A Meeting Of The Minds

His office said he was in seclusion, spending his time in prayer. But somehow Boston's embattled cardinal, Bernard Law, managed to slip past the American paparazzi stationed outside his mansion, board a plane unnoticed and make it to a haven inside Vatican City. Not even his fellow American bishops, who were lunching with the pope, knew that Law had secretly arrived for his own private sit-down with John Paul II. And not until they arrived back in the United States last week did they learn that--in part because of Law's surreptitious visit--the pope had decided to act in the growing scandal of sexual abuse by priests. To the bishops' delight, the pope called for an emergency summit this week, directing a dozen American cardinals plus the top two officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to meet with Vatican officials in the Sala Bologna of the Papal Palace. Clearly, neither John Paul II nor his Vatican counselors realized the depth of the crisis that's gripping the American church. At the same time, however, the pope's abrupt decision to call the cardinals to Rome raises more hopes for answers to that crisis than a two-day meeting can possibly satisfy. At a minimum, the Americans want a papal mandate requiring all U.S. bishops to implement tough, uniform standards for dealing with clergy accused of child molestation. They also want a clear word from Rome that the church's main concern is safeguarding children, not protecting abusive priests. For their part, Vatican officials want to know what the U.S. seminaries are doing to screen out potential child-abusers. And Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who will chair the meeting, will likely raise the issue of sexually active homosexuals in the U.S. clergy.

News of the Rome summit has already had one important effect: U.S. cardinals who up till now have said little or nothing about the crisis have suddenly become clerical Chatty Cathys. In the nation's capital last week, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the editors of The Washington Post that he hopes the Rome meeting will call for full disclosure of all the priests who have been removed for sexually abusing children and how much the various dioceses have paid in settling cases. "The sunshine should come in," he said. In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, a protege of Cardinal Law's, encouraged victims who have settled cases with the church and promised to remain silent to speak up if "it would be therapeutic to go public." But in a televised press conference in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony went much further. In Rome, he declared, he would urge the Vatican to open discussion of a married clergy for the church, and even of ordaining women to the priesthood. "It's not a panacea that you have married clergy or women clergy," Mahony said. "At this point, I'm a proponent of the discussion."

If Mahony has his way, it would be a historical turning point for the papacy--and for John Paul II in particular. Since Vatican Council II (1962 to 1965), the Roman Catholic Church has been very reluctant to allow bishops to speak their minds on taboo subjects like birth control and changes in the celibate, all-male priesthood. In 1972 the American bishops published a psychological profile of American priests that questioned the psychosexual maturity of many seminarians, and another sociological study that found that most priests believe celibacy should be made optional. But the late Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, who led a delegation of U.S. bishops to a synod on the priesthood in Rome, refused to accept the study's findings or discuss it in the synod.

Again in 1985, Father Thomas Doyle, a promising young canon lawyer, produced a study for the American bishops that warned that the church would suffer a moral, legal and financial crisis over child abuse precisely like the one that has now occurred. But his report was also suppressed. And for his efforts, Doyle--until then an important official in the Washington office of the papal representative to the United States--was shunted into the obscurity of the military chaplaincy. In 1997, several former priests of the Legionaires of Christ, a new and highly conservative order based in Connecticut, charged the order's founder, Father Marcial Maciel, with sexually abusing them in their youth. Maciel, who still lives in Rome, strongly denied the charges and his accusers--now highly reputable professional laymen--continue to insist that the Vatican never allowed an impartial investigation of their charges.

Despite the breathless hype of the American media, this week's meeting is unusual but hardly unprecedented. John Paul II routinely summons cardinals to Rome, though almost always these meetings are unannounced. He much prefers to deal with national hierarchies through the cardinals he's personally appointed rather than through officials elected by bishops to head their national conferences. So does Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who will be the most powerful prelate in the room after the pope himself. Thus, the Vatican could easily use the session in Rome to pre-empt any discussion of wider church reform at the American bishops' biennial meeting next June in Dallas, where they will decide how to respond to the continuing clergy crisis.

What makes this week's meeting significant is its public trumpeting. Although the cardinals will meet behind closed doors 14 hours a day, there will be daily press conferences for the media--mostly from the United States--who are anticipating some kind of history-making break with Catholic tradition. All this suggests to some of the lower Vatican clergy--especially cynical Europeans--that they are witnessing an exercise in Vatican public relations. "It's a well-tested move," claims one professor of morals who asked to remain anonymous, "that allows American Catholics to think, 'Ah, the Holy Father is doing something about this scandal'." Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference--and the man credited with getting the Vatican's attention--fears the public expects too much from the two-day session. He also insists that the Americans will go home from Rome free to solve their problems themselves and not "simply to say 'yes' to something the Holy See has already determined."

At the very least, the Vatican has signaled that the pope is now unambiguously aware that he faces a genuine crisis. And if the gathering is wise, says Jesuit Avery Dulles, the only real theologian among the American cardinals, the assembled prelates will realize that "a crisis situation is not a good time to change policies, like clerical celibacy, that have been affirmed over long centuries." But at least a long-overdue dialogue on fundamental change now has a chance to begin. No one expects a fallible church to come up with an instant and infallible solution to the problem of child-abusing priests. But if the cardinals really wanted to send out a message, they would have done better to invite some of those priests' victims to tell their stories to the pope. They say he is a good listener.