America Comment

To start the healing process, the US bishops should consider doing public penance

Theodore McCarrick at a meeting of the US bishops' conference (Getty)

Something very important is missing from every statement issued by US bishops thus far in the wake of the allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It is something needed not only for the restoration of the bishops’ credibility but also, and more importantly, for the healing of the Church.

Given that the bishops form a college in continuation of the Apostles’ own, they need to take the initiative in summoning themselves, as a body, to public acts of penance for (1) the sins of bishops and all clerics, and (2) those who enabled or failed to act against such wrongdoers.

It is true that all the faithful need to examine themselves and repent of their role in failing to protect others, whether minors or adults, from clerics who abused their power. But if such repentance is to have its proper effect, leading to reparation and conversion of life, it needs to be modelled by those entrusted with governing the faithful.

Our shepherds, who exempted themselves from their own charter against abuse, are now a locus of scandal. Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, who was elevated to the episcopate six months ago, recently lamented “the silence of so many bishops who knew about” McCarrick. And of course the abuse crisis is far broader than those particular allegations.

The US bishops have the responsibility to show all the members of the Body of Christ what true contrition and reparation looks like. If the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced it was summoning every one of its members to a public act of personal and collegial reparation, the bishops would thereby show they understand that (1) the sins of shepherds have a particularly destructive impact upon the entire Church and (2) if even one bishop is guilty, the entire college owes reparation to God, that He may heal the wound their brother inflicted upon His holy people.

Collegial penance is not a novel idea. In April 2002, as the abuse crisis was unfolding, Pope John Paul II called all US cardinals to Rome for a private meeting. Afterwards, the Vatican issued a communiqué proposing, among other things, that “it would be fitting for the Bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to ask the faithful to join them in observing a national day of prayer and penance, in reparation for the offences perpetrated and in prayer to God for the conversion of sinners and the reconciliation of victims.”

Theologian Michael Griffin describes in his 2016 book The Politics of Penance the disappointing response of the bishops to the Pope’s recommendation. The USCCB agreed only to instruct bishops to fast and do private penance on August 14 2002. Although they included the option for local dioceses to offer public acts of penance on that day, just a small handful of bishops followed through.

In September 2016, Pope Francis called upon every episcopal conference worldwide to designate a Day of Prayer for abuse victims. This time, the USCCB did at least respond with a public act – a Mass at the beginning of its 2017 spring meeting in Indianapolis with two hundred bishops in attendance. Once again, however, the bishops did not bind themselves to performing public penitential observances in their own dioceses; such acts were recommended but remained only optional.

What is more, the prayers and penitential acts of the U.S. bishops thus far fall short in two vital areas. First, they fail to take both personal and collegial responsibility for sins of omission and commission. As Griffin notes (drawing upon the work of Anselma Dolcich-Ashley), the bishops have said they are sorry, but they have not said, as a body, that they were wrong. Without such acknowledgement, our penitential tradition insists, true contrition is not possible.

Second, the prayers that the bishops recommended for the 2017 Day of Prayer focus on “those” people who caused pain, rather than themselves. For example, the “Prayer for Healing and Reconciliation” acknowledges “the sorrow we have for the great harm done by those who were called to be trusted.”

Griffin remarked to me via email that this gap between “we” and “those” “raises the question of whether the prayer is intended to separate bishops from wrongdoers rather than the point of true penance: to lament, take responsibility for, and repair the sins of our community.”

Would the Church face its current crisis of credibility if the bishops had publicly engaged in personal and collegial repentance? Griffin observes that “the lack of a comprehensive and institutional approach to penance in the wake of the scandals deprived the Catholic community of resources that could have served the cause of justice and thus promoted deeper reconciliation.”

It is clear, therefore, that, to borrow Chesterton’s phrase, collegial episcopal penance has not been tried and found wanting. Rather, it has been found difficult and left untried. That needs to change if the Church truly is to reform itself and so move beyond the current crisis.

On the diocesan level, a bishop’s penitential act might be a Mass and Holy Hour, or it might be repenting in sackcloth and ashes outside his cathedral. But it should be public, and it should include the clearly stated intention of making reparation as a bishop on behalf of the apostolic college to which he belongs.

Dawn Eden Goldstein is assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints