The Word from Rome

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Rome]
Downloaded June 23, 2003

I got lots of phone calls this week from American reporters seeking Vatican reaction to the resignations of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien, and of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as head of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board. O'Brien stepped down following arrest in a hit-and-run incident, just days after signing an agreement to avoid criminal prosecution for failure to report complaints of sexual abuse against Phoenix priests. As part of that deal, O'Brien delegated authority on sex abuse cases to his moderator of the curia and to an independent advocate. Generally speaking, there wasn't much for Vatican officials to say about O'Brien's resignation, except to express sadness for him, for the victim of the hit-and-run and his family, and for Phoenix. On the deal O'Brien struck, however, there has been concern. Some Vatican observers believe O'Brien went too far in renouncing the bishop's authority. Some wondered if the agreement - phrased as a deal among Maricopa County, O'Brien and the Diocese of Phoenix - could bind O'Brien's successor. On Keating, it is no secret that some in the Vatican never looked upon his appointment with favor, believing that someone with a reputation for unpredictable public commentary was not suited for such a highly sensitive role. The concern goes beyond Keating, however, to the National Review Board itself. If its role is to advise and assist the bishops, no problem. If, however, its purpose becomes to "supervise" the bishops, fears arise again about losing authority. In the present climate, such concerns cannot help but strike many Americans as part of the problem - an attempt to preserve clerical power rather than resolving the crisis. There may be justice to this critique; it is not for me, thank God, to judge. But there are two other considerations to note if one wants to understand where the Vatican is coming from. First, the belief that power flows from Christ to the apostles and their successors in the apostolic college, meaning the bishops, is a core Roman Catholic theological concept. As early as end of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch urged the local church to be subject to the bishop. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage wrote, "The bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop." For 2,000 years, the bishop's office has been a guarantor of Catholic identity, often in hostile situations; it has, in effect, stood the test of time. Those who believe the episcopacy is a matter of divine intention become nervous when they believe it is threatened. Second, many in the Vatican believe that the heart of the American crisis lies in bishops failing to do their jobs. It is conventional wisdom in Rome that the American bishops did not need a new charter and norms to combat sexual abuse, that the Code of Canon Law gave them every tool they needed if they had been serious about confronting this behavior. The problem was not law, but will. Some bishops preferred to take the advice of therapists and formation teams and personnel boards rather than taking the situation into their own hands. Yet supervision of priests is a core episcopal responsibility; a bishop, according to the traditional theology, is supposed to be both a brother and a father to his priests. Hence seen through Vatican eyes, the solution is not for America's bishops to "pass the buck," whether to independent advocates or national boards, but to step up and do the job that bishops have been ordained to do for 2,000 years. Ceding authority looks from this perspective not like a healthy dose of democracy, but malfeasance. In the end, this reasoning may or may not be persuasive, may or may not correspond to the exigencies of the American situation. But for those who wish to press for different solutions, it is important to speak the same language.


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