June 21, 2019

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Being light of world means being transparent, accountable to all

“Those who have suffered abuse and raised their voices in pain, have been heard. Pope Francis today requires that we act universally. The new law, ‘You are the light of the World,’ calls upon each of us to do our part to root out abuse and cover-up. It reflects the pope’s conviction that a worldwide problem demands solutions that apply to the whole Church. Having this new law already available in seven languages is a good start!” (Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin)

Although it was never officially stated this way, many people in the Church (clergy and laity alike) assumed that our leaders were, in effect, “untouchable” and that accountability for their actions (or inaction) was strictly limited to the “chain of command” established by the sacrament of holy orders. By this logic, priests were accountable only to their bishops and, in the same way, bishops, archbishops and cardinals reported only to the pope.

No more. With the publication of his motu proprio “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), Pope Francis has published a new set of norms governing the universal Church that require Church leaders to be transparent and accountable to all.

According to Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, “In his new motu proprio, Pope Francis makes it clear that transparency and accountability are essential to the identity and mission of our Church. Those who abuse must be reported to civil and ecclesiastical authorities. No excuses. Cover-up will not be tolerated.”

The new norms don’t stop with the requirement to report and quickly investigate (with the participation of lay people in the process strongly encouraged) allegations of child abuse, child pornography, sexual assault of adults and the cover-up of sexual misconduct by the Church hierarchy. Pope Francis insists that “care for persons” must be a bishop’s primary consideration. Those who have been harmed must be welcomed, listened to and supported, and offered spiritual and medical/therapeutic assistance. Similarly, persons who report instances of abuse cannot be obliged to keep silent.

What was once sound pastoral practice, the exercise of good judgment in a spirit of justice and charity, is now also a matter of Church law. Any bishop who neglects his responsibility to report credible allegations of abuse or misconduct, or to care for persons who have been abused while respecting those who report the abuse, is himself subject to investigation for cover-up. Sexual abuse is a gravely serious matter, and the new norms reflect this gravity both in tone and in substance.

In the preamble to “You are the light of the world,” Pope Francis writes, “It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

He calls these offenses “crimes” because they are more than moral failures (sins to be confessed and repented of), although they certainly violate the most fundamental standards of Christian morality. These are crimes against humanity that break both the law of God and civil law. Cover-up is intolerable because it minimizes the seriousness of these offenses and suggests that clergy and religious are not held to the same standard as ordinary people who commit similar crimes.

The late Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein used to say, “Priests and bishops should be held to a higher standard because we have been called to be Christ for others in very public ways. That doesn’t mean we’re better than anyone. It means we’re challenged to rely on God’s grace to help us be faithful to our promises and to be credible witnesses to God’s goodness and mercy.”

By making it clear that transparency and accountability are essential to the identity and mission of the Church, Pope Francis holds himself and all Church leaders to the highest possible standards of morality, justice and pastoral charity.

Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson says that in establishing new norms that clearly hold bishops and other Church leaders accountable for their actions, Pope Francis points out the need for both internal and external realities, stating that a “continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church.”

Simply making laws never solves problems. A conversion of heart is also needed, along with changes in the way we think and act as witnesses to the law of love given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

May our Church’s leaders (and all of us) truly be the light of the world—transparent, accountable and firmly committed to justice and charity for all.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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