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Moments in Time

The guilt of bishops


Recently many people, including myself, were surprised and even appalled by the report of an article in the Jesuit magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, in which the dean of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, discussed the issue of the responsibility of bishops in cases of child molestation. Ghirlanda is quoted as saying, “From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the superior are neither morally nor juridically responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy.”

For the historical record, it might be well to remember the words of Pope Gregory the Great in his famous Book of Pastoral Rule written about 591. The Rule was the most widely read guide for the pastoral life of bishops in the Middle Ages. It was even translated into English by King Alfred the Great in the ninth century. Unlike Ghirlanda, Gregory has no doubt about the moral responsibility of bishops in regard to those they serve. When describing the role of the bishop in admonishing sinners, he states:

“Some things, however, ought to be vehemently reproved, that, when a fault is not recognized by him who has committed it, he may be made sensible of its gravity from the mouth of the reprover; and that, when anyone smooths over to himself the evil that he has perpetrated, he may be led by the asperity of his censurer to entertain grave fears of its effects against himself. For indeed it is the duty of a ruler to show by the voice of preaching the glory of the supernal country, to disclose what great temptations of the old enemy are lurking in this life’s journey, and to correct with great asperity of zeal such evils among those who are under his sway as ought not to be gently borne with; lest, in being too little incensed against faults, of all faults he be himself held guilty.”

Clearly for Gregory, bishops are guilty of any faults they fail to address. Bad example by clergy that leads to sin of the part of others received similar treatment by the great doctor of the church:

“For prelates ought to know that, if they ever perpetrate what is wrong, they are worthy of as many deaths as they transmit examples of perdition to their subjects. Wherefore it is necessary that they guard themselves so much the more cautiously from sin as by the bad things they do they die not alone, but are guilty of the souls of others, which by their bad example they have destroyed.”

Finally, Gregory writes of those who withhold the teaching of the good news of the gospel from sinners:

“Let them perceive, then, in what guilt those are implicated who, in withholding the word of preaching from their sinning brethren, hide away the remedies of life from dying souls. … Were a famine wasting the people, and they themselves kept hidden corn, undoubtedly they would be the authors of death. Let them consider therefore with what punishment they must be visited who, when souls are perishing from famine of the word, supply not the bread of grace which they have themselves received. … And everyone that does so is cursed among the people, because through his fault of silence only he is condemned in the punishment of the many whom he might have corrected. If persons by no means ignorant of the medicinal art were to see a sore that required lancing, and yet refused to lance it, certainly by their mere inactivity they would be guilty of a brother’s death. Let them see, then, in how great guilt they are involved who, knowing the sores of souls, neglect to cure them by the lancing of words.”

Ghirlanda may be an expert in canon law, but hundreds of years of inspection, inspiration and admiration have installed the words of Gregory the Great as an integral part of our tradition. I suspect it would be far better (and safer) for bishops to follow the teaching of Gregory than to trust that of Ghirlanda.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at macy@pwa.acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002