Evaluating the Vatican's decision to postpone the USCCB vote

Originally Appeared in : 9825-12/6/18

Great consternation in the American media, both secular and Catholic, has been occasioned by the Holy See’s “request” (read “order”) to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to postpone a proposed vote on—but not the discussion of—the USCCB’s three draft policies intended to hold our bishops more accountable for their handling of accusations of abuse by clerics.


One reason for this “request” was that a vote might preempt the Holy Father’s planned meeting with all the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences in February. Pope Francis called that meeting to devise a world-wide set of norms. If the Catholic bishops of the United States had unilaterally adopted a set of norms for this country, it was apparently feared by some regional conferences on other continents that such a set of norms would be seen as a sort of fait accompli. 


In addition, as Andrea Tornielli noted on VaticanInsider (from La Stampa in Turin), two of the three texts prepared by the executive committee of the U.S. episcopate perplexed the Holy See. “The documents were sent to Rome only on the eve of the general assembly of bishops convened in Baltimore on Monday, 12 Nov.. Almost a pro forma communication. Within a few hours, those who examined the texts in the Vatican revealed two types of problems: the lack of conformity with what is established by the Code of Canon Law, and a certain generalization of some of the standards established to judge accountability, that is the personal responsibility of the individual bishops in the management of cases of abuse. Flaws that would have made it difficult, in some cases, for a bishop to be certain of falling within the standards or to become aware of having violated them.”  


Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the American bishops, in communicating the decision on Nov. 12, spoke of the “insistence” of the Holy See, which seemed to Tornielli to shift “all responsibility to the Vatican,” as if the latter’s “signaling to Catholic bishops the inconsistency with the Code of Canon Law of some of the rules they were about to vote was an undue interference.”  


“Undue interference?” It is a dogma, defined as de fide catholica—essential to the Catholic faith by the First Vatican Council—that the pope, the Bishop of Rome, has immediate and ordinary jurisdiction over every Catholic of every rite and dignity. He alone has jurisdiction over the world’s bishops, who do not have such jurisdiction over each other—nor do any groups of bishops, such as episcopal conferences, possess this jurisdiction.


Put another way, the competent authority to discipline a bishop belongs to the pope. This authority is papal. I have it on good authority that the pope and his curia are developing policies to be considered at the February meeting to establish uniform channels of communication by which allegations or complaints should be made against a bishop. If a bishop is accused of  mishandling an alleged abuse case, for example, anywhere in the world, clear guidelines will be put in place and publicized so that the matter in question can be brought to the attention of the pope. For example, an allegation against a given bishop would be lodged with his Metropolitan Archbishop (e.g., of Atlanta for this ecclesiastical province), while an allegation against a Metropolitan would be lodged with the Senior Suffragan Bishop of his province.


The Metropolitan or Senior Suffragan would then send a report to the papal nuncio (e.g., the Holy See’s Ambassador to the United States), who would forward the information to his superiors, who would recommend the appropriate course of action to the Holy Father and would then forward the pope’s determination to a commission to be established in every diocese for giving it effect.


There has been much talk of the role of the laity in any eventual procedures to be adopted. Clearly, lay people will often be the ones making such allegations. Representatives of the lay faithful would most probably serve on the diocesan commissions. But the juridical authority to adjudicate cases is and would have to remain papal. That papal authority exercised either personally by the pope or delegated by him through his nuncios to others. 


Perhaps pressure from the media prompted the leadership of the USCCB to strive to set up procedures as quickly as possible. In Rome’s view, it is more important to get the procedures right than to enact procedures hastily. It is also important for the Holy Father to consult all the bishops’ conferences, rather than just one. 


Perhaps the most trenchant observations made are those of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith: “We have sufficient norms in Canon Law, there is the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela of 2001, there are the already existing norms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” The norms already exist, yet all bishops have “not always” collaborated with the Congregation. “They have not informed [it] as [they]ought to be done. First, we must do what is already established and indicated as necessary and obligatory by the existing norms. And then one can collaborate, in a spirit of brotherhood and collegiality.”


Cardinal Müller asked why the text arrived in Rome from the United States at the last moment: “Why was it not sent earlier?” He thought it necessary for “the presidency of the American Bishops’ Conference to first consult with our experts at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Holy Father is a single person, he cannot deal with everything. That is why there are the departments of the Roman Curia, to collaborate and arrive at a well-developed proposal to bring to the Pope.”


The next steps will follow in January and February, with a national bishop’s retreat, “suggested” by the pope next month and the aforementioned meeting of all the presidents of all the episcopal conferences in the world, with the Successor of Peter, in February. Let us assist our shepherds with the prayers of the Lord’s flock.


Father Douglas K. Clark STL is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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