The Catholic Church’s political structure is hierarchical by design. All power flows down from the top. Furthermore, all real power resides in specific individuals and not in collegiate groups or corporate structures. This has been the case throughout the history of institutionalized Catholicism. This political structure has created a culture surrounding the leadership. This culture has in turn produced pre-conditioned responses to different forms of communication.

The hierarchical governmental system has given rise to two things: the first has been the style of government, meaning the way authority is exercised. The style is generally monarchical which means that the focus is on the leader and not on the subjects. The second phenomenon has been the ascendance of an aristocracy composed of the clergy. Power, privilege, prestige and financial control are vested in individuals and all of these are members of the clergy. Though lay persons have been included on many levels of church administration, all real power is in the hands of a small group of celibate, male clerics. Even here, the power is limited to a select group of clerics, the bishops.

In 1906 Pius X issued an encyclical which described the political structure of the Catholic Church:

This church is essence an unequal society, that is to say a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherd and the flock.... These categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of society reside only in the pastoral body; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.(Vehementer nos, Feb. 11, 1906)

This statement captures the enduring belief about the fundamental nature of the institutional church. Though Vatican II defined the Church as the “People of God” the official theology and law of the Church still hold that the hierarchical division is of divine origin (cf Canons 207, 330, 331).

Recent papal statements show an attitude of distrust and disdain for democracy and democratic structures:

The church is not a democratic association established by human will." (Paul VI, encyclical letter “Ecclesiasm suam,” August 6, 1964)

Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protest and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and a correct understanding of the hierarchical understanding of the People of God. (John Paul II, encyclical letter “Veritatis splendor,” August 6, 1993)

A commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular, democratic model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority.” (John Paul II, address to U.S. Bishops, Sept. 11, 2004)

Nevertheless, this description of the Christian community has shallow roots in authentic theology and no verifiable basis in scripture. In other words, the constant claim that Christ intended a hierarchical structure when he founded the Church is based on nebulous historical evidence. There is no indication from the writings of the first three centuries that Christ ever intended to found a church as such or that he consciously established a hierarchical system. The Apostles emerged from the Last Supper as potential leaders of the future “church” though they hardly knew it at the time. That they emerged as archbishops, newly ordained by Christ the High Priest is a segment of Catholic mythology but not an essential and proven element of authentic ecclesiology (Kung, 2003, p. 3, 8-9).

The above statements sum up not only a theological position but a deeply rooted attitude that permeates the consciousness and emotions not only of bishops but many lay people as well. The concept of a stratified ecclesial society enables the fallacy of clericalism which enters directly into all communications with the hierarchy. The bishops believe that they are singled out by the Almighty as the anointed teachers, legislators, executives and judges of Christ’s community here on earth. The faithful are taught to believe this teaching from their first years of catechetical instruction and consequently taught to hold the bishops in the highest respect and esteem.

The Catholic Church rests on a sacramental system. The seven sacraments are believed by Catholics to be the particularly important if not essential encounters with Christ. Belief in the official theology of the sacraments is essential for a Catholic. We are taught that the sacraments are necessary for salvation. The way to the sacraments is through the ordained clergy; especially the priests but ultimately the custodians of the sacraments are the bishops. Catholics learn early on that salvation is mediated through the Church but not the Church as a vast throng of believers scattered throughout the world, defined by Vatican II as the “People of God” without distinction based on gender, Church office or power. Rather, it is mediated through the Church’s ordained leaders. These leaders determine who may receive a sacrament. They control access to the means of salvation and as such, they hold great power which supports the respect in which they are held and enables also the fear experienced by so many Catholics.

Traditionally the obvious power imbalance determined the quality of communications with the hierarchy and the hierarchy’s belief in its divine origin formed the emotional response to any communications that were critical or challenging. Often, rather than respond to the substance of a criticism or challenging question or even an observation, a bishop reacts defensively, asking how his authority can possibly be questioned. The fundamental issue is lost in the perceived threat to the bishop’s authority. This attitude is enforced by the church’s own political structures which reserve all power to bishops and limit the participation of collegiate or corporate bodies to consultation.

The clergy sex abuse phenomenon has changed the way Catholics communicate with bishops. Accustomed to always controlling every situation, the bishops have reluctantly learned that this is no longer the case. Since the canonical structures of the Church provide no basis or avenues for communication based on the concept of equality of participants, the aggrieved have sought relief in the civil courts of the U.S. and several other countries. The bishops were faced with a power equal to and in many ways surpassing their own. The result has generally been defensiveness, de-valuation of the abuse survivors, and anger.

The frustration and anger engendered in tens of thousands of sex abuse victims as well as millions of laity over the sordid revelations of abuse and cover-up has changed the way a significant segment of the Catholic and non-Catholic population communicates with bishops. As the “scandal” unfolded and more and more was revealed through the media and in the courts, trust and respect for bishops rapidly eroded and with it the traditional belief in the nature of the episcopacy.

In short, communication has been challenging, confrontational and driven by anger, distrust and cynicism. Those directly involved with the sex abuse phenomenon, including victims, their loved ones and supporters, the media and attorneys, have been astonished, disappointed and saddened by the arrogance, dishonesty and lack of compassion manifested by many bishops. In time the bishops realized that they have lost the trust and respect of many. Yet the fundamental attitude of superiority still permeates most conversations about significant issues facing the Catholic Church.

The anger and mistrust has prevented true communication. Many bishops have immediately focused on the challenge to their authority rather than the reason for the anger. It certainly appears that the horror of the sexual abuse of countless children, minors and vulnerable adults has been overshadowed for many bishops, by the affront to their dignity, the rejection of their authority and the disrespect for their persons and their office. In fact, most of the anger experienced by the victims, their supporters and others seeking reform and change is grounded in the enormity of the crimes and the perceived inability of many bishops to fully realize the gravity of the situation. They have reason to be angry and disrespectful of bishops. As many have said time after time, “they just don’t get it. They think its all about them.”

The welfare of the victims should be the primary concern of the institutional Church because these men and women, boys and girls, have not only had their bodies and their emotions deeply scarred, but their souls devastated. For a Church whose ultimate and foundational mission is the “salvation of souls” there seems to have been precious little concern for the souls of those faithful and trusting Catholics who were raped and brutalized by priests and bishops.

The agenda of the victims and survivors has remained constant. First, they want the bishops to acknowledge that their abuse is real. They want to be believed. They do not want to be patronized nor will they be satisfied with wringing hands, profuse apologies and promises of prayer. They want to be able to believe that the bishops truly understand the horror and trauma they have experienced. In looking for some sign of an honest cognitive and emotional response, too many have been disappointed and walked away convinced that they were viewed as a threat or a nuisance and not an emotional and spiritual casualty.

Second, they have wanted the bishops to do something about the perpetrators. Many began with well justified thoughts of revenge but miraculously, most worked through this and sought only assurance that the men and women who raped their bodies and souls be provided help but mostly be restricted from ever being able to hurt another person, young or old. In all too many cases the victims found out to their shock that the promises made were never kept. Perpetrators were re-cycled and more children were hurt.

Third, the victims and indeed the Catholic and general public have wanted honest answers from the bishops to some very painful and fundamental questions. Why did they cover-up and allow known child abusers to move from place to place? Why did they ignore victims and not offer any significant pastoral care? Why have they consistently and stubbornly refused to look at their own style of governing to find the answers to such devastating questions?

Finally, why has the image of the institutional Church’s leadership been more important than the spiritual and emotional welfare of the tens of thousands of clergy abuse victims? To these questions there have been no answers. There has only been more equivocation, more diversionary tactics and more arrogance.

Experience has clearly shown that not every bishop has failed to realize the enormity of this era. It is simply improbable that some or even many have not reacted with horror and found honest compassion in their hearts for the victims and for Catholics in general, angry and disappointed that their trust has been betrayed. Yet the body of bishops remains defensive and aloof. The good will and efforts of those who truly “get it” are hidden by the intransigence of those who continue to focus on themselves, trapped in a narcissistic self-image that serves as a barrier to true insight from getting in and authentic pastoral compassion from getting out.

It is tragic that it took a nightmare such as the clergy abuse scandal to cause the laity to awaken from the spiritual coma induced by clericalism and began to realize that they must be adults in Church as well as in their homes, their places of work and in secular society in general. The results have been predictable. Lay men and women who have confronted and questioned have been accused of everything from misunderstanding to heresy. Some, when asking for discussion and dialogue have been told that there will be none unless the hierarchic authority is acknowledged. In other words, dress like a grown-up for the meeting, but act like a docile, obedient and fearful child. Communicating with bishops on a level playing field is, by tradition, theologically and canonically impossible. Yet it is essential if the Church is to really be the Body of Christ and if the leaders hope to be seen as pastors and not bureaucrats in medieval dress ( Cf Mark 10: 42-43). Catholic lay men and women are forced to acknowledge the irrational fears that always caused them to bow in deference before “father” much less “His Excellency.” They must meet these fears head on, acknowledge them and move past them. Too much is at stake.

The lay people must forge the new set of rules for communicating with the hierarchs. Heretofore there have been two basic behavior patterns from the pre-abuse days, and an additional pattern born of the scandal. In the days when all lived the reality of the church as a stratified society, the lay people deferred to the bishops and generally believed that their assessments, conclusions and action plans were always right. This was almost always true in direct dealings with bishops. When out of earshot however, some lay persons often expressed disagreement, disappointment or even anger at bishops and their actions. Yet none would ever confront or forcibly question them. That simply wasn’t done. They were, after all, the divinely appointed successors of the apostles.

With the scandal came a third way of communicating and that was through direct and often angry confrontation. Forced by the media and the courts to face the issues, the bishops could hardly retreat to the security of their offices, confident that the clamor would dissipate in time and all would return to normal. The deference, respect and trust that had been seared into Catholic souls quickly evaporated and was replaced by anger and disdain. In general, irrational anger has not served to persuade the bishops of the validity and urgency of the survivors’ complaints. However, the angry encounters with bishops, including the vociferous demonstrations that have taken place at chanceries and cathedrals, have not been without impact. Though the bishops have tried to give the impression of being above the fray and immune from the anger and emotion, it remains painfully true that this form of communication has shocked many bishops into the realization that they can no longer presume deference and respect.

Both sides of the conversation have been hardened. Some bishops won’t allow reform groups such as Catll to Action or Voice of the Faithful to meet on Church property, mindlessly accusing them of having “agendas,” being “anti-Catholic,” “fostering dissent” or worst of all, failing to respect the bishops. Clerics openly associated with VOTF, SNAP or other organizations deemed unacceptable by some bishops, have been criticized, shunned or, in the case of some priests or deacons, unjustly penalized. Since there is no valid basis for accusing either group of being heretical, anti-Catholic or dissenting, they are vilified, not because their message is heretical or dissenting, but because their anger and confrontational tactics are more than the bishops can handle. What is being lost in all of this is the path to mutual understanding.

The victims and many lay people believe the bishops not only will not, but cannot get it. The bishops for their part, are probably convinced that in their anger, the victims and their supporters will never be able to see and accept their side nor the honest and sincere concern many have for the victims. The goal should not be beating one or the other side into submission. The goal should be to arrive at a minimal degree of mutual respect so as to begin to listen to one another rather than talking at one another. Disagreement need not always be covered in anger.

The time for confrontation that is predominantly angry and irrational is past. In most cases the anger and rage have been amply justified. Yet it has caused many bishops to become hardened in their attitudes towards all victims and survivors and towards all lay people whom they believe have had the temerity to question them. The time for confrontation on a level playing field is not past and never will be. There is much to confront and many hard questions yet to be answered. Name calling and verbal abuse are as much a barrier to needed answers as is the infantile deference that has enabled clericalism to flourish and control. Fear must be banished.

Bishops who refuse to include lay people and survivors on every level of discussion and decision making about the response to the clergy abuse scandal must be confronted and, in a rational, firm yet respectful manner, asked to explain such an exclusion. Those who have accused VOTF, SNAP or other groups of having hidden agendas, of being dissenters, of heresy, or anti-Catholicism must be confronted and asked to explain in detail the reasons for these accusations and the sources of their information. Those who have refused to reveal the names of verified sex abusers or who have secretly reassigned known offenders must be confronted and asked to provide an explanation to the people of God.

There is no longer room for fear, secrecy or arrogance. Far too much is at stake and far too many souls have been devastated.

It is possible to confront the contradictions between the spirit of Vatican II and spirit of clerical mistrust. In doing so it is essential to understand the clerical context from which the opposition arises. The bishop is essential to the institutional structure of the Church. The theological and structural tradition teaches that the church is founded on the bishops who are therefore essential for its very existence. The chain of authority in the three-fold office of the bishop is believed to be the divinely directed means whereby God communicates with mortals (cf. Canon 375). Consequently, challenges to bishops are perceived as much more than personal attacks or manifestations of disrespect. Such challenges are expressions of disbelief in an essential tenet of faith.

On the other side, the victims and others who challenge the bishops’ autocratic exercise of authority do not see such challenges as an affront to a doctrinal issue. Rather they see them as a reaction to the reality of authority either misused or abused. The bishops see themselves as divinely appointed leaders and their critics see them as flawed administrators.

The differences are not solely about power. The differences are about a variety of issues that are far more serious than ownership of power. Soul murder, rape, sexual assault, character assassination, slander and financial mismanagement are some of the known abuses that many are up in arms about. These issues will not go away nor will they be rectified unless drastic attitudinal changes take place, primarily on the part of the church’s leadership.

Building bridges and opening lines of true communication between the bishops and lay people is a noble goal for members of the Christian community but it will never happen without integrity and trust. Trust will not happen until the traditional secrecy and its toxic sibling, fear, are eradicated. Lay people should not fear honest confrontation with bishops or other church leaders. This is an essential step in the search for truth and accountability. Banishing the fear that always lurked in the background is the beginning of authentic Christian empowerment. Searching for plausible answers does not equal disrespect nor is it a sign of dissent. Above all it is a sign that one has accepted the sometimes painful and challenging responsibility of adult membership in the Body of Christ.

Confrontation need not equal fanaticism. Working together begins with dialogue and dialogue cannot begin with capitulation. Lay persons have been nurtured by an ecclesial culture that made true dialogue impossible. The duplicity revealed by the sex abuse scandal led to the subsequent erosion of trust and respect for clerics and especially bishops. This will be reversed when both sides move beyond roles and see one another as Christians. This will be much more difficult for bishops but this does not mean that lay men and women can or should retreat to mindless deference.

In conclusion, I believe that authentic dialogue is essential and possible. This means calling the issues in truth with first concern for those harmed. Confrontation however does not mean irrational anger nor can it be productive if minds and hearts are closed to the possibility of good will.

Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.

April 13, 2005


Kung, Hans. (2003). The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York. The Modern Library.

Papal encyclicals at Vatican website, www.vatican.va

Thomas Green, James Coriden and Donald Heinstchel, editors, (1986) The Code of Canon Law: Text and Commentary. Mahwah N.J. Paulist Press.