Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Change the Governance of the Church! Responding to the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Church

Book Review: Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed, Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power by Adam DeVille, published by Angelico Press.

Until recently, I had always thought that the problems with the Church’s liturgy and proliferation of unorthodox teaching were largely due to a combination of benign neglect of bishops and those in charge of our seminaries, and one or two highly placed mavericks who agitated for changes that undermined Tradition. The recent and scandalous re-emergence of tales of sexual abuse and the continued refusal, it appears, of so many people at the highest levels to deal with what has happened right up to present day have changed my mind. I no longer believe the neglect is benign or that there are just one or two mavericks. There are more. Many more.

I have had no crisis of faith as a result of this, however. When I converted in the early 1990s and became Catholic, it was despite the hierarchy, not because of it (by way of explanation, I am British). As the story goes, no institution this bad could last 2000 years if it wasn’t divinely instituted. I knew it was bad, just not this bad.

Given the situation, what can we do about it? Adam DeVille’s book is a response to the crisis which looks to the traditional governance of the Church for inspiration. I came across it by way of a friend who handed me a copy because he had read my article on how parishes might be organized so as to flourish and evangelize - The Apostolic Blueprint for a Parish, the Model of Christian Community for the Modern Age. He thought I might be interested because what I was describing at the parish level corresponds in some ways to what Adam DeVille is suggesting. DeVille extends his analysis further, examining dioceses and the Church as a whole. His perspective is that of a former Anglican who is now a member of the Ukranian Catholic Church, although he is quick to point out that he is not starry-eyed about the state of the Eastern Churches either.

What he proposes is likely to challenge both traditionalists and liberals in the Church, but I think that it is worthy of consideration and discussion, at least.

He describes the problem as one of clericalism in which power is too centralized and is steadily pushed upwards from the laity onto the priests, and from there onto the hierarchy and popes. This, he says, attracts people who have a particular psychological profile characterized by a desire to exercise power over and dominate others, and are skilled political players. (He draws on his academic background in psychology for this.) So many of the problems we see today are interconnected, and in response, the Church must be reformed so that there can be new structures of local accountability. This, he says, is deeply traditional, and a return to root practices that structured much of Catholic life for centuries.

His argument is for a three-fold ordering of the Catholic Church: the laity, the clerics, and the hierarchs, all existing together, each with voice and vote in the councils of governance of the Church – from the lowly parish council through to diocesan, regional, and international synods. All three orders are necessary, he says, for the Church to flourish; each of the three acts as a check on the others, ensuring that none can run totally roughshod over the others.

He begins in the first chapter with a call to dismantle what he sees as a Papal cult of personality and Papal monopoly on power. Then, chapter by chapter, he addresses changes that introduce greater subsidiarity, so that we might invigorate parish councils, return to regular diocesan synods, and reform episcopal conferences. Finally, as an additional but not unconnected discussion, he discusses the ideas of reintroduing married priests and even bishops in the West. These changes, he suggests, will increase lay accountability in a good way, and in turn, attract better and more principled people into the Church, to whom we will more inclined to accord trust.

It was one thing to describe how it ought to be, it is another to see how it might happen. Given that we can’t rely on those in power to release it, the answer lies with each of us to do what we can in our own situations, and get involved constructively in any way that we can. As a lay person, my main interest was on his discussion of parish organization. He described a structure in which there is greater involvement in decision making in parish councils. I could hear the counter-arguments as I read. Isn’t this going to create a situation where we have the lunatics running the asylum? Surely it is better to have stronger priests and bishops who are just better formed? We have all seen or heard of the situation where the priest comes into a parish and tries to introduce Gregorian chant, only to have the parish council insisting on the missalette music. If the priest does make changes, the redundant and disgruntled guitar strummers write to the bishop, the bishop runs scared at the complaints - or perhaps capitalizes on them in order to impose what he wants while appearing pastoral - and tells the priest to reverse all the changes.

A number of points occurred to me in response to this.

First, if greater autonomy is given to priests, and the congregation has a hand in choosing their priest, then conflict won’t occur so often, and the bishop will be less inclined to interfere. Second, and again, if the congregation has a hand in choosing the priest, there is more likely to be a spirit of cooperation between priest and congregation. If roles are clearly understood, then it is natural for the priest to be involved in decisions regarding the liturgy, but he would be happy to delegate decisions regarding property management to the experts in the congregation. This is more along the lines of the model that I was describing in my original article.

A third point is one of the general benefits of greater local autonomy at every level. It is likely that some parishes will go horribly wrong in just the way that we all fear. However, it is likely too that there will be more orthodox parishes which are stable, and these will become the beacons of the Faith. It is what one might call Jesuit vs Oratorian styles of organization. When you have a very strong central organization, as the Jesuits have, then if the center goes bad, the whole organization suffers. If you have more distributed authority, so that separate houses are more autonomous, as Oratorian churches are, then some will flourish and persist and create mission churches. Those that go bad will decline, but not bring all the others down with them.

Buy the book, here.

ADAM A.J. DEVILLE is an associate professor in the theology department and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN; and editor-in-chief of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: