February 11, 2019

What is the role of the laity in healing the Church after the sex abuse crisis? That was the topic at the heart of a recent conference, “Healing the Breach of Trust,” held at The Catholic University of America on Feb. 6. Throughout the day, prominent clergy, historians, theologians, and canon lawyers joined to discuss the theological and historical grounds for lay involvement in the Church as part of a solution to the current sex abuse crisis.

The day began with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and opening remarks by him and University President John Garvey.

During his comments, DiNardo reflected on Pope Francis’s recent letter to U.S. bishops, which called for a “new ecclesial season” in which bishops can “teach others how to discern God’s presence in the history of his people, and not [be] mere administrators.”

The new ecclesial season, DiNardo suggested, will require not only new approaches to management and the way bishops exercise authority, but also a renewed call to holiness for all Catholics.

“A new ecclesial season has to be one where the shepherds recognize more fully the charisms of the laity and encourage the exercise of those gifts for the good of the Church,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “This would be a sharing of the duties of administration that would allow the bishops to attend more to their preaching and sanctifying roles, and to pastorally accompany their people more. It will also allow the laity to more fully live out their own calling to be priest, prophet, and king — imitating Christ as befitting their dignity.”

Making these changes, DiNardo added, will require great humility and an examination of “how there has been an alienation from the fundamental mission of the organization.”

“In the Church, that means looking for how far we may have strayed from the calling of Christ when he founded his Church,” he said. “No one can doubt, that in many ways, this crisis has developed because some of the leaders of the Church placed the safety of the institution over that of its members.”

University President John Garvey shared his belief that the crisis is, at part, a result of episcopal mismanagement, resulting from “the isolation of bishops from others who might advise them and check their mistakes.”

Rather than relying on bishops alone to make important decisions about how to fix the wounds caused by the abuse crisis, he said, the Church should rely on the gifts and talents of lay men and women, while invoking the “wisdom of the crowd.”

“Bishops are no better endowed with wisdom than other CEOs,” Garvey said. “In making decisions about diocesan finances they need to rely on accountants and financial advisors. In judging the harm caused by sex offenders they should take the advice of parents. In managing the risk posed by sex offenders, they would be foolish to ignore the advice of lawyers.”  

While there should be a place for systematic changes like the additions of lay review boards within the Church, Garvey also believes there should be a shift in perspective. Instead of thinking of the relationship between a bishop and his people as a kind of governmental bureaucracy, he suggested Catholics should think of it as a marriage.

“Bishops must be transparent and accountable to their flocks, the members of their dioceses, as husbands and wives must be transparent and accountable to one another,” Garvey said. “Talking about authority in this relationship is a kind of category response. We are obliged to one another, if I can put it that way, out of love. If we fail in our duty of honesty, it will degrade our love.”

The rest of the day featured discussions about the the role of the laity, as informed by history and theological writings. Bronwen McShea, associate research scholar, Princeton University; and Carlos Eire, T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University, provided historical context for the ways the laity has yielded power in the Church throughout history.

From a theological perspective, Sister Nancy Bauer, O.S.B., professor of canon law at Catholic University, spoke about the rights and responsibilities for lay people as laid out in the Code of Canon Law. Christopher Ruddy, associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University, referred to teachings about the laity resulting from the Vatican II Council, and Michael Root, professor of systematic theology at Catholic University, explained how lay people are called to exercise the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, within the Church.

This conference was the first of three “Healing the Breach of Trust” events scheduled to take place at Catholic University this year. They follow a panel discussion held in November, which featured a panel of high-profile religion journalists from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Catholic News Agency, and Crux.

Upcoming conferences, to be held March 26 and April 25, will address the root causes of the current crisis, and principles for effective lay action. For more information on these events, visit ihe.catholic.edu.