A landmark moment?
On Saturday morning Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter that sent a tremor through the Catholic world. Come una madre amorevole (“As a Loving Mother”) sets out new norms for the removal of bishops who have “through negligence, committed or omitted acts that have caused grave harm to others, either with regard to physical persons or with regard to the community itself”.
The letter says that when the Vatican believes a bishop has acted negligently, the “competent congregation of the Roman Curia” will launch an investigation. If the congregation concludes that a bishop should be removed, the Pope will make the final decision with advice from a “dedicated college of jurists” composed of bishops and cardinals.
The Vatican and its associated media presented the letter as a breakthrough in efforts to hold bishops accountable for mishandling abuse cases. The text, they noted, says that, with regard to the “abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be grave”. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the letter was “clearly an important and positive step forward”.
At the same time, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi insisted that the document was not revolutionary. The letter, he said, merely establishes procedures for the application of an already existing law. According to the Vatican,
No Vatican document itself can end the global struggle against abuse then, the letter is both a landmark moment in the abuse struggle and a modest gloss on current canon law.
But some observers have pointed out that the new definition of episcopal negligence is very broad. As canon lawyer Ed Condon wrote at catholicherald.co.uk on Saturday: “Under these new norms, bishops could see cases brought against them for failures in financial oversight, personnel policy or virtually any area of diocesan governance which could potentially cause ‘physical, moral, or spiritual harm’ to an individual or the community.”
The new norms go into effect on September 5, so we should be able to gauge their impact relatively quickly. Marie Collins, the only member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors who is an abuse survivor, says, wisely, that “the most important aspect of any new procedure is its implementation and that is what we must wait to see”.
If the letter leads to the swift removal of dozens of bishops worldwide who have mishandled abuse cases, then we can judge it a success. If the text results in a slew of cases against bishops on other grounds, it may require significant tweaking.
Of course, no Vatican document, however well-framed, can end the global struggle against abuse. That fight will continue for the rest of our lifetimes and far beyond. We all continue to share responsibility for making the Catholic Church a safe place for children from Manhattan to Manila, and we must remain forever vigilant.
Elizabeth, saint and role model
Last Sunday, in Rome, the Pope canonised St Elizabeth Hesselblad, who commands attention for a variety of reasons.
Elizabeth is the first Swedish saint of modern times. She was baptised and brought up in a Lutheran household, in a country which at the time of her birth, in 1870, had no native Catholic population, so completely had the faith been extirpated from Sweden at the time of the Reformation.
As a young woman, driven abroad by poverty, she took up nursing in New York City, and came into contact with many Catholics, working as she did among the poor. She was received into the Church by a Jesuit, and soon found the call not just to refound the order established by St Bridget of Sweden, but also to dedicate her life to the cause of Christian unity in Scandinavia. Nowadays, thanks to the vision of St Elizabeth and many people like her, there is a Catholic Church in Sweden. St Elizabeth is a sign of the universal nature of the Church, its catholicity: the Catholic Church belongs in every nation.
St Elizabeth spent much of her religious life in Rome, living in the Bridgettine convent in Piazza Farnese. It was there in the war years, from December 1943 until June 1944, when Rome was occupied by the Germans, that she gave shelter to 12 members of a Jewish family. Because of this, Elizabeth’s name was added in 2004 to the list of the “Righteous Among the Nations”, which is kept at Vad Yashem in Jerusalem. There are nine other Swedes on the list, among them Raoul Wallenberg. As such, St Elizabeth is in exalted and heroic company.
Just as St Bridget has been invoked by Catholics as one of the patron saints of Europe, St Elizabeth, who followed in her footsteps on earth, represents one who by her actions built up the unity of the human family. She is a role model of ecumenism, given her burning desire to see Sweden reunited to the Universal Church; and she is a fine example of what we should strive for in our relations with the Jewish people.
CATHOLIC HERALD, JUNE 10 2016 3