George Weigel on the National Review Board's Report

"Framed Within a Genuinely Catholic and Ecclesial Sensibility"

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 1, 2004 (Zenit.org).- George Weigel thinks the U.S. bishops' National Review Board has turned out a report that is a "real service to the Church" as Catholics face the question of genuinely Catholic reform in light of the John Jay study of clerical sexual abuse.



The papal biographer and Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center shared his views with ZENIT in a recent e-mail.

Q: Why do you think the National Review Board's new report is a service to the Church?

Weigel: For a number of reasons. First, because it's framed within a genuinely Catholic and ecclesial sensibility.

The report makes clear that the Church is episcopally led, by the will of Christ; that the priest is far more than an ecclesiastical functionary; that celibacy is a great gift to the Church; that Catholic doctrine isn't and hasn't been the problem, but rather the failure to teach and live the truths of faith; and that what is needed in the Church is authentically Catholic reform -- not turning the Church into something it isn't.

The report also squarely faces the two dimensions of the crisis -- that is, sexual misconduct and episcopal misgovernance -- and proposes that both of these aspects of the crisis are reflections of a deeper crisis of fidelity and spirituality.

Third, the report, rather than calling for "power-sharing," calls for far more assertive episcopal leadership, including far more fraternal challenge and correction within the body of bishops -- thus recognizing that the "overseers" -- the original Greek meaning of "episkopos," or "bishop" -- must be their own "overseers."

Fourth, the report acknowledges the overwhelmingly homosexual nature of the clerical sexual abuse of minors over the past 50 years, without using clinical terms that can serve as evasions -- like "ephebophilia" -- and in a sober way that cannot be reasonably interpreted as "scapegoating" or "gay-bashing."

Fifth, the report frankly describes the massive failures of seminaries in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s, stressing failures of spiritual and ascetic formation, and thus sets the framework for accelerating the reform of seminaries that's been underway for some time.

Sixth, the report decries the many occasions in which psychiatric and psychological categories trumped theological categories and available canonical processes in the way sexual malfeasants were handled.

Seventh, the report delicately suggests that "zero tolerance" is too blunt an instrument to be an instrument of genuine justice.

Eighth, the report warns against First Amendment encroachments into internal Church governance that can and will happen when there are failures of episcopal headship.

Q: What does the report show about the way lay people handled the responsibilities given them by the bishops?

Weigel: The report demonstrates that lay people can take on a task of great complexity and delicacy in the Church and do it in such a way that, for all its legitimate criticism of the hierarchy, in fact reasserts the divinely ordered structure of the Church and calls the episcopate to a more assertive exercise of its legitimate authority.

Q: Is this report worth the serious attention of Rome?

Weigel: There are particular recommendations in the report with which it's entirely possible to disagree -- and I do.

But I think it's very important that people in Rome understand this report for what it is: a) a very useful contribution in itself, and b) an implicit challenge to those whose idea of Catholic reform is to turn the Church into another liberal Protestant denomination.

It's much more important at this stage to concentrate on the many, many things the NRB got right than to focus immediately on this or that recommendation which may or may not be imprudent or inappropriate or in fact inapplicable.

And it wasn't just the report on paper that was impressive; it was the way the members of the board handled their press conference. Anne Burke, the board chair, began with a tribute to bishops and priests. Robert Bennett was thrown a very raw-meat question by a CBS reporter, who asked why, if the board was so critical of the stewardship of some bishops, it didn't call for their ouster; to which Bennett replied that that wasn't the board's job or the laity's job: that was a judgment for the bishops themselves and for the Holy See.

Q: What's the next step in this process?

Weigel: I hope everyone who cares about authentically Catholic reform in the Church reads the report and thinks about it seriously. The bishops of the United States have been given an analysis of the problem -- and a call for leadership -- that should merit their very careful consideration.