In the midst of lawsuits attempting the implicate the Vatican for the failure of individual bishops to properly handle clerical sex abuse cases, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver stated the the Pope “is not a global CEO” to be held liable, given that bishops are not “his agents or employees.” Instead, he wrote, the Church is “much closer to a confederation of families than to a modern corporation.”
The Denver prelate made his remarks in a First Things article on Wednesday. He began by addressing some of the common misconceptions about Church authority, relating how some Catholics who live in other dioceses have assumed that he has the authority solve a problem in their area. Those parishioners, he said, have even gotten “annoyed” with him for not becoming involved with issues outside his jurisdiction.
“I have neither the authority nor the bad sense to meddle in the life of a sister local Church,” he said, adding that he won't “intrude on the ministry of a brother bishop,” who is “the chief teaching and governing authority in his own local Church.”
Turning to the Pope, Archbishop Chaput wrote, “the bishop of Rome is uniquely different.” “He is first among brothers; yet he also has real authority as pastor of the whole Church.”
“But he is not a global CEO, and Catholic bishops are not – and never have been – his agents or 'employees,'” the prelate stressed. “It's useful to remember this today as lawyers try ingeniously to draw the Vatican into America's on-going sex-abuse saga.”
Archbishop Chaput then referred to the case where attorney William McMurry is attempting to lodge a federal lawsuit against the Vatican in Louisville, Kentucky.
McMurry is seeking class-action status for a case involving three men who claim they were abused by priests decades ago. He also represented 243 sex abuse victims who settled with the Archdiocese of Louisville in 2003 for $25.3 million.
“In O'Bryan vs. the Holy See, currently being heard in U.S. district court in Kentucky,” the archbishop wrote, “plaintiffs' attorneys seek to depose Vatican officials – including potentially the Pope himself – to determine what they knew and allegedly ignored or covered up about the handling of clergy sex-abuse cases by American bishops.”
“The plaintiffs' legal argument hinges on the premise that bishops are, in effect, Roman-controlled employees or officials,” he added. “But that argument is not merely false in practice; it is also revolutionary in its consequences. In effect, it seeks to redefine the nature of the Church in a manner favorable to plaintiffs' attorneys, but alien to her actual structure and identity.”
“To put it another way,” Archbishop Chaput said, “plaintiffs' attorneys want a federal court to tell the Church who she really is, whether she agrees or not, and then to penalize her for being what she isn't.”
“Every bishop in the United States has a filial love for the Holy Father and a fraternal respect for his brother bishops,” he continued. “But these family-like words – filial, fraternal, brother – are not mere window-dressing. They go to the heart of how the Catholic community understands and organizes itself, and more importantly, how the Church actually conducts herself, guided by her own theology and canon law.”
“The Church is much closer to a confederation of families than to a modern corporation,” the Denver archbishop explained. “And this has real, everyday results. In practice, the influence of the Holy See on the daily life of the Archdiocese of Denver is strong in matters of faith and morals.”
“But in the operational decisions of our local Church, the Holy See’s influence is remote. In 22 years as a bishop, my problems have never included a controlling or intrusive Vatican.”
“We live in ironic times,” Archbishop Chaput remarked. “Critics of the Catholic Church in the 19th century conjured up a monolithic Roman Church to frighten America's Protestant masses. Today – when that Roman strawman is even less believable – they rather like the idea of the Catholic Church as a Vatican-controlled monolith, no matter how far that myth is from real Church life, the better to sue her.”