The biggest challenge for the Church is its Ottoman-style failure of management

Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh of New York catches up on some admin (Photo: CNS)

I had a conversation with some Jewish people the other day, which is always a pleasure, and in the course of the conversation I asked them what they thought was the biggest question inside the Jewish community at present.

The answer was interesting: education. It seems that the Jewish community has taken up the idea of free schools with vigour and very soon most Jewish children of school age will be attending a Jewish school. This struck me as a good thing; after all most Catholic children go to Catholic schools, but the Jews, who are a much smaller community, are worried about “self-ghettoisation”.

I was interested by that, but the next thing that arose in my mind afterwards was this: what is the biggest question inside the Catholic community at present? Many will have their own answer, but mine, sadly (as will appear), is this: our response to the child abuse crisis.

Please note, this is not child abuse per se, for that is not a question. There can be no discussion about that. It is bad, full stop. But how we respond to child abuse, that is a question that should be the subject of intense debate. It is one of those questions that is like a flare sent up at night: it illuminates the landscape, and lets you realise, if only for a fleeting moment, just how so many questions that we face are connected: how in fact there is only one question.

Christ is priest, prophet and king, and the Church shares these roles. The first two roles are straightforward enough. What were once thought to be the great questions about theology now seem settled (or so I think), and indeed have been settled for some time, though it may have taken us some decades to see that this is so. But the kingly role is problematic.

There is no indication anywhere that the third appellation is any less important than the first two: Jesus is prophet, priest and king, and in the New Testament, there are constant references to his kingly role, and his Davidic descent. All anointed people are called to share in this kingly role, and the baptised and confirmed, which includes the ordained, constitute a royal nation. But how do we exercise our kingly role? We do so when we act like Solomon, Jesus’s ancestor: when we make wise decisions, and when we administer the worldly goods entrusted to us well, and when we show ourselves to be responsible adults, fully in control of ourselves and those who are entrusted to us.

Think of King Solomon: the way he resolved the dispute between the two women quarrelling over the surviving live child (I Kings 3: 16-28); the way he built the Temple and the other huge tasks of government administration (I Kings 5: 15 et seq); and lastly how he failed, by coming under the influence of his foreign wives (I Kings 11:4).

The child abuse crisis reveals a Church that is less than Solomonic in its administration of justice, less than Solomonic in its decision-making processes. The single biggest “mistake” – that of moving offenders to another place where they re-offended – represents not just a failure in common sense, but a failure to live up to the vocation to be a kingly people. Management may seem a mundane thing, but without good management both charity and justice become impossible. Sad to say, good management, though there have been strides in some areas, is still by no means universal. For example, last year, we were told that a substantial proportion of the dioceses in the world had not responded to a deadline to produce guidelines for dealing with allegations of child abuse. There may well be reasons for this, but really it is simply not good enough.

The question of management also includes the considerable worldly goods over which the Church has stewardship. The Church’s money is meant for charitable work. The Vatican Bank is in fact called “The Institute for Religious Works”. If the Vatican Bank is mismanaged, then charity and justice will again suffer. Just what goes on in the Vatican Bank is way above my head, but the general consensus seems to be that the Church is missing a trick here. Are we running a streamlined operation all for the glory of God? Well, we ought to be.

The message is sound, the teaching is fine, the sacraments are not in need of reform, coming as they do from the Lord. But the administration looks increasingly Ottoman. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council we were told that bishops should be pastors, not administrators. But how can one be the one without the other? Lots of people have told me how they have written to various authorities in Rome, or to superiors of religious orders in the United Kingdom, and have had no acknowledgement of their communications. Is that a good way to be pastoral? The administration of the Church needs to be responsive to those under its authority, the People of God. Answering letters would be a good way to start; it would be hard to see how one could be responsive without being even moderately efficient.

Back to the child abuse question. There is in every religious order an elaborate chain of command, and an elaborate chain of supervision. The scandals prove that those chains were broken. Why were they broken? Are they fixed now? I know they are in certain places, but are they fixed everywhere?

What about the Roman Curia? When can we expect to see reforms there?