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At 6 p.m. on October 19, 1965, a dramatic event occurred at the Second Vatican Council. At precisely that hour, Cardinal Augustin Bea, president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, joined the council’s Theological Commission as an emissary of Paul VI. 

Bea’s mission: To instruct the commission on several changes the pope desired to make to the draft of the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation (known today as Dei Verbum). All the members of the commission, both bishops and theological experts, were present; however—in a highly unusual departure from precedent—only Bea was allowed to speak.  

Bea presented several options for emending the text on three crucial issues: the role of tradition and its relationship to Scripture; the exact meaning of the phrase veritas salutaris (the truth of salvation); and the precise understanding of the Latin word historia when speaking about the Gospels.  After the presentation, the bishops in attendance voted on Bea’s proposals. 

The well-known Jesuit peritus, Karl Rahner, complained openly about this irregular procedure. Even more agitated was the normally serene and conciliatory Gérard Philips, the moderator of the Theological Commission. The root of Philips’s discontent was that Bea spoke of “ambiguities” in the schema on Divine Revelation. But what particularly distressed him was that, because of the enjoined silence, he was not allowed to respond to Bea's criticisms. “Because these men wear some red on their chests [as bishops and cardinals],” Philips remarked, “they are able to treat you as a liar and even take away your right to defend yourself.”

Philips’s complaint has contemporary relevance. For today, many priests and lay people have concluded that the American bishops, in their panicked response to the abuse crisis, have taken away priests’ right to self-defense. 

The norms of the 2002 Dallas Charter dictate that priests are to be immediately suspended from ministry when an accusation of abuse, no matter how dated, is lodged against them. Of course, such accusations must go before a review board that judges an accusation’s “credibility.” But the standards for credibility are laughably low—and vary from diocese to diocese. A credible accusation often means little more than “abuse could have conceivably occurred.” 

Astonishingly, some dioceses have still not revealed the names and credentials of those who sit on their review boards—so it is possible for Catholic priests to have their reputations defiled, and their ministries abrogated, on the recommendation of anonymous judges. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, concludes, “The average detainee in Guantanamo Bay has more rights than the average accused priest in America does today.”

Bishops receive different treatment. Two American bishops, of Brooklyn, NY,  and Manchester, NH, have recently had accusations of abuse lodged against them. Have they stepped down? No. Have they shown solidarity with their priests by accepting the same standard of punishment? Not at all. On the contrary, the bishops have loudly proclaimed their innocence and vigorously defended themselves while continuing their ministries. This is a fundamental right that every accused priest would love to have, and should have, especially when an accusation is decades old and lacking in substantive evidence. But the American bishops have denied to priests the privileges they have retained for themselves: the right to presumed innocence and the right to self-defense.

Unfortunately, this double standard has exacerbated the lack of trust that exists between bishops and priests, thereby intensifying the “adversarial relationship” that Cardinal Avery Dulles predicted two decades ago. Can the Catholic Church effectively witness to Jesus Christ with this kind of division, with priests regarding the American episcopacy as a self-protecting caste?

And is it any wonder that many priests have stopped encouraging vocations? Several fine priests have told me that they cannot, in good conscience, encourage a man to enter the seminary today. His reputation could be smeared and his life thrown into turmoil by one weakly supported accusation. Even without conclusive evidence, he would be forced to wear the scarlet letter of abuse for the rest of his life. Another priest advises men to obtain secular credentials—an MBA or a law degree—before beginning theological studies. Then at least they will be able to make a living if they are suspended from ministerial activity because of some flimsy or spurious allegation.  

Most alarmingly, this entire affair has revealed a dangerous theological and pastoral aberration. With the norms of the Dallas Charter, the U.S. bishops have attenuated the theological depth and density of the sacrament of Holy Orders. They have undermined the traditional claim, Tu es sacerdos in aeternum, which now more accurately reads, Tu es sacerdos usque ad revocationem. As a result, many now regard the priesthood not as a sacred vocation, but simply as a “contract job” like any other, except with longer hours and lower pay.  

The Dallas Charter is an open wound that festers still, deeply scarring the priesthood and the Church in the United States. A first step toward healing this wound would be to constitute a commission of bishops, theologians, and canonists to examine the Charter’s norms with theological intelligence and Christian fortitude. Yes, the bishops will be roundly criticized for this—by politicians, lawyers, media, advocacy groups, and so on. But precisely now is when Spirit-guided courage is so desperately needed in the Catholic Church.  

Today, there is much talk among the American bishops about “Eucharistic coherence.” In fact, the bishops’ most urgent obligation is to achieve principled consistency—according to the canons of natural justice and Catholic doctrine—concerning the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of the forthcoming book The Unchanging Truth of God?: Crucial Philosophical Issues for Theology.

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Photo by Nicholas Hartmann via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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