Gianluca Montaldi – « Church’s accountability »

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Church’s accountability as a narrative of its credibility

by Gianluca Montaldi
(Università Cattolica del S. Cuore – Brescia, Italy)


In modern times, among the tasks that research has attributed to fundamental theology, the task of showing the credibility of the church has taken on a particular weight. This essay argues that  a similar path should be taken today. However, earlier discourses elaborated a path toward a deductive type of credibility, whereas today it seems increasingly evident that we must move to the level of relationships.

The ‘traditional’ form

Depending on the methodologies, the credibility of the church – as an institution and also as a community of believers – has been described essentially along two lines: a juridical line and a historical line. Both in one sense and in the other, reference was made to some founding moment or insight that was traced back to the apostolic tradition, if not even to Jesus himself.

In a particular way, the juridical line historically seeks to describe a continuous line from the apostolic times to our present moment, for example referring to the lists of the bishops in the various ecclesiastical districts where the monarchical episcopate has gradually spread, or specifying how the apostolic function has been transmitted among the various generations. In this line, above all, bishops would be referents not only of a function of communion, but in some way holders of knowledge or of a supplement of grace, which they pass on “almost from hand to hand” (DH 1591).[1] This understanding presupposes the sufficiency of the holder of ecclesiastical office, in this case, the bishop, with regard to faith and especially in its content.

Broadening the view and the experience, but with more simplicity, the historical line – in some way formalized in the First Vatican Council – has placed at the center of its reflection the signs that can link the ecclesial experience with the action of grace: “In the Catholic Church alone we find all those signs so numerous and so admirable arranged by God to make the credibility of the Christian faith clearly appear. Indeed, the church, because of its admirable propagation, its eminent sanctity, its inexhaustible fruitfulness in every good, because of its Catholic unity and its unshakable stability, is for itself a great and perennial reason for credibility and an irrefragable witness to its divine mission” (DH 3013).

It is not difficult to understand how both reflections arise in a confessional context and within a deliberately apologetic perspective. All things considered in this context, it is a question of justifying the presence of the Catholic Church as representing the continuing story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in history. Consistently, a reasoning is developed that concerns ‘power’ (who holds it and who can distribute it) and that is resolved in a patriarchal hierarchy; in turn, this is necessarily reflected in the ecclesial structure itself: through an act of institution in some way willed by Jesus, God provided the community of disciples with a hierarchy of powers to distribute the grace. This became even more pronounced when the (Catholic) church also provided itself with a centralized law and a corresponding bureaucracy, in imitation of modern states, and, just as these have legally created states of exception, so the church considered itself capable of creating fields deprived of grace or its energies, regulating – if not in fact, at least in law – access to them for various categories of people (communists, homosexuals, believers of other religions, non-believers, divorced, etc.).

To strengthen a new course

Vatican II had already created spaces for a different path, especially in the appeal to the “grace of God which prevents and helps” and to the “interior help of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and turns it to God, opens the eyes of the mind and gives everyone gentleness in allowing and believing the truth” (DV 5). Grace, in short, is not an employment office for those who aspire to positions of power, but opens in a universal way spaces of possibility and potential, and the apostolic line develops in a history of relationships in which only it makes sense to think of the passage of witnesses (cf. DV 8). It is this universality of the offer of grace that constitutes and establishes its own reliability and credibility. If modern theology – in a manner consistent with its time – has sought to convince us of the rationality of ecclesial experience, it now shows itself to be consistent with its own foundation only at the level of its reliability. Here I use the term “accountability” to express this concept.

In itself, it refers to the economic and political spheres, where an institution or delegated party is held accountable for its decisions and is independently responsible for the results. Generally, this means that the subject is (self-)obliged to inform of its actions (transparency), that it is called upon to justify them (accounting), and possibly that it is obliged to pay compensation (sanctionability). The objection that some might make is to avoid this term because it is too loaded with non-religious, and indeed properly corporate, meanings.

Yet it is worth making at least two considerations. The first is of a biblical nature: a careful analysis, in fact, could not only take up the passages where ‘accountability’ is expressly referred to (cf. Lk 16:2, but especially 1Pt 3:15), but also show that the biblical narrative is evidence of the transparency of God’s action in human history. In fact, the Bible is a sign of God’s accountability in history. A second reflection concerns the decline of interest in ecclesial experience as such: this would be due not so much to a lack of faith, but rather to a lack of accountability. It is enough to cite three very clear examples: a) the widespread phenomenon of (sexual) abuses and recently come to the surface in its chilling tragedy through investigations conducted by independent authorities[2]; b) the case that brought together T. Bertone, T.E. McCarrick and C.M. Viganò[3]; the financial scandal that occurred around the figure of G.A. Becciu (although a conclusive judgment has not yet been reached in this case, it is nonetheless a severe blow to the image of the church). In all of these cases, it could be objected that nothing in them touches the essence of the church, but they are however a demonstration that this essence is still by no means realized. If once it would have been sufficient to demonstrate its rationality, now time demands that we show its accountability, even in its very non-realization. If the ecclesial institution does not maintain a sufficient degree of trustworthiness, it cannot be a sign of God’s own trustworthiness.[4]

What could it mean?

Certainly, the discourse should first clarify the meaning of the word accountability in reference to the experience of the church: if, in general, it indicates the responsibility of a business towards its clients and, above all, its stakeholders, for the church it indicates a twofold responsibility: the transparency for the grace and its means and the ability to create processes of real cooperation[5].

Thus, a trustworthy church is first and foremost a church that is transparent.[6] The minimum part of this consideration concerns the need to make the economic and financial transactions of church institutions traceable and public, and to have a good internal system of control over all instances[7]: fortunately, recent reforms of Vatican finance are going in this direction[8], but it is necessary that every ecclesial reality be subjected to such a measure, and in an even more stringent way, considering that ecclesial institutions live on donations. This transparency is made all the more necessary by the fact that hidden operations risk giving space to equivocal and scarcely evangelical measures, but it is also required by a duty of justice towards those who have donated.

Yet, this is not enough, because it must come to touch all aspects of ecclesial life: for example, by making it clear who writes the various documents, possibly signed by the pope or the bishop. It no longer makes sense to publish approved texts in a more or less generic form, without knowing the source and context: this system of gnoseological patriarchalism has already done sufficient damage. In fact, the lack of transparency (on who has decided and what, on what characteristics certain choices of actions and persons are made, what is really decided at all levels and at all decision-making instances, and so on) creates an elitism that obscures the reliability of the church.[9]

Second, a trustworthy church is a responsible church. Anyone who has lived in a (catholic) parish knows that currently the pastor can make many decisions without having to do much communication, at least in countries of ancient evangelization. The current organs of participation prove to be very labile and weak, even if on paper they are entrusted with much. Let us not speak of the management of structures and persons by communities of religious life, where very often decisions are made by a small group, if not by a single person, without any responsibility, distorting the little democracy the prophecy of religious life brings. This is no longer the time where it is possible to claim that authority grounds its own justification, for the facts have proven the exact opposite.

The system of internal accountability between laity and presbyters, between presbyters and bishops, all the way to the pope, is now dated, as any human resources expert could easily show. Not to mention that accountability requires a good deal of co-responsibility and subsidiarity: it is time for this traditional teaching in the social doctrine of the church to become effective in the ecclesial structure as well. Each believer is in his/her own right responsible for his/her own faith. Clericalism – already recalled several times as a curial disease – is unfortunately more widespread than we think: in light of this, a serious rethinking of the theology of ministry and priestly consecration is necessary. It is no longer a time for castes.

Finally, a trustworthy church must be able to be sanctioned. In the current Code of Canon Law, there are sanctions that are imposed in connection with an offense.[10] However, there is still a general difficulty in admitting that the church errs not only in its membership, but in its very structure. Particularly, the sexual abuse cases have demonstrated the fallacy of the tendency to consider that the church should only address its problems through internal actions and the incompleteness of its legal system. As this very case shows, the indefectibility of the church should no longer be used as a justification for crimes committed. Silence in the face of moral and social scandals, perpetrated in the church, for the church, and in the name of the church[11], is now a cry that cannot be silenced. However, all this is not possible – once again – if there is no transparency of responsibilities. It must be clear, however, that this entails a critical and profound re-examination of the meaning of authority in the church: if the episcopal ministry is still presented and implemented as an election totally detached from the people it serves, there is certainly no possibility of a critique, so to speak, from below.

As a conclusion

There is a point that seems to me to be a kind of litmus test of accountability: it is about human rights within the ecclesial structure. It is a duty of consistency: one cannot preach to others what one does not live. This impossibility comes from the gospel. A serious interrogation of this aspect could help to show how the Catholic Church and its institutions believe in what they say. And it might help to understand how it really intends to place itself at the service of human growth: appeals to justice, democracy and respect for the person should be able to be lived equally outside and inside the church.

However, just because it is not a democracy does not mean that it cannot value some essential and universally applicable democratic principles. The Church is not a democracy but it is a communion of believers. The very model of this is no less the relationship of Jesus to his Apostles. The latter were not princes but followers who were not just blind subjects of an absolutely powerful monarch.[12]

[1] With this quotation from the Council of Trent, I do not mean to assert that this is the only possible hermeneutic of that text.

[2] Remaining with Europe, see;; The interest of such documents also lies in the fact that they were commissioned by the Catholic episcopate from independent bodies.

[3] Cfr.

[4] It is not for nothing that the theme of accountability is also strongly present at the level of reflection on ecclesial mission, especially where this is conceived in a global and multilateral way (“from every place to every place”): the “missionary” or “ministerial” figures must be provided with accountability by those who send them and for those who receive them. See Mark Shaw and Wanjiru M. Gitau, “African Megachurches and Missions: Mavuno Church, Nairobi, and the Challenge of Accountability” in Dwight Baker, ed, Megachurch Accountability in Missions: Critical Assessment through Global Case Studies. New Haven: OMSC Publications, 2016: we should be “aware […] about this critical question of missionary accountability and the role of the sending churches and agencies in providing both support and accountability structures to ensure missionary effectiveness.” The suggested lines for such accountability are: a) building positive relationships between the sending community, the receiving community and the missionaries themselves, b) attention to the link with the local culture and the ability to integrate differences, c) the theological, educational and administrative competence of the missionaries, d) their ability to work in teams.

[5] For a more in-depth discussion, see Benjamin Chuka Osisioma, Accountability in the church, Presented at Conference of Chancellors, Registrars, and Legal Officers, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), At Basilica of Grace, Diocese of Abuja, Gudu District, Apo, Abuja, 6 August 2013; available online:

[6] See Nuala O’Loan, “Transparency, Accountability and the Exercise of Power in the Church of the Future,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 99, 395 (2010) 265-275

[7] See Ben K. Agyei-Mensah, Accountability and internal control in religious organisations: a study of Methodist church Ghana, in African J. Accounting, Auditing and Finance 5 (2016/2) 95-112: “After studying the practices of the Catholic Church, Rev. Beal and Cusack (2008) said that the ability of Catholic dioceses, parishes and NFPOs to raise the revenues necessary to support the ministry programs through which they carry out their mission depends upon public confidence and public support. Public confidence can be won if there is proper accountability and good internal control procedures in place” (here, 96).

[8] It must, in fact, be remembered that the Holy See was pushed toward these reforms by external financial authorities.

[9] Cfr. Rhoderick John S. Abellanosa, Abuse, elitism and accountability: challenge to the Philippine Church, in Asia horizons 14 (2020/2) 361-380. This very article reminds us that in a church thought of as elitist, there are several levels of elites; the most obvious are: the clergy with respect to the laity, the bishops with respect to the presbyters, the cardinals with respect to the bishops, and the pope with respect to all the others. It is precisely the latter who would be responsible only to God, which in a more correct perspective is the responsibility of all the baptized. Apart from the last two categories, the previous ones base their diversity on an essentialist understanding of the sacrament of order (see CCC 1538).

[10] However, I am not sure that the methods by which sanctions are applied are truly transparent; the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seem at times to lack publicity.

[11] Karl Rahner, Il peccato nella Chiesa, in Guilherme Baraúna (ed.), La chiesa del Vaticano II, Vallecchi, Firenze 1965, 419-435, has long since summarized this theological discussion in a dense essay.

[12] Abellanosa, Abuse, cit., 376.

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