Suing the Pope

Print More

Take a look at John Allen’s recent recapitulation of the Vatican’s response in O’Bryan vs. the Holy See, the Kentucky case in which the plaintiff is seeking to prove that American bishops are employees of Rome, and were following Vatican orders in covering up cases of sexual misconduct by priests. And that therefore the Vatican is liable.

Like more of Allen’s recent work that one likes to say, it represents subtle apologetics for the Roman point of view. This is not only because he says what the Vatican is saying without putting the plaintiff’s side on display. It’s also because the account comes wrapped in an argument that the claims of the lawsuit actually work to undermine the ability of Rome to deal with the current crisis. In a nutshell, Allen contends that 1) if bishops are deemed mere agents of Rome, it will prove harder to sue then; and 2) reformers want (or should want) Rome to clean up the mess, and and push in the direction of episcopal autonomy will make that harder.

I’m not sure that’s actually the case. Indeed, I’ve argued the opposite. But as Allen correctly notes, the Vatican’s filing includes some of the strongest language on the independence of bishops that Rome has put its imprimatur on in a long time:

  • The College of Bishops plays a “vital governance role” in the
  • The episcopacy itself is of divine origin, and bishops are
    successors to the apostles in their own right.
  • To say that the pope has “full” power is not to say his authority is
    unlimited. In fact, popes are bound by church dogma, tradition,
    Scripture, and the principles of communion, collegiality and
  • The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in its document Lumen
    , explicitly taught that bishops are not “to be regarded as
    vicars of the Roman Pontiff.”
  • Canon law repeatedly recognizes the power of the bishop to govern
    the affairs of the local church, from finances and the assignment of
    personnel to opening and closing parishes and supervising priests.

So let the Vatican prevail in court. Let the bishops be responsible for their own ecclesiastical affairs, including stripping pedophile priests of their office, as successors to the apostles should be able to. Let them be responsible to the civil authorities. And let the chips fall where they may,