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“Synodality” and the Rome Abuse Summit

Despite Pope Francis’s lecture on the subject at Synod-2015, and notwithstanding the passages on it in Synod-2018’s final report, there is little agreement in twenty-first-century Catholicism on what “synodality” means. The theology of synodality can be left for another day. In practical terms, however, perhaps synodality ought to mean something roughly analogous to what our British cousins mean by “horses for courses.” There, the phrase is a homely caution against one-size-fits-all remedies to problems. In the world Church today, and with an eye to the “abuse summit” that will meet in Rome from February 21–24, a “horses for courses” understanding of synodality would mean that different local Churches should be empowered to implement specific local remedies, tailored to their specific problems and capacities, in addressing clerical sexual misconduct.

The plague of sexually abusive clergy manifests itself in different ways in different ecclesiastical contexts. In the so-called developed world, the plague seems to have largely involved the sexual abuse or exploitation of young men; but there are many other ways in which a subset of Catholic clergy, both priests and bishops, lead duplicitous lives in violation of the promise of celibate chastity they made to God and the Church. Latin American Catholicism has a culturally-influenced and destructive habit of denial about clerical sexual misconduct, whether abusive or consensual, heterosexual or homosexual. The Church in Africa faces serious challenges with the sexual exploitation of women by clergy. Each of these situations has its own epidemiology, as infectious disease doctors would say.

While more than a few German theologians and bishops (and bishop-theologians) deny it, the Catholic Church has a settled ethic of human love, drawn from the Scriptures and developed over centuries by moral reason. The ethic is the same, but the challenges to living it are not uniform among 1.2 billion Catholics. Because of considerable cultural and historical differences across the world Church, particular solutions to the plague of clerical sexual impropriety (and worse) are going to have to be developed to meet particular circumstances. So while the bottom of the bottom line for the “abuse summit” must be an unambiguous, clarion call to the entire Church to live chastity as the integrity of love, there is no single reform template that will address different forms of clerical sexual misconduct in quite diverse circumstances.

Read more at First Things. 

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