ast week, before meeting at the Vatican, several American cardinals hinted that Catholics back home shouldn't set their hopes high for the papal summit's outcome. It was a refreshing example of public straightforwardness not always in evidence over the last few months from some members of the hierarchy.
First, some good news: The most hopeful thing to come out of the two-day meeting was the address to the cardinals by Pope John Paul II. It was the pontiff's strongest and most-detailed condemnation yet of clerical pederasty. The pope said that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," and he even welcomed "this time of trial" as a "purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force." He further stated that Catholics need to know "that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality."
The pope's words were stirring and much-needed, but experience suggests that there might not be concrete reform unless the cardinals and their brother bishops know Rome will be watching over them-and will make them pay for disobedience. But there was no explicit "or else" in the pontiff's address to indicate that the Holy See will remove cardinals or bishops if they fail to heed his words.
Reading the cardinals' final statement, one is reminded of Dr. Johnson's observation that a second marriage is "the triumph of hope over experience." Recent history shows that the American episcopate simply cannot be trusted to police itself in these matters. Though the statement they released on Wednesday carried within it some positive aspects-including plans to investigation the U.S. seminaries-it is impossible to forget that the American hierarchy has been aware of these problems for years, and has not fixed them despite pleasant-sounding statements like 1995's "Walk in the Light," by the bishops' conference. "We are acutely aware of the havoc and suffering caused by this abuse and we are committed to dealing with these situations responsibly and in all humility," the bishops wrote. "We are fully committed to preventing child sexual abuse and to restoring victims to health."
The Church's current predicament speaks to how seriously many bishops took those words. The cardinals' new pledges must be seen in this light.
Surprisingly, the cardinals did not announce a "zero tolerance" policy for priests who have sex with minors. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington had earlier indicated that they were close to an agreement on such a policy, but Francis Cardinal George of Chicago voiced doubts. In the final report, the cardinals deferred specifics on the question to the June meeting of all the American bishops, at which the cardinals said they will propose that the bishops decide on a process for handling such cases.
The cardinals had nothing to say about whether allegations of child abuse against a priest should be reported immediately to civil authorities, a serious oversight that will probably be remedied by state legislatures, who are not likely to be as slow moving as the Catholic bishops. The cardinals also said nothing about proposed sanctions against bishops found to have covered up for or otherwise been a party to sexual misconduct by a priest, an oversight that will surely cause offense among the clerical rank-and-file.
There were more than a few words in the statement to please orthodox Catholics, who blame much of the scandal on doctrinal confusion, which many bishops have not done much to help, and some have done much to aggravate. "The pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care," the cardinals wrote.
If that were to happen, it would herald a revolution. But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. When is the last time you heard of a bishop correcting a dissenting Catholic theologian or removing a priest or standing up strongly for Catholic teachings that are unpopular in American culture, particularly those having to do with human sexuality? Only on rare occasions.
The best news from the document is the cardinals' call for a "new and serious" investigation of seminaries and houses of formation. This is code for a housecleaning in American seminaries, which in too many cases have become havens for heresy and homosexuality (the sin whose name the cardinals dared not speak). The roots of this scandal are planted firmly in seminaries, which certainly need investigation, followed by defenestration, fumigation, and reconsecration.
However, it must be remembered that the last investigation of American seminaries, ordered by Pope John Paul in 1981, was sabotaged by the American bishops. Though the complaints about seminary corruption then were much the same as the ones we're hearing today, the bishops found nothing much wrong. As Notre Dame philosophy professor Ralph McInerny wrote, these churchmen "had to make a determined effort not to acquaint themselves with the facts they were supposedly investigating."
Unless Rome drafts an independent and trustworthy investigator someone such as the Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio to head up this study, there is no reason to believe that the 1981 sham won't be repeated.
The radioactive subject of gay priests was not part of the final statement, except obliquely, with a passing reference to the "admission requirements" of seminaries. The cardinals' communiqué suggests that they are not prepared to squarely face the problem of the homosexualization of the Catholic priesthood. Without such frankness and candor, real reform is unlikely.
Nor are they apparently ready to tackle the other main cause of this scandal: the clericalist mentality, which seems to view protecting priests and the image of the Church as more important than protecting the Church's victims. Absent a genuine understanding and recognition of how the clericalist system-which the cardinals are a part of itself has helped create this grievous scandal, genuine reform will not occur.
Henceforth the cardinals and bishops will be judged by the skeptical not by what they say, but by what they do. What the cardinals did at the conclusion of their Rome sojourn except for McCarrick of Washington and J. Francis Stafford, a cardinal assigned to Rome, they all ducked the final press conference-gave an unfortunate signal. It was explained that the meetings ran late, and the other cardinals had previous plans. It seems hard to believe that there were more important places for them to be.
But the cardinals had released their statement, and that was that. Edward Cardinal Egan of New York, speaking to a reporter about alleged cover-up in his old diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. may have summed up his colleagues' feelings when he said: "I have said what I thought I needed to say to the people, and I hope it worked."