a discernible harmful outcome.”

     In truth, both standards are fairly elastic, and in the end it will fall to bishops and their diocesan advisory boards to determine whether a particular case qualifies. The commission’s intent, however, seems to have been to raise the bar in terms of how serious an act has to be in order to trigger permanent removal from ministry.

     The powers and status of lay review boards is the second major adjustment from the mixed commission’s work.

     Norm #4 from Dallas had said, “To assist the diocesan/eparchial bishop in his work, each diocese/eparchy will have a review board.” The revised norms read, “Each diocese/eparchy will also have a review board which will function as a confidential consultative body to the bishop/eparch in discharging his responsibilities.” The change in wording emphasizes that these boards are consultative only, and that it is the diocesan bishop who has responsibility for priestly discipline.

     Some observers will see this as a defense of clerical power. But from the Vatican’s point of view, these lay boards could jeopardize the theology of the bishop’s office. From their point of view, a bishop is to be a paterfamilias to his priests, both a brother and a father, and just as a good father would not hand over responsibility for his children to outside agents, a bishop should not cede authority for his priests. Indeed, many Vatican officials believe that part of the sexual abuse crisis was precisely the failure of some bishops to take personal responsibility for overseeing priestly life and formation. Hence any new structure that looks like another way for bishops to avoid responsibility is a matter of concern.

     I spoke to Bishop William Skylstad, vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, on Sunday afternoon the day before the commission’s work was released. He said that all boards in the church, whether pastoral councils or a finance committees, are ultimately advisory. A good pastor or bishop, however, does not simply veto or override their recommendations when they don’t like the conclusions. Do that once or twice, and most laity will conclude that the game is rigged and will refuse to play. Hence, Skylstad said, bishops have to take these boards seriously, regardless of what formal legal status they have.

     The revised document also drops norm #6 from Dallas, which called for the creation of lay appellate boards at a regional level, which the mixed commission felt would conflict with the role of existing church appellate courts.

     Finally, the revised norms from the mixed commission pay greater attention to due process, sticking closer to existing canon law.

     Instead of automatic removal from ministry as soon as an accusation of sexual abuse surfaces, the revised norms call on the bishop to conduct a “preliminary investigation in harmony with canon law.” If the accusation appears credible, the priest is to be suspended from ministry, and even prohibited from celebrating Mass in public. The bishop is also to report the case to the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, in keeping with the papal motu proprio of May 18, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. That document gives the congregation the authority to take up the case itself, or to remand it to a local church court. The operating assumption is that local ecclesiastical tribunals will generally handle American cases. 

     The bottom line on “zero tolerance” comes in norm #8, where the language says that even a single offense of sexual abuse can trigger permanent removal from ministry “if the case so warrants.” This seems to provide the discretion for a case-by-case review that the Vatican wanted.

     One key procedural issue is the statute of limitations. Canon law specifies that an offense cannot be prosecuted more than 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. The offenses committed by most of the 300 priests removed since Dallas lie farther in the past. Hence if the statute of limitations were to be applied literally, most of those priests would be eligible to be reinstated, a result that one bishop member of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse said to me privately would mean “pandemonium.” 

     The revised norms say a bishop may appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a waiver from the statute of limitations for “appropriate pastoral reasons.” It does not specify what those reasons might be, nor which criteria will be applied in Rome to evaluate these requests.

     The revised norms specify that an accused priest has the right to an ecclesiastical trial before final punishment is imposed. Presumably this responsibility will fall to local church tribunals, although some canonists feel the caseload might overwhelm the system and that special regional tribunals should be created.

     I believe two points will be critical in shaping public attitudes to the revised sex abuse norms.

     First, will the American bishops embrace a more collaborative mode of exercising power, putting some of their autonomy in brackets in order to invite lay people into co-responsibility for personnel, finance, and governance? How bishops manage their relationships with the laity over the coming months will be closely watched, and will help determine whether public faith in the bishops is restored.

     Second, there are some patches of fog that remain to be clarified about how the revised norms will work. What, exactly, are the criteria that bishops and their advisory boards will use to determine which “grave violations of the sixth commandment” warrant permanent removal from ministry? Some measure of local discretion is appropriate, but too much of it and we’re back to the lack of a uniform national policy that motivated the desire for the Dallas program in the first place.

     Also, what will be the criteria that appellate courts in Rome will use to settle appeals when they arrive? What standards will the Vatican use to determine in which cases it will issue a waiver from the statute of limitations? Until these questions are clearly answered, both victims and accused priests will remain in the dark about the standards by which their cases will be adjudicated.

     Finally, canonists in the United States are asking questions about what the implications of “permanent removal from ministry” will be, since it is not a category in canon law. To quote from one canonist’s reaction: “What are the inherent risks (to the cleric himself and to the community) of ‘removing’ someone from his work and giving him nothing specific to do all day every day for the rest of his life? Where are these men to live out their lives of ‘prayer and penance?’ Is a diocese able to offer a severance package or request that the cleric find alternate employment and housing, if he’s young enough to assume another career?”

     All of these are questions the U.S. bishops must tackle in Washington if they want to finally turn the corner on what one American bishop recently described to me as an “unremitting nightmare.”

* * *

     Though the English language has been the front line of the liturgical struggles within the Catholic Church in the last decade, it is hardly the only front in the war. Fresh evidence of this point came recently in the Nov. 1 issue of the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.

     The Italian bishops’ conference recently approved its third translation since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) of the book of scripture readings for use in the Mass, a collection known as a lectionary. The last Italian lectionary was completed in 1974. In order to enter into use, the new translation will have to be submitted for the recognitio, or formal legal approval, from the Vatican.

     One particular change in this version of the lectionary has raised plenty of eyebrows in the Holy See. The passage is I Corinthians 9:5, and it currently reads: “Don’t we have the right to take with us a believing woman, as the other apostles do, as well as the brothers of the Lord and Cephus?” In the revised translation, the verse is adjusted to bring out what virtually all modern scripture scholars agree is its actual meaning – instead of “believing woman,” the verse reads “spouse.” 

     Even before the Italian bishops got around to formally asking for the recognitio, three Vatican offices sent letters to the Italian bishops’ conference demanding that the older language be retained. They are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and the Congregation for Clergy. Not coincidentally, these offices were headed at the time by the three most theologically traditional prefects in the Vatican: Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Jorge Medina Estevez, and Dario Castrillon Hoyos. (Medina has subsequently been replaced by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze).

     The obvious concern is that the shift in vocabulary, from “believing woman” to “spouse,” might weaken support for the discipline of clerical celibacy.

     Technically, the three prefects have the rules on their side. According to the 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam, setting out translation principles, the base text for scriptural citations is supposed to be the neo-Vulgate of 1979, which is based on the fifth century Latin translation of the Bible carried out by St. Jerome. There the phrase in I Corinthians 9:5 is sororem mulierem, which is literally a “sister woman.” Most experts agree, however, that this term is a euphemism for “wife.”

     The point of this anecdote is that the Vatican continues to take the most exacting, word-for-word interest in liturgical translation, knowing that the language we use in worship shapes our beliefs and attitudes. As Gabe Huck, one of American Catholicism’s best liturgical minds, said recently at the Call to Action national convention, in liturgy we rehearse the life we want to lead.

     Lest one believe that traditionalists have a stranglehold on the Vatican’s liturgical policy, however, consider the case of Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci, music director of the Sistine Chapel from 1956 to 1997. Bartolucci is a longtime critic of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Recently he told the Vatican writer for the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that he has never celebrated the “New Mass” promulgated by Paul VI, using instead the missal of Pius V, issued following the Council of Trent. Bartolucci was furious five years ago when rock star Bob Dylan was permitted to sing for the pope at a Eucharistic festival in Bologna, arguing that Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna should have resigned in protest.

     At 85, Bartolucci is still angry that he was forced out of his job at the Sistine Chapel in 1997, despite that the fact that his appointment by Pius XII was supposed to be ad vitam – for life. The move was engineered by Papal Master of Ceremonies Piero Marini, more progressive and conciliar in his thinking. Ratzinger came to Bartolucci’s defense, but Marini held his ground, and Marini’s candidate, Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto of the Cathedral Choir of Monreale in Sicily, got the nod in the Sistine Chapel.

     This by way of saying that the Vatican is not monolithic or monochrome, and for every move in one direction, it almost always lurches in another before very long. In this way it achieves a kind of balance over time, always imperfect and certainly capable of reform, but it’s a striking sort of equilibrium nevertheless.

* * *

     I’ve finally completed my cross-country speaking tour promoting my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election. I spoke with Bob Kaiser Oct. 30 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and that night I was the houseguest of Bishop John Cummins of the Oakland diocese, staying at the cathedral rectory. 

     While in the Bay Area, I had the chance to spend time with two terrific Catholic educators. The first was James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union, and the second Jesuit Fr. Stephen Privett, president of the University of San Francisco. Donahue asked Kaiser and I to join him at lunch, and I was impressed with his deep intelligence, his accessibility, and his commitment to dialogue. He and I shared a concern with polarization in the American Catholic community, and I suspect Donahue may have some creative ideas in the coming months as to how to carve out spaces for conversation amid the cultural noise. Privett, meanwhile, is a strong leader with a clear vision of Jesuit education (with a strong focus on social justice at its core). Privett is well informed, open, and pragmatic in assessing political realities.

     In thinking about the recent battles over Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the identity of Catholic institutions, I always feel better after talking to leaders such as Donahue and Privett. I come away feeling that our schools are in good hands.

     I finished my tour giving two presentations at the national Call to Action conference in Milwaukee. (I was supposed to return to Rome Nov. 6, but I’m going to stay in the States until Nov. 14 so I can cover the meeting of the U.S. bishops in Washington).

     In Milwaukee, I had two encounters that deserve mention. The first was with novelist, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, who spoke on democracy in the Catholic Church. His lecture, before a packed house of thousands in the main ballroom at Milwaukee’s Midwest Express Center, was rhetorically artful, and I found his argument persuasive that democracy harmonizes well with gospel emphasis on the inherent dignity of each human being.

     Afterwards, I mounted the platform to congratulate Carroll, but more importantly to deliver a message from my wife, who is Jewish, and who loved Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword. Carroll received her praise with grace, and was kind enough to say that he had enjoyed my session the day before on the election of the next pope.

     The second exchange was with Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight of the Weston School of the Theology, whose book Jesus: Symbol of God has attracted interest from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I had not met Haight before, and it was a pleasure to share a lunch with him. He’s a gracious, mild person, and one certainly hopes that his present troubles soon pass. Theologians can debate whether his ideas threaten orthodox Christian thinking, but at least Haight’s desire to faithfully serve the community seems beyond dispute.

     A final word about the conference itself. I know that Call to Action is not everyone’s cup of tea, since it takes positions on issues such as birth control and women’s ordination that place it decisively in the liberal camp. This was my first experience of a Call to Action national convention. Most of the people I met struck me as positive and committed to the church. Indeed, many conference participants were priests, vowed religious or lay ecclesiastical employees. Yes, some people seemed angry at the institutional church. Yes, some seemed critical of the hierarchy not on this or that issue, but as an article of faith. But on the whole they came across as committed Catholics open to the dialogue.

     It was an encouraging experience, at a time when American Catholicism could use some encouragement.

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

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