American Catholic Church Earthquake Ripples Worldwide

If the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in the United States is fading from headlines, its effects are only beginning to ripple across the globe.

The impact of guidelines to confront abuse adopted recently by American Catholic bishops - especially the understanding that no Church person is above the law - is certain to affect the entire theory and practice of the relationship of the powerful, worldwide Roman Catholic Church to the state.

In the short term, however, the Vatican -- never fond of things American -- will try mightily to stop the global spread of the American bishops' idea of justice. In the end, the Vatican will fail.

At the heart of this ripple effect -- which will take years to spread -- are fundamental moral issues of responsibility, truth and power. Until now, the public focus on the abuse crisis has considered these issues in light of internal Catholic Church matters. Among the crucial questions is whether bishops grant the Catholic laity real authority and power to which bishops themselves must be accountable. Will the truth of the sexual abuse victims' cries abolish forever the sleight-of-hand practices that moved offending priests from parish to parish while bishops tried to wish the problem away? At the bishops' conference, American bishops made great strides toward answering these internal church questions.

But in doing so, they also stirred the pot of longstanding Vatican wariness toward Western democracy. The chief reason was American bishops' unequivocal adoption of a policy to report to civil authorities all credible allegations of sexual abuse by a priest. In this way, the bishops affirmed the quintessential American principle that no man or woman, including priest, bishop, or pope is above the law.

Rome apparently does not share this view. In the last weeks, numerous Vatican officials have presented a range of views calling into question this reporting requirement. Some of the resistance has no doubt come from the "men's club" mentality that has afflicted the sexual abuse scandal from the start: Vatican priests want to be compassionate toward their brother priests - and they understand compassion as exemption from legal accountability.

Some of the Vatican resistance has also come from wisdom gained in the bitter experience of the Catholic Church in totalitarian and authoritarian states. Trumped-up allegations against priests have long been a convenient way for a dictatorial regime to get rid of a troublesome cleric who condemns injustice and serves as a voice for ordinary people.

But a great deal of the Vatican resistance to the requirement of reporting to civil authorities comes from a lingering discomfort with contemporary democracy, especially in its Western version. This is a paradox. Among all world leaders, Pope John Paul II has been perhaps the most ardent and courageous defender of human rights and democracy, taking on abuses in countries of the former Soviet bloc, Latin America and East Timor, for instance.

But Rome has also kept up a constant stream of criticism of the democratic West, where it fears a fusion of democratic freedoms and ethical relativism has undermined the moral nature of society. According to this criticism, the west has used the wide-open nature of democratic freedoms as justification for an anything-goes ethic without universal and objective standards of right and wrong. As the pope warned in one recent encyclical: "Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality." In fact, the Vatican largely sees the sexual abuse crisis within the American church as one more manifestation of this relativistic dynamic at work in the democratic West.

But in this Vatican criticism of Western democracy, the value of political structures of accountability in themselves -- such as electoral voting and a free press -- recedes in importance. Instead, these structures often appear to Rome as little more than tools abetting the advance of a certain kind of culture. A culture that favors using the state to protect the right to choose to have an abortion or using a free press to sensationalize scandal.

For many years, the pithy statement, "The Church is not a democracy," has been a favorite of conservative Catholics opposed to a broader distribution of power within the Church. No doubt the saying is being bandied about even now in an effort to stamp down the insistent calls inspired by the crisis for a greater lay role in church governance.

But one aspect of that statement has for too long gone unexamined - the Catholic Church's practical and theoretical understanding of the meaning of political democracy. What is the depth of the church's commitment to structures of democratic accountability - especially when they call the church itself to be accountable? Fortunately, the American bishops have raised this question in a way that the Vatican and the Catholic Church throughout the world can no longer avoid.

David E. DeCosse has written for America, the Jesuit weekly.

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