One of the fastest-growing "religious" groups in the world today is ex-Catholics. Some leave the Church to join communities that better answer their spiritual search, which accounts for the large number of Catholics in Latin America who are joining Evangelical communities. Many leave in sadness or disgust at leadership that is more interested in itself, its power and its prerogatives than in the Gospel or the People of God. The latest bit of news that will likely drive away more people is a January 31, 1997 "Strictly confidential" letter from then-papal nuncio Archbishop Luciano Storero to the bishops of Ireland, warning them to not implement their decision to inform civil authorities of priests who sexually abused children. Quoting his instructions from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, the archbishop said, "If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities. In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature." Am I the only reader who feels that the phrase "embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities" sounds like a threat? Reporting crimes and protecting children would not be embarrassing or detrimental in Ireland. No, the embarrassment and detriment would occur in the Vatican, and any repercussions would come from there. In other words, bishops who dared to follow through on their decision to place the welfare of children ahead of image would be in trouble with the head office of Catholicism, Inc. The exposure of the letter after years of denial by the Vatican that it had interfered in bishops’ attempts to deal with the abuse problem in Ireland or anywhere else has, of course, resulted in spin doctoring from the Vatican. The claim is being made that the letter is proof that the Vatican has done a wonderful job in cleaning up its act since then. The aggrieved pleas for sympathy ask the world to overlook the fact that until Storero’s letter became public the Vatican lied about its past interference. The leadership of our Church seems incapable of being honest until forced to do so. The so-called secular media are more interested in the pursuit of truth than an organization that proclaims that "the truth will make you free." Is it any wonder that at each verified accusation against the Vatican still more people sadly move away? By now, such incorrigible dishonesty does not surprise anyone who still bothers to follow news about the Vatican. But, the problem is not solely in Rome. The bigger problem is much closer to home. The problem is bishops in Ireland and elsewhere who allow themselves to be cowed by real or imagined threats like those from the Congregation for the Clergy. Given the choice between doing what was right or yielding to threats, they surrendered. Rome has interfered over and over again in dealing with the abuse scandal, in its high-handed approach to liturgical translation, in the appointment of bishops against the expressed concerns of laity and clergy in various dioceses, and now in overruling the bishops of Japan in the matter of the Neocatechumenal Way. The Vatican apparently has decided that bishops are no longer successors to the Apostles and leaders of local Churches, but instead are directors of branch offices. And so far, bishops have gone along with that even when obedience has been clearly evil. They may gripe and grumble and feel sorry for themselves, but they do not act. There is an old saying in the Church, "Rome has spoken, the matter is closed." It is based upon something that St. Augustine said in the fifth century and is usually used to enforce acquiescence to orders from the Vatican. However, we should look at the real background of the saying. When the bishops of North Africa excommunicated the priests Pelagius and Celestius as heretics, the priests appealed to Pope Zosimus, who lifted the excommunication (after it had been confirmed by his predecessor, Innocent I). The bishops refused to accept the pope’s decision. The dispute went back and forth and finally the pope gave in. That was when Augustine said the discussion was finished. In other words, when Rome heeded the voices of the local bishops who refused to give in, there was no further need of discussion or dissent. How different might the current situation of the Church be if we had bishops like those in North Africa so long ago? Of course, back then, bishops were not appointed by Rome to be lackeys; they were elected by local Catholics to be leaders. We must pray that our bishops will find the courage to look at the People of God in their care rather than over their shoulders at a bureaucracy that threatens them with "results [that] could be highly embarrassing and detrimental." We need bishops who are willing to say "No!" both in word and in action. Until that happens, the hemorrhage of people from the Church will only worsen, taking with it the very people who are most concerned about honest discipleship. Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly. JA12930.1637
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