Church Accountability: Is it a myth?

by Jess Lorenzo

Posted at Jun 23 2012 08:40 PM | Updated as of Jun 24 2012 04:40 AM

For more than a thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church was the only official Christian church. A little over 500 years ago, the Roman Catholic church was splintered by the reformation that a German monk began by attacking corruption in the institution. At that time, the church held the monopoly of bible knowledge. Priests and church officials who spoke and read Latin were the only ones authorized to interpret God’s law and will for the people. This knowledge perpetuated the corruption. At some point in our Christian history, the bishops and cardinals were selling indulgences that serve as the means to salvation or entry to heaven. By buying these indulgences, individuals get a number of years reprieve from purgatory. These were widely accepted practices which the Pope even accepted.

The German monk’s name was Matin Luther. His advocacy demanded the justification of the indulgences. Furthermore he insisted popularizing the Bible. He believed that ordinary people must be able to read and understand the Bible and work out their own personal relationship with God. He translated the Bible into German language which paved the way for other translations.

Later on, his advocacy went a little overboard. He and his followers brought countries and communities into division. This was the time that Christianity was broken into different factions and plunged Christian communities into civil war. People rebelled against the church because of the abuses that mounted over the generations. Martin Luther was excommunicated and hundreds of thousands died.

This era was called the Reformation because it was a time when changes were demanded of the Church. It was Christianity’s Civil War..

In spite of this civil war and even after 500 years, there has not been any clear effort from the Church to develop accountability mechanisms. There may not be any threat of religious war, but the accountability issues that plague the Church have been consistent over time. Since then, the Church has remained autocratic in dealing with these questions and there have been little change to enable the institution to establish strong accountability measures. This is also the reason why the Church always struggle when confronted by scandals.

Cannon Law 1287 (aka: Accountability Cannon) summary states that: §1, an annual report must be presented to the local bishop by anybody who has been appointed as the administrator of any "ecclesiastical goods", for example the annual income and expenditure within a particular parish. As regards §2, the same administrators must "render an account" to the Faithful relating to the "goods", for example money, they have given to the Church.

By this Canon Law, everyone is accountable to the bishop. But there is no Cannon Law that prescribes the accountability of the Bishop. Any complaints against the Bishop are handled on a case-to-case basis by the Vatican.

In the Diocese of Parañaque clergy and finance fiasco, some priests and lay leaders alleged that Bishop Jesse Mercado diverted millions of donations for calamity victims. Under Cannon Law 1300, he is obliged to spend the funds faithful to the intent of the donor but no prescriptions are made if he fails to do so.

Bishop Jesse Mercado’s official statement shows an autocratic setup where they simply hope to clear any doubts thru their manifestations. In an interview, a reporter asked if Bishop Mercado would produce receipts, and he answered: “Are we required to present it to you? Why are we required to present it to you? What do you mean by transparency? Do we need to be transparent to you?”

Unfortunately, the Bishop is right. In a Canonical (accountability) perspective, he is not obliged to present these receipts for public consumption. The reporter had a public (accountability) perspective in asking for the financial receipts. The reporter could have asked if Bishop Mercado would be willing to be audited by an external, independent, reputable accounting firm but even at that, the Bishop is not obliged to submit to this.

Time and time again, the Church has always been hounded by accountability problems but there has never been a clear and unified effort to establish a system to facilitate transparency and accountability in order to systematically restore trust. Most of the problems are handled in a case-by-case basis and many are left to the Bishop to initiate their own investigation. Most are not trained and none are compelled to set up an office to act as ombudsman. Many cases are left unresolved. Few realize that adopting reasonable public accountability principles would actually strengthen the Diocese and save the leadership grief when problems occur.

There are a number of dioceses and parishes who have adopted some public accountability principles. Many of these take their own initiatives since the Cannon Laws empower the bishop to do so.

Kaya Natin Movement has recently partnered with the Diocese of Novaliches to create an initiative to encourage parishes to engage the Barangay towards good governance. The effort is just in its starting stage (a little over a year). But the Diocese of Novaliches chose to initiate internal reforms before they ventured to advocate good governance in the Barangay.

Bishop Tobias of the Diocese of Novaliches adopted budget hearings to review parish budgets. Lately, Fr. Antonio Labiao, Vicar General of the Diocese of Novaliches, describes how they have slowly made these changes in order to improve their management. He describes how the clergy are initially not used to these processes but later on turns out to become better administrators.

The St. Peter Shrine in Commonwealth was recently declared as a “Shrine of Leadership.” This is an excellent move for the Diocese of Novaliches. As the clergy delve into leadership development, I am sure they will also appreciate how principles of accountability and transparency will increase their influence and pastoral effectivity.

Kaya Natin has taken a subservient role in supporting them spread the advocacy with the other dioceses. During the Clergy Summint for Good Governance held from March 15 to 17, 2012 at San Carlos Seminary, there were 38 dioceses in attendance. The social action directors were adamant about pursuing good governance and we have yet to follow thru with the demand we have cultivated.

During the summit, Bishop Tony Tobias, in his homily said, “This advocacy towards good governance is also an inward journey for the church.”

In the movie entitled Luther, Martin Luther’s Augustinian spiritual adviser and friend said, “Martin, I hoped you'd help reform the church, not destroy it. With all its sins, the church is still the church... I beg you to look to the good.” Luther would later on be quoted to say, “I have always sought Christian unity but not under servitude.” Martin Luther lost control of the reform movement as the spiritual upheaval and war spread from country to country.

Today, all of the clergy would agree with Luther that the Bible should be read by the ordinary man and that buying indulgences are an abomination of Christian Faith. But the challenge for reform is still there in a different context.

This is an excellent opportunity for the country. As of 2005, the Philippines is the third largest Catholic population in the world (69M catholics, 82% of Population) next only to Brazil and Mexico. If our Bishops can take the initiative to establish accountability measures in the Church, we can be known in history as the country that strengthened the Roman Catholic Church.

As the Good Governance fever sweeps the country, the church is now in a good position to demonstrate good leadership as well.

Does your parish exercise accountability practices?

Comments are welcome at [email protected] or private message through Facebook. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jesslorenzo for stories of good governance.

Jess Lorenzo is currently the program director of Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership's public health initiatives. @kayanatin on Twitter

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