Catholic dioceses in many respects remain one of the last redoubts of absolute monarchy in the modern world, run by bishops who, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, preside "in place of God over the flock . . . as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing." This three-fold mission effectively gave each bishop, who is answerable only to the Roman pontiff, the last word on everything from liturgy to finances. Until this week.
In the only other criminal admission to emerge from the scandal, Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., signed an accord with the state attorney general last year acknowledging that there was enough evidence to convict the diocese for child endangerment. But in that case the diocese rather than the bishop was the target, and Bishop McCormack did not have to compromise his own authority within the diocese. Likewise, the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, did nothing to alter the authority structure of the Boston archdiocese.
With this week's plea agreement, it is a government prosecutor, not the Vatican, that is requiring a bishop to share authority in the realm of governance — the third and least sensitive charge in the prelate's brief. If the church had encouraged bishops to share such authority sooner, it might have avoided this outcome in the first place. A more collaborative diocesan administration would also better protect children by ensuring that abusive priests could not be hidden by fellow clerics.
There is still time for the church to embrace openness. More transparency would not only help to restore the sagging morale of lay Catholics who are questioning whether any structural change is possible. It would also allow bishops to focus more fully on their central duties of encouraging faith and worship. Moreover, sharing power on administrative matters does not entail any reworking of Catholic theology or doctrine.
Unfortunately, the Vatican seems to view any compromise as a step toward doctrinal populism. If church leaders continue to stonewall, then prosecutors will force them, at the point of an indictment, into compromises that will in the long run do more to undermine the church's structure and spirit. If instead the Vatican loosened its grip on a few of the peripheral elements, the church's hierarchy might find that the long-term benefits would outweigh any short-term loss of power — or of a prestige that barely exists.