In my recent travels both to Europe and around North America, I have yet to meet a Catholic who expects any kind of serious reform to come from Pope Francis and the bishops who are meeting this week in Rome to discuss sex abuse in the Catholic Church. But as a careful observer of this crisis since I first began writing about it in 1992 in my native Canada, I have sensed, for the first time since the news of Theodore McCarrick broke last summer, a definitive, perhaps even revolutionary, shift among Catholics everywhere in their demands for major reform.
Gone today is any hope that the bishops—any of them—will actually do anything serious. They will talk. They will promise to do certain things, perhaps even intelligent things. But what they will not do is the one thing that is most needed: to reform the structures and offices of the Church, including their own, which have perpetuated and worsened the crisis, and which will only prolong it until and unless those offices and structures are radically reformed.
The crisis which we have been hearing about for three decades now is really twofold in nature; there is a crisis of sex abuse, but that is aided and abetted by a crisis of the abuse of power. If the Church has, in the last two decades especially, made progress in dealing with the former, it has nowhere near begun to deal with the latter. Instead of actually examining the structural problems of governance, we have had a concerted campaign—from two otherwise ideologically opposed camps in the Church who agree on little else—to keep the focus off the problem of powerful offices embedded in structures demanding obedience. Thus we hear from one side—that around Pope Francis—that the problem is some vague and ill-defined attitude of “clericalism.” We hear from the other so-called conservative side that the problem is a “lavender mafia” living in a “gay subculture” within the Church—a claim gaining great notoriety currently with the release of Frédéric Martel’s new book.
What neither side is willing to examine is the fact that priests in parishes, bishops in dioceses, and the pope in the universal church all have a monopoly on power, and that this monopoly has allowed them to hide from any serious accountability to the people in the pews. All three, under current structures, have a right to demand obedience from those under them. None of them has to consult, much less listen to, anyone under them.
A priest is under no obligation even to have a parish council, much less consult it on anything or to take its advice. A bishop is under no obligation to hold regular synods with his clergy and laity, much less take their advice. If he does deign to hold a synod—which almost no bishop has done since the 1970s—his is the only authoritative voice. He alone determines when to call it, what it may discuss, and what decisions, if any, he will allow to be published, and perhaps implemented. A fortiori this is all true of the pope at the global level of the Church (even if Pope Francis, to his credit, has tried to nudge the church in a more synodal direction).
The problem with these monopolistic structures is not just that they have aided and abetted the abuse crisis. The further problem is that none of the modern structures are anything other than a historical aberration and a theological abomination. To go back into Catholic history even as recently as the nineteenth century is to see at once how much greater the voice and vote of the people used to be.
Today, by contrast, the exclusion of the laity from all the councils of governance in the Church is total. This cannot be justified by history. It cannot be justified ecumenically; no other Christian body on the planet is as prelate-ridden as the Roman Catholic Church, whose cult of personality around the pope finds no equivalent in any other ecclesial body. And it certainly cannot be justified theologically. Nowhere in the Church’s theology –ancient or modern, Eastern or Western – is there even an attempt to justify the monopoly on power enjoyed by clerics, or the total disenfranchisement of the laics, to use the term of the Russian Orthodox scholar Nicholas Afanasiev, who insisted the people of God are not “laity” as in non-specialists or non-clerics, but are full members of the Church equal to clerics in the eyes of God.
How can we reform these structures and offices? Even to raise this question is to send some Catholics clamoring for their comforting clichés: “the church is not a democracy” and “we can’t look to the world for models to run the Church.”
But why can Catholics not look to their own history, and to the history, and current practice, of other Christian bodies, for models of structures that allow for voice and vote for everybody? If we look, as I do in my forthcoming book “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, 2019), to other Christian bodies, including especially the Armenian Apostolic Church and some of the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, we find structures at all levels—local, diocesan, regional, and global—in which the laics have voice and vote. In those bodies, as in earlier Catholic history, we find laics voting in parish councils on not just pierogi sales or cemetery budgets, but on the choice of priest—whether to hire or fire, which is decided in conjunction with the bishop. In those bodies, as in earlier Catholic history, we find laics and clerics alike gathering in diocesan synods to elect a new bishop, and then to hold him accountable in twice-yearly meetings (a practice mandated way back in 325 at the first Nicene council that wrote the creed of that name still in use today). In those bodies, as in earlier Catholic history, we find bishops of a region or nation gathering to discipline one another when necessary, instead of standing around impotently, as American bishops did last November after a late-night phone call from Rome bid them to stand down pending apparent papal discipline, a pathetic spectacle that put one in mind of Bismarck’s arch observation after Vatican I of the bishops as the pope’s postmen.
If Catholics knew their own history and knew a bit about their sister churches in the East, they would know that the structural reforms they desperately need today are already being lived out in other Christian bodies, as I demonstrate in very careful detail in my book. The proposals made there are radical in the original sense of the word: a return to root practices that structured much of Catholic life for hundreds of years. They are therefore conservatively rooted in earlier tradition and history. But they are also, and unapologetically, “liberal” proposals for, until and unless Church structures liberate the laics to resume their rightful role in the councils of governance with voice and vote, this crisis will not end, and no amount of hot air from Rome will enable the Church to move on.
A.A.J. DeVille, is an associate professor and the Director of Humanities at the University of Saint Francis, and the editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies