The Wings of the Summit

The abuse summit is breaking new ground. The New York Times says “Catholic Leaders at Meeting on Sex Abuse Hear Proposal for Removing Bishops.” The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) says, “Exclusive: Archbishop suggests creating new Vatican office to tackle abuse, clerical culture.” The Vatican has never before suggested such bold measures. But they are poorly defined. That’s because they are just blue-sky proposals, and last-minute additions to the summit.

Less than a week ago, the Vatican produced a detailed program for the summit, running over 40 pages. It gave a blow-by-blow account of what each day would contain. The program reflected Pope Francis’ claim that the summit would be ‘pastoral.’ But the actual summit is nothing like the advance program. It contains “aspirational” attempts at concrete proposals for changing the system and holding all clerics – including bishops and cardinals - accountable for their crimes and heinous sins. Faced with the prospect of a highly-publicized failure, Pope Francis apparently made a last-minute decision to abandon prayer and puffery and make it look like the Vatican is contemplating serious changes. They are winging it.

This change is welcome, and a major improvement over the stonewalling tactics Pope Francis has employed for the last six years. But as the articles note, such proposals will require changes to Canon Law. Such changes are usually made about as readily as amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The pope as king/autocrat of the Church can probably effect changes more quickly, but that would require major effort as well as risk.  

Equally important is the fact that the current proposals are very vague, like getting women and laity involved in the review process. As in all legislation, the devil is in the details. Drawing up effective legislation which avoids loopholes and unanticipated consequences will not be quick and easy. Even if Pope Francis is serious about pursuing such changes, it would almost certainly take years to develop the legislation and make the needed changes to Canon Law.

In the meantime, it would be hard to distinguish earnest attempts at change from bureaucratic efforts to stonewall. Keep in mind that the new proposals are exactly the kind of thing Pope Francis’ special commission on child abuse was supposed to be looking at for the past six years. Furthermore, a number of reliable sources have reported that Pope Francis has quietly rejected proposals from that Commission. At least part of the reason the commission has accomplished virtually nothing during this period is that Pope Francis has blocked its proposals.

I see no reason to assume that Pope Francis has made a sudden, miraculous conversion. If the summit generates good publicity and quiets his critics, Pope Francis might actually become less motivated to take risks and spend political capital in order to push through serious legislation. At the start of his papacy, many  talked about the “Francis miracle.” Don’t make the same mistake twice.


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