By Stephanie Ann Puen
The recent release of the sex abuse grand jury report in Pennsylvania that details the systemic sexual abuse and cover up by the Catholic church hierarchy has been overwhelming, horrible, shameful, and criminal. Many are outraged—and after the initial wave of emotions, the question is, what do we do now?
One of the things that this situation concretely demands for is accountability. Fasting and prayer are only one part of what we can and ought to do. The Catholic Church is still a human organization—a “community composed of men [and women]” as the Second Vatican Council pointed out. As a human organization, there is a need for a certain code of ethics that emphasizes accountability. The Catholic Church has often understood this accountability as more of a vertical accountability, where the laity are accountable to the priests, the priests are accountable to the bishops, and the bishops are accountable to the pope. Hardly is it ever the other way around—that is, the pope is accountable to the bishops, the bishops to the priests, and the priests to the laity. And while the Catholic church always seeks to contribute towards the common good of society, not much is also said about the accountability we have towards society when church teaching harms people rather than contributes to the common good. It is the latter two forms of accountability that also need to be emphasized in reforming Catholic church structure. An accountability where it is not only the laity that are responsible and accountable to the hierarchy, but also the other way around—the hierarchy as responsible and accountable to the laity, and the whole church accountable to the wider society.
What would this accountability look like? The first point is that this accountability means that being loyal and faithful to God and God’s people cannot be reduced to being loyal and faithful to the institutional church. Protecting the institutional church and people within it should not come at the cost of people’s lives or at the cost of the gospel. Accountability means being able to take a long hard look at the church and to see whether or not church teaching has truly served the common good—or if it has actually done violence to people. If it has done violence to people, accountability means admitting the mistakes of church teaching and moving towards church teaching that is actually life-giving rather than death-dealing. Restorative justice should play a role in rehabilitating those who have caused violence.
The second is that the accountability I’m describing would also mean having no place for clericalism. It would mean taking seriously sensus fidelium that includes the voices of the laity. There is imbalanced power between the hierarchy and the laity—particularly between the hierarchy and the women and children in the laity—and giving these voices more leadership roles rather than just token roles in the church structure. This would mean being more purposeful in choosing whose voices will be heard at the parish level, diocesan level, regional level, and at the Vatican itself.
The last point is that this accountability would entail some restructuring at all levels of the church. I used to work under corporate planning in a manufacturing company, and so I had to learn and implement a lot of ideas in organization development. A key principle in organization development is transparency and accountability, as these create an atmosphere of trust while also creating a process where people know how to raise dialogue points or air grievances in decision-making situations where not everyone has the same amount of power in the group. These processes help people manage and articulate conflicts and issues in order to help resolve them. I am not saying that the Catholic church can be reduced to any other organization, business or otherwise; what I am saying is that the Catholic church has something in common with other organizations—they are all composed of human beings, and therefore would also need these processes that help facilitate conflict, dialogue, and discussion. This puts both the hierarchy and laity in a more equal position when conflicts and issues arise, and hopefully makes it more conducive to genuine dialogue.
The sexual abuse scandals are not just about the teachings on sex and gender in the Catholic church. They also have a lot to do with power—who has it and how it is being used, in this case, in the realm of sexual ethics and norms. This should serve as a wake up call for the Catholic church, especially the hierarchy. It should be a time for remorse, but also a time for action, to ensure that these abuses are put to an end.
 Second Vatican Council, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word: Gaudium et Spes,” Vatican.va, 1965, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html. GS 1.
 I focus on dialogue because the Catholic church’s preferred method of conflict resolution seems to be dialogue based on the encyclicals in Catholic social teaching. However, I don’t think that genuine dialogue is possible if both parties do not have equal power at the table.
Stephanie Ann Puen is a doctoral student in theological & social ethics from the Philippines at Fordham University. She worked in corporate prior to getting her master’s degree at the Ateneo de Manila University in Manila, Philippines, where she also taught theology. Her research interests are in Catholic social thought, business and economics and ethics, design thinking, and theology and pop culture.
Categories: Theology and Culture