19 September 2023, The Tablet

Catholic Church has ‘a lot to learn’ from others about accountability, warns theologian

Catholic Church has ‘a lot to learn’ from others about accountability, warns theologian

A leading theologian has said it is crucial for the Catholic Church to understand the need to learn from other organisations when it comes to accountability.

Fr Eugene Duffy, lecturer in theology at Mary Immaculate College in the University of Limerick and All Hallows College, Dublin City University, said it was “very important to acknowledge that the Church has a lot to learn from other organisations, from other social structures, from management theory”.

Speaking at The Tablet’s webinar, “A Synodal Church Needs Accountability”, he said, “We need external organisations to offer an evaluation and scrutiny of our performances.” He noted the role of the National Board for Safeguarding in the Irish Church which, he said, was completely independent of the hierarchy and monitors every diocese on a regular basis in regard to their compliance to best practice and standards.

Another issue twas the need for a reform of mindsets and attitudes, Fr Duffy noted.

“It’s not adequate or enough to change structures, regulations and procedures within an organisation, unless there is a cultural reform, or a reform of attitudes, mindsets, beliefs, assumptions, values, ideologies,” he said.

He said a “monastic kind of formation for diocesan priests” was no longer “adequate or appropriate” because most priests are going to be living on their own in the midst of communities.

He suggested that moving seminarians out of the seminary for most of their formation would be a better approach.

Fr Duffy, who is Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Renewal in Achonry diocese and co-moderator of the Peter and Paul Seminar, an interdisciplinary research project of historians, systematic theologians and canon lawyers, also called for a “serious review” of the way theology is taught in seminaries.

“We still teach theology in a very academic register,” he criticised and said it was often too abstract.

“Seminarians need to be facilitated in learning how to apply theology, how to work with it in a way that enriches the lives of people. I think we could learn a lot from something like medicine, where there is much greater interaction between the practicum and the theory.”

Speaking about the theology of priesthood, Fr Duffy noted that since John Paul II's pontificate there has been an emphasis on the priest acting in persona Christi and this was sometimes misused to create “the impression that a priest is accountable to God alone, that he is in a direct line from Christ without adequately factoring in his relationship to the entire church”.

This emphasis on the priest acting in persona Christi “underpins all kinds of clericalist attitudes and provides almost an ontology to justify the priest acting alone without due reference to the rest of the parish or those for whom he is responsible”.

He added that Vatican II’s emphasis was “a network of good relationships, of people in right relationship with one another, and in right relationship with God”.

A leading Asian theologian, who is one of the theological advisers to the Synod on Synodality, told the webinar that there is a “serious need” for seminaries to emphasise “servant priesthood” and “insist on the dignity of all the baptised” in order to address clericalism in the Church, . Redemptorist Fr Vimal Tirimanna C.Ss.R. said “clericalism and the authentic concept of priesthood are not tallying with each other”.

The lecturer in moral theology at the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy in Rome and the National Seminary in Sri Lanka underlined that the concept of obedience has at times been misinterpreted to the advantage of those in authority.

Referring to his paper published for the Peter and Paul Seminar, he said the separation of the clergy from the laity had contributed to non-accountability in the Church.

“Most of the priests and bishops who are into this clericalist mentality think that is the way priestly culture should be.”


He said they perceived themselves as “a separate group, as an elite group, and put themselves on a sort of a pedestal” and this in turn led them to the “terrible conclusion, consciously or unconsciously, that they are not accountable to anyone”.

Theologian Professor Rafael Luciani of the Universidad Catolica Andres Bell in Caracas, Venezuela and Boston College told the webinar that the Church needed to reform the trilogy of the theology of the priesthood, the seminaries and the parishes together at the same time.

“If you don't touch that trilogy, you will not move forward as a synodal church.”

Elsewhere during the webinar, Professor Myriam Wijlens of Erfurt University said the research of the Peter and Paul Seminar had found that “synodality implies accountability”.

“So listening alone is not sufficient and accountability, at the same time, requires a synodal church.”

Responding to concerns that the pontifical secret would be applied to discussions at the Synod assembly next month in Rome, canon lawyer Myriam Wijlens said, “Yes, that could happen.”

A member of the Coordinating Commission of the Synod on Synodality and a Co-Moderator of the Peter and Paul Seminar, Professor Wijlens reminded the Tablet webinar that the process is “not a parliament”.

She will be an expert at the Synod in the Vatican. She underlined her dislike of the word “secret” and its connotations of secrecy, particularly in relation to the abuse crisis. She said she preferred “confidentiality”.

Justifying the possible provision to protect opinions expressed at the assembly, she said, “I think there should be the space for people to come from an ‘I’ to a ‘we’.”

She also highlighted that without such a safeguard some members of the synodal process could be “extremely active on all kinds of social media and other voices could be lost” thus resulting in a sense that “there was only one perspective on all of this.”

A study of the reception of the Second Vatican Council had shown how one of the challenges for the synod would be bringing the rest of the church on board after the assembly so that everybody is part of the process.

Speaking about the clerical abuse scandals and accountability in the Church she asked how bishops from the same cultural contexts such as France, Germany and Switzerland had not learned from each other.

“Why have bishops a hard time speaking about this and sharing their experience – how come they are not able to learn from each other? I think we really need to attend to that.”


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