Forcing the Pope's Hand

Here, the people rule. Literally. The United States is the most populist democracy on Earth. Now the American people can enjoy a most unusual triumph: In a contest of wills, they've beaten the pope.

When the American cardinals left Rome in April, they knew the pope was not in favor of zero tolerance toward priests accused of sexual abuse. The Vatican wanted offending priests dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The American people, including Catholics, felt otherwise. In a Gallup Poll conducted early this month, 70 percent of U.S. Catholics endorsed the view that priests found guilty of even a single instance of sexually abusing a young person should be removed from the priesthood—not given another position in the church or allowed to stay on after apologizing and receiving treatment. That's almost as high as the 79 percent of non-Catholics who endorsed zero tolerance.

The same judgment applies to a bishop or cardinal who knows a priest has been sexually abusing young people and transfers the priest to another parish instead of reporting him to the police. Last month, 87 percent of Catholics said that such church leaders should be removed as head of the diocese.

Catholics and non-Catholics were also in agreement that the church has handled the problem badly. Three-quarters of Catholics and 80 percent of non-Catholics felt that way—up from 66 percent of non-Catholics in March and 74 percent in April.

Sexual abuse is quite different from issues, such as divorce and birth control, where American public opinion has had no impact on the Catholic Church. Two-thirds of U.S. Catholics say that the church's teachings on sexual and marital issues are outdated. But those who disagree with church teachings can simply ignore them. It is impossible for Catholics—or non-Catholics—to ignore church policy on sexual abuse: Crimes have been committed.

Americans believe that if you want to change a policy, you have to change the people involved. That approach applies to business and government. If business executives lose the confidence of investors, they're replaced. If political leaders lose the confidence of voters, they're voted out.

That presents a problem for the Catholic Church. The church is not a democracy. Rank-and-file parishioners have no say over who leads the church. The church hierarchy has a tradition of protecting—not replacing—its leaders when they get in trouble.

If American Catholics can't replace church leaders, they can push for more responsiveness. Lay Catholics around the country have been organizing to demand a say, not in matters of doctrine, but in the governance and management of the church. Is that a threat to the church hierarchy? You bet it is.

And that's why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Dallas, adopted a "no-ministry-for-abusers" policy that comes close to zero tolerance. It bars priests who have committed even one act of sexual abuse against a minor from serving in a ministerial capacity. The policy does not take the final step of requiring that abusive priests be ousted from the priesthood. That step would require action by the Vatican, which is known to oppose any policy of automatically removing priests.

The Vatican must still approve changes in church law that are needed before the American bishops can implement the new policy. "I would never go to the Holy See assuming I have a slam dunk," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said after the conference vote. But the Vatican will be under great pressure to accede to the U.S. bishops' decision, simply because the vote was so overwhelming: 239 bishops in favor of the new policy, 13 against.

Did the bishops satisfy public opinion? Apparently not. Two-thirds of Catholics polled by The Washington Post this week said the bishops' policy does not go far enough, presumably because it does not automatically remove abusive priests from the priesthood. But two-thirds of Catholics expressed confidence that the church can be trusted to deal with the problem. Only half of non-Catholics felt that way. Non-Catholics can't understand how the church can possibly change as long as the same people are in charge. Catholics are less cynical about their leaders.

Enforcement of the new policy is still largely in the hands of the bishops themselves. The new charter does provide for local and national review commissions to monitor compliance. The commissions will include lay members, but they are not chosen democratically. The bishops will appoint commission members.

The Catholic layman appointed to chair the new national review commission is Oklahoma Republican Gov. Frank Keating. As a politician, he understands the norms of American democracy very well. "I envision the commission as apart from the conference of bishops, answering first of all to the laity we represent," Keating wrote in The New York Times.

Back in the 1890s, Pope Leo wrote a letter denouncing the heresy of "Americanism," which he depicted as "the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, and the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject." That pope got Americanism exactly right.