This is an important week for the Catholic church: as Fr. Thomas Reese explains in this recent National Catholic Reporter article, this week the eight cardinals Pope Francis has appointed to advise him about the needs of the church and reform of the Vatican will meet in Rome. As Reese also notes, it's not clear that the "gang of eight" will actually do anything beyond listening and talking. And this poses a danger, given the pope's advanced age, the urgent need for reform--the need, precisely, that something be done. Immediately.
Reese envisages a best-case scenario in which the eight cardinals spark what he calls "comprehensive reform" rather than better management of a badly faltering institution in need of more than more adroit management. Reese's prescription for (part of) such comprehensive reform:
• Stop making Vatican officials bishops or cardinals
• Remove all curial officials from the committees (congregations and councils) that oversee curial offices and replace them with diocesan cardinals and bishops nominated by the synod of bishops and/or bishops' conferences
• Remove all curial officials from the synod of bishops and have it meet at least once every five years.
As Reese concludes,
On the other hand, his [i.e., the pope's] attempts to change attitudes need to be supported by structural reforms in the Roman Curia. We have been waiting and preparing for change since Vatican II, where the foundations for change were laid. Will the gang of eight produce a plan? Let's hope so.
Or as Jayden Cameron recently put the same point at his Gay Mystics site, "one good man in the papacy can't really do all that much in the short term when bucking against the prevailing ideology." We need reform. And that reform must touch on structures, if it's to be real and effective. Otherwise, it will be mere p-r image manipulation that changes nothing in the long run.
As Joshua McElwee notes for NCR this morning, Pope Francis has just underscored the consultative, rather than decision-making, nature of the body of eight cardinals in a document made public this morning by the papal press secretary Fr. Lombardi. The group represents "a new form of consultation," but all deliberative decisions will be left to the pope himself. This stress on the group's consultative rather than deliberative function is also apparent in statements that Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who is a member of the gang of eight, has already made at his own blog site--as Luke Hill notes in a recent posting at the Commonweal blog site.
As the cardinals gather, all kinds of feedback from across the church has been presented to them and to Pope Francis, begging for reform in this and that area. At Iglesia Descalza, Rebel Girl presents a copy of a letter sent to the pope and the eight cardinals by the group Catholic Church Reform, representing Catholics in many countries. The letter offers five specific accent points to orient the reform the Catholic church needs:
1. A Church that embodies the radical justice of Jesus in the world
2. A Church that welcomes open dialogue among its members
3. A Church that recognizes the fundamental equality of its members
4. A Church with greater participation of the baptized in governance
5. A Church that effectively confronts and prevents sexual abuse.
A Church that effectively confronts and prevents sexual abuse: as Bishop Accountability president Terence McKiernan states in a press release yesterday that is not yet at the Bishop Accountability website (as far as I can determine),
Pope Francis and the G-8 will fail if they see their task as making the Curia more presentable and efficient. They might succeed if they see the Curia’s failure as signifying a vast crisis in the institution, a crisis that is best understood and remedied by focusing on the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church and the enabling of that abuse by the bishops and the Vatican. Some reports indicate that the “Super 8” see their purview as broader than Curial reform – perhaps it will include the “new evangelization” or ecumenism. They will be guided by Francis’ “indications.” But Pope Francis has entirely avoided mentioning the sexual abuse of children by clerics – in his Jesuit interview, at least in its published form, and in his other gestures and pronouncements.The members of the Super 8 who are most attuned to the abuse of children in the universal church must radically alter this emphasis.
As abuse survivor and SNAP leader Joelle Casteix notes in a heartfelt open letter to Pope Francis several days ago at her Worthy Adversary site,
Well, saying you’re sorry is not enough. You know that. It didn’t work before and it won’t work now. Victims and Catholics need action. You must remove and punish offending clerics and everyone who has covered up abuse. You must turn over documents to civil authorities. You must tell the bishops to stop their legal fights against victims. You must beg for forgiveness and offer atonement for the sins of your shepherds. I could write a list, but I don’t want to limit the scope of what you can do. You’re the POPE—you can do anything. No one is going to fire you.
As Catholic blogger and activist (and attorney) Frank Cocozzelli states in a recent posting at Talk to Action which is, in its own way, an open letter to the pope as the eight cardinals gather, as the group of eight meet, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, a convicted criminal, continues to occupy his episcopal throne, though the priest he shielded after he learned that he had taken pornographic pictures of children, Father Shawn Ratigan, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison. Frank writes,
I am one of those Catholics who has been cheered by the new pope's refreshing tone and his embracing of tolerance and humility. Indeed, his comments about the Church's recent obsession with culture war issues may have pulled the rug out from under the Republican Party Auxiliary we generally call the Catholic Right. His recent statements clearly indicate that he may lead the Church to an approach to economic and social justice that transcends Roman Catholicism and embraces the entire world.
But the longer he waits to act on the problem of sex abuse in the Church, the greater the risk that the good will he has earned, and the hope he has given to many millions of Catholics (and non-Catholics) will be lost.
Only the pope has the power to remove a Bishop. And the removal of Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri would be the perfect starting point to show the world that he will back up his words with deeds.
In an outstanding statement that it is hard for me to summarize, because it is dense, rich, and lengthy, Jerry Slevin argues at his Christian Catholicism site that Francis is the last imperial pope of Catholic history, and as such, he is uniquely placed to mandate top-to-bottom reform that goes beyond mere image management. Among Jerry's outstanding suggestions: if Pope Francis expects the reform agenda he appears to be promoting to be effective, he needs to go beyond a group of cardinals as he listens to the voice of the faithful. He needs to listen to the whole church.
A specific proposal flowing from this assertion: noting that John XXIII set up a commission in 1963 of knowledgable lay and clerical Catholics called the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth, Jerry suggests that Francis take a leaf from John XXIII's book and do the following:
No, not the calling of an unwieldly and time consuming Council, but the setting up an internationally representative committee of knowledgeable lay and clerical women and men, married and single.
That commission would advise the pope on the multi-pronged needs for structural change and radical reform in the Catholic institution. Jerry offers a more detailed description of such an advisory commission in a Washington Post article.
And what shape might a reform spearheaded by the whole people of God and not a group of cardinals advising the pope take? In the first place, it would move beyond the kind of managerial approach (rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic) that Fr. Tom Reese fears as he calls for comprehensive reform instead:
Francis’ efforts to date to reorganize the "Curial choir" and soften the papal tone, without also changing fundamentally the rigorist papal tune, can only serve as appetizers. Gestures, symbols, sermons, tweets, etc., are certainly helpful, but where’s the beef? Most Catholics hunger for resolutions. Francis needs to be bold like Pope Gregory VII was a millenium ago. Tinkering around the edges will fail. Francis may make a few mistakes, but he could not if he tried create a bigger mess than ex-Pope Benedict left him. If he fails to act soon effectively and transparently, lurking government investigators will likely limit his options.
Friendly smiles and tweets and kissing babies are nice short-term, but not enough to regain Catholics’ trust long-term. Where, after six months as pope, are the specific reform proposals Francis plans at least to initiate? Catholics generally, and even many non-Catholics, are fed-up, even as some of Francis’ winning ways are sparking a little hope. They want, among other things:
(1) bishops to become accountable,
(2) children to be better protected and valued,
(3) women to be treated equally and fairly as adults, not as "almost, but not quite, reflections of Jesus' mother",
(4) couples to be responsible for their own loving intimacy, free of celibates' uninformed and hypocritical rigorism,
(5) divorced couples to be offered the sacraments and welcomed back,
(6) priests to be available, accessible, secure and free of hierarchical manipulation and threats, and
(7) gay persons to be respected.
If such root-and-branch reform, for which the people of God hunger, as Jerry Slevin rightly insists, does not occur under the current pope, Jerry predicts that Francis will end up in the same ignominious place in which his predecessor ended up: he'll be forced to resign, as civil and criminal authorities in many places around the world hound the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church to address the abuse crisis transparently and effectively, and he'll have missed a spectacular opportunity afforded him as the last imperial leader of a badly faltering institution whose imperial Constantinean superstructure is, God be thanked, crumbling to the ground at present to use his imperial power to mandate the reform the Catholic church needs to negotiate its current historical crisis with grace.
As I say, Jerry's essay is rich and dense, and it's hard for me to summarize his argument with a few key excerpts. I encourage readers of this posting to visit Jerry's site and read his essay in its entirety.