It was in 1998 that I went off to Rome to study canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola. We can easily forget that the legal system of the Catholic Church has inspired and influenced legal systems around the world. In American history classes, we tend to jump from the Roman Empire, to the Magna Carta, to the Declaration of Independence. If the Catholic Church is mentioned, it is only as a caricature of something evil.
My time in Rome only deepened my faith and trust in the Church. We have laws rooted in the gospels. We have a judiciary. We have clearly articulated obligations, rights, and procedures. We believe in the concept of justice.
Sadly, it was not long after my return in the summer of 2000 that I began to see the flaw in the system. Contrary to some conspiracy theorists, the problem is not this Pope or some secret cabal in the Vatican. The problem is more mundane and closer to home.
While the Code of Canon Law is law for priests, deacons, reiglious and laity; in the mind of too many bishops it is merely a “Compendium of Suggestions.” Bishops are acutely aware that their only superior is the Pope and he will only intervene in the most egregious cases. Locally, every member of the judiciary in a diocese serves at the pleasure of the bishop. When a bishop or one of “his people” violates the law, there is no practical system to address the violation. The one who complains is likely to be the one who gets punished. In theory, bishops are bound by the law. In practice, they (and their inner circles) are free to violate any law they don’t like with no consequence expect perhaps a stern letter from a Vatican bureaucrat.
After 2002, in the US we got the charter and review boards. But even now, each bishop chooses the review board and is free to ignore or simply rewrite the regulations that govern the review board.
In February Pope Francis has called for a special meeting with the heads of bishops conferences from around the world. This may we’ll be our last chance to regain our credibility. But all the new law in the world will not mater, if there is no functioning systems for holding bishops accountable, when they choose to violate or simply ignore the law.
There can be no doubt that 2019 will be a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church. If we get this right, the faith of the people and our credibility can be restored. If we fail again, generations may be lost to the Church.
Despite all that I have seen in my almost 30 years as a priest and part of the chancery, I still believe that the Holy Spirit guides our Church, and Jesus is the Head. I do believe that we can be the Church that we are called to be. Tomorrow we begin the new year by celebrating Mary, Mother of God. As the mother of Jesus, she is also the mother of the Church. Through her intercession, may our Church truly be reborn in the new year.