Taking on the Curia

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Roman.jpgFinally it is becoming clear that the big stumbling block to dealing with the abuse crisis is the Roman Curia itself. In America, the way forward is being led by America, which in an editorial this week identifies the curia as “at the center of the present crisis” and calls for a renewal of the church along the lines prescribed by the Second Vatican Council. Even more pointedly, over at the magazine’s blog, managing editor James Martin yesterday not only named names (including the pope’s) but also argued that while sexual abuse itself may have been no more prevalent in the church than in other segments of society charged with the care of the young, institutional protection of abusers has been far worse.

Historically, the remedy for curialism has been, as America suggests, conciliarism–the use of councils of bishops to undertake a more collegial–if not democratic–approach to church governance. And even if the conciliar approach is not in the offing, there’s no question that the strongest counterweight to curial command and control is a strong episcopacy out in the field.

So what do we have in America? A lot of time-servers, a few loud ultra-Roman conservatives, and a small number of progressives who keep their own counsel. In Europe, by contrast, prominent episcopal voices for reform are beginning to be heard. Most significantly, there’s the Bohemian aristocrat, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has not only taken direct aim at curial Pooh-Bah Angelo Sodano but also made so bold as to open discussion of clerical celibacy and same-sex relationships. He has now been joined by another Austrian bishop, who is openly advocating making celibacy voluntary for priests.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who showed his unhappiness with the pope’s gentle encounter with the Irish bishops in March by departing before the press conference, continues to speak his mind–most recently in an extraordinary speech on the future of the church in Ireland. The following passage from it deserves a careful reading.

Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip
never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way
it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that
the truth did not emerge. The truth will make us free, even when that
truth is uncomfortable. There are signs of subconscious denial on the
part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the
Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are
other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had
happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and
norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.

It’s hard not to suspect that among the “strong forces” he has in mind are curial ones.

A half century ago, some of the strongest episcopal voices for reform a la Vatican II were American. This time around, it’s not clear there will be any.