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Theodore McCarrick has been stripped of his status as cardinal for pursuing young men throughout his clerical career. “­Uncle Ted” liked to take his “nephews” to bed with him. The public revelations of this fact evoked outrage. It was not so much that a churchman sinned as that he did so with impunity, protected by the see-no-evil mentality and, perhaps, the complicity of those who have their own secrets to keep. The anger was further stoked by an initial wave of denials. McCarrick’s protégés—some now bishops—ran for cover, insisting they knew nothing about his misdeeds.

I was not shocked by the news. I entered the Catholic Church in 2004, two years after clerical sex abuse of adolescent boys and its cover-up were exposed in Boston. We learned that many of the bishops of the United States—perhaps nearly all during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—did little to root out priests who preyed upon boys and adolescents. Men who made a habit of grooming altar boys as sexual prey were shuttled from one parish to another. Pressure was exerted to keep aggrieved parents silent. Victims were stiff-armed. Insofar as there was strenuous episcopal effort, it was devoted to keeping a festering problem secret. The recently released Pennsylvania Grand Jury report deepens our knowledge of this pattern of behavior.

The moral corruption and the failure of those in charge to deal with it properly is disheartening but, for me, ­unsurprising. From 1990 until 2010, I taught at a Jesuit University and was privy to insider gossip. The Irish philosopher William Desmond recounted some of his experiences as a young scholar visiting Fordham in the 1970s. The main debate in the Jesuit dining room concerned whether or not sodomy constituted a violation of the vow of celibacy. Some priests took the line that celibacy concerns the conjugal act, not sterile sex between men. A friend who spent time as a Jesuit novice during that slouching decade told me that novice masters regarded homo­sexual relations as healthy, even necessary for proper priestly formation. Sometimes the novice masters insisted that they be the agents of this “formation.”

The passing of the decades brought changes. I don’t think there is quite the same spirit of open experimentation abroad in the Church today, not even among Jesuits, though I may be too sanguine. Since the revelations about McCarrick, a number of younger men have recounted hair-raising stories about their experiences in corrupt seminaries, events that took place after 2002 and public outrage about clerical sexual abuse. Whether or not things have gotten better—and, again, I think they have—the past shapes the present. It wasn’t long ago that homosexual sex wasn’t just tolerated among clergy; it was protected. And it still is in some quarters, as McCarrick’s career indicates. Were it not for revelations about sex with a minor and abuse of power, he would have remained a much-feted ecclesiastical eminence. He was part of a much larger quasi secret about gay clergy that implicates even the best of men, undermining them in the way that unaddressed, openly tolerated corruption destroys the morale of any unit.

A debilitating toleration has characterized the Church for decades. Since the widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae in 1968, the Church’s leadership has been reluctant to speak strongly and regularly on behalf of Christian sexual morality. In 2003, the Jesuit moral theologian James Keenan testified against a Massachusetts constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, saying that such a measure is contrary to the Church’s insistence upon the human dignity of homosexuals. Fr. James Martin, also of the Society of ­Jesus, pursues a similar pro-gay line. Some bishops use their power over seminary appointments to keep these views out of the immediate environment of priestly formation. But most don’t have the confidence to confront Keenan, Martin, and others in public, not wanting to appear “anti-gay.” Unlike the Mormons, who risked a great deal in the 2008 Prop 8 battle over gay marriage in California, the institutional Church stayed on the sidelines.

McCarrick’s rise to power is evidence of moral resignation. As Darel Paul shows (“Culture War as Class War,” August/September 2018), homosexuality has become a privileged sexual preference, demanding the most aggressive efforts to protect it from any hint of discrimination. The church establishment is anxious not to get on the wrong side of that elite cultural consensus. Don’t get me wrong. I’m confident the old, lax approach to clerical sex with minors is a thing of the past. The official letters and memos reproduced in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report offer a window on the way outside pressure broke down episcopal efforts to keep the corruption of clerical predation on young boys in the shadows. The public shame of the Boston revelations and the financial pressure of lawsuits forced change. Yet among church leaders there’s no stomach for a battle over gay sex between consenting adults, not even when one of them is a clergyman. Narrowing McCarrick’s transgressions to sex with minors and abuse of power accords with our culture’s morality of consent. This approach indicates that the ecclesiastical establishment wants to operate on safe, secular terrain, not the Church’s tradition, which has become painfully controversial.

This moral retreat and resignation explains the ethos of toleration, even protection, that characterized ­McCarrick’s career. If a seminarian discovers that one of his professors is embezzling funds, he can report the misdeed to a superior, confident that the leadership of the Church shares the ordinary moral view that theft is wrong, and that it harms the Church’s apostolic mission when done by clerical leaders. But if he discovers that a professor takes vacations to Thailand, where boys are readily available, or discretely maintains a male lover, I doubt he’d say anything to anybody. He cannot be confident that the seminary rector will regard such news as actionable—as McCarrick’s career shows.

In fact, the seminarian is likely to conclude that he will be punished for invading his professor’s privacy and disrupting the uneasy peace that so many churchmen have made with the sexual revolution, and especially with homo­sexuality. For the most part, those in positions of responsibility do not like to have their consciences troubled, especially if it means having to choose between open-eyed acquiescence to corruption or making hard decisions that bring controversy. Someone who forces this reckoning is rarely welcomed. Thus grows a culture of denial, one capable of suppressing unpleasant and inconvenient truths—the church culture in which “everybody knows” and nobody takes responsibility.

Deeper Causes

There are many good men in the American Catholic hierarchy, just as there are many good priests (including good Jesuits). But they pursue their ministry within a ­post–­­Vatican II regime that limits their best efforts. A “regime” is not just a system of explicit laws and articulated policies. It’s an atmosphere of opinion. I’ve noted one dimension: that of moral resignation, the despairing judgment that there’s not much one can do about the sexual revolution.

Another aspect of the post–Vatican II ecclesiastical regime stems from something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxious desire to avoid the return of the chaos that characterized the years after Vatican II. The bishops who looked away as McCarrick diddled came of age during those years of disruption. As parish priests and seminary rectors on their way up, they had to manage the intense passions unleashed by Vatican II that threatened to tear the Church apart. Like children of divorced parents, their ministry was consumed by the need to hold things together. In 1977, after a decade of radical experimentation and Lefebvrite reaction, Paul VI formulated the imperative that became predominant: “It is necessary to avoid ­opposing extremisms.”

Paul VI saw this as an imperative of unity, but it quickly became a managerial response, a defensive posture that temporizes, looks the other way, and keeps things light and cheerful whenever possible. Realities on the ground encourage this approach. Today’s bishops try to stand astride an increasingly fragmented Church. There are social justice parishes and Latin Mass parishes. Some major Catholic donors are ardent Democrats and support abortion on demand and doctor-assisted suicide; others are equally ardent Republicans and won’t support anything remotely associated with the culture of death. Some major dioceses have gay parishes on the front lines of sexual liberation. Other parishes now rebel against the compromises of the post–Vatican II era in the direction of restored tradition. In the face of this, the dominant impulse is to do whatever it takes to hold things together. This includes avoiding another round of conflict over sexual morality, which is one reason why McCarrick’s pursuit of men was tolerated. After Humanae Vitae, the battle-scarred episcopacy for the most part has tried to avoid criticizing sex between consenting adults.

Aspects of the long papacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI encouraged this approach. The Polish pope rattled his sword, threatening to put the Society of Jesus into ­ecclesiastical receivership. In the end, there was no purge of the leadership of the Society of Jesus. John Paul II was satisfied with a mild moderation of anti-magisterial rhetoric. This pattern was often repeated. Some of the craziness of the decade after Vatican II was sidelined. The pope declared the question of female priests closed, for example. But religious orders, theology faculties, and other organs of the Church did as they pleased, which is why every issue the JPII and Benedict pontificates seemed to have settled is now being relitigated. Veritatis Splendor is of no moment; revisionist moral theology returns. Dominus Iesus is a dead letter; the spirit of “dialogue” rules.

As we look back after five years of Pope Francis, it’s clear that the JPII-Benedict era was one of talking loudly but carrying a small stick. Those two great popes followed Paul VI’s middle way, trying to buttress traditional elements of the Catholic faith over and against revisionist radicalism while accommodating all but the most extreme versions of liberal Catholicism. It was characteristic of John Paul II to found something new (the Institute on Marriage and Family, for example) or frame the orthodox case in a winsome fashion (Theology of the Body). He believed in the power of “yes,” doing an end run around entrenched opposition rather than confronting dissent directly.

The achievements of the JPII-Benedict era were real but limited. The mode of governance that seeks to “avoid opposing extremisms” froze into place the factions of the 1970s, which is why so much of Francis’s pontificate has a retro feeling as those factions are unfrozen by his wild rhetorical extremism. The “hermeneutic of continuity,” as Ratzinger called the JPII-Benedict form of post–Vatican II Catholicism, was never imposed.

John Paul II adopted a relatively light-handed approach to governance because he trusted in the genius of Vatican II. He believed that the pastoral power of its genuinely Christian humanism would, over time, unify the Church—and leaven the West. In that sense, Pope Francis is similar, though of course he has different views about Vatican II and a more authoritarian style. (Francis, unlike John Paul II, is willing to purge his adversaries.) Benedict became more skeptical about Vatican II (as have I). But he, too, ruled liberally, policing boundaries at times, but mostly adopting Paul VI’s keep-it-together approach. He encouraged what he thought would provide the future Church with solid foundations (a restored liturgy, especially), while living with the irksome dissenters, some very highly placed, as best he could.

I long believed this was a prudent approach. The John Paul II generation of priests foretold a healthier, more faithful Church. We were to encourage this fresh leaven, which over time would transform the Church. In the meantime, we would simply have to put up with post–­Vatican II ­geriatrics and their guitars, the dissenting theology faculties, and Jesuits off the reservation. A lavender mafia in the chancery? Perhaps a similar approach is necessary. In any event, we believed that these problems would be solved when the JPII generation assumed power.

Consoling as this narrative was, it turned out to be too consoling. We used it to divert our attention from the hard, depressing realities of the present. Which is all too understandable! In all likelihood, the vast system of parochial schools is a lost cause, a prisoner of apathy more than dissent. Catholic universities incubate a culture of dissent and will do so for the foreseeable future. Social justice ministries will continue to reduce the gospel to progressive politics. It seems impossible to escape banal post–Vatican II liturgies. These are things “everybody knows.”

As I look back, I can see that I’ve cultivated, at least in part, a sensibility not unlike that which prevented our bishops from facing hard choices. When it comes to hard truths, I’ve also tended to look the other way, focusing on nurturing the seeds of the future rather than grappling with the failures and corruptions of the present, most of which seem impossible to fix. This is how we have tried to survive spiritually in a crippled Church. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and McCarrick now make that approach impossible. (Last-minute addendum: The Viganò letter makes continuing in the old mode absolutely impossible.) We can no longer look away.

A dread of exhaustion and defeat has been the subterranean spiritual tone of the Church in the West since Vatican II. The Council proclaimed a new dawn, but in fact it brought a twilight of conflict and confusion: men leaving the priesthood, the collapse of clerical vocations, a ­betrayed liturgy, flight from eternal truths, and, in the view of some, dashed hopes for a grand, Teilhardian ­fusion. The twilight has been ongoing. Bishops are numbed by the immediate challenges they face—broken budgets and clerical shortages. They sense the fragility of even the best parishes in prosperous suburbs. Will they collapse as quickly as the now vacant urban ethnic parish that once seemed the invulnerable foundation of American Catholic culture?

These and other dark thoughts paralyze our spiritual imaginations. Our standards decline—as we see in the shameful tolerance of McCarrick’s misdeeds. Survival becomes good enough. John Paul II sensed the spiritual poverty of this reaction, which is why he urged us to be not afraid.

It is painful to acknowledge that homosexual license among the clergy is tolerated even at the highest levels of the Church. Don’t we have troubles enough? Facing up to what McCarrick did will explode the hold-things-together approach, thank goodness.

The temptation to avoid knowing (or to cover up) is powerful. This is how the ecclesiastical regime of our time works, not just when it comes to clerical malfeasance, but across a wide range of issues. This regime needs to be dismantled. We can’t patch our broken ecclesiastical culture. We need to face up to the hard truths.

Pope Francis has spoken of the Church as a field hospital. The image is misguided. In truth, the Church is in a field hospital, being attended by clerical doctors who do not recognize that they no longer have much time. They can’t order more tests or take a wait-and-see approach. They must act decisively.

What Comes Next?

Because the nation was so young, America’s nineteenth-century bishops were uniquely powerful and important. They did not inherit the theological faculties, cathedral chapters, and entailed endowments that hemmed in the authority of bishops in Europe. In missionary territory, they were not subject to European canon law. Due to slow communication with Rome, American bishops had a plenary authority, which the best of them used to build up the remarkable infrastructure of Catholicism in the United States, the glory of which was the parochial school system.

That power remains intact, in theory, but it has become ineffectual in fact. The postwar trend toward centralization contributed to an entrenched, sclerotic episcopal establishment—a system of preferment, chancery bureaucracies, parochial school commissions, real estate departments, and other diocesan commissions. After Vatican II, the bishop’s conference created a national bureaucracy.

This bishop-centered establishment is failing, as the outrageous tolerance of McCarrick’s widely known sexual escapades makes obvious. In truth, it’s been failing for decades. The problem isn’t just waste, fraud, and abuse—the usual vices of big bureaucratic entities. The parochial school system spun out of episcopal control shortly after Vatican II, and no bishop in a major diocese has succeeded in regaining control. The reasons are many, including the fact that many Catholic families prefer it that way. But the fact remains. Nominally, the bishops are in charge, but they are without consequence. This is not true just within the schools but throughout the system. In some instances, entire diocesan offices and ancillary organizations are staffed with dissidents. The ecclesiastical establishment of the American Church is crippled by spiritual paralysis. Paul VI’s imperative—avoid opposing extremisms—has put the bishop at the center of a self-canceling contest between the factions created by the Second Vatican Council.

This paralysis is evident in what’s happened in recent decades. Unlike the American Church before World War II, no important initiatives over the last fifty years have come from bishops or chanceries. An influential venture after Vatican II was the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. It was an educational experiment without any connection to the institutional Church. The evangelical efforts of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) have had episcopal encouragement, but it is a lay-led project that depends upon lay missionaries who raise their own money.

There have been similar grassroots initiatives elsewhere, always on the margins of the church establishment and sometimes in direct conflict with entrenched interests. We are in the midst of an educational revolution in the Catholic Church, one prosecuted by Catholic parents who take the religious formation of their children into their own hands. Some are homeschooling their children. Others are forming Catholic great books schools and academies that stand as alternatives to theologically vacant parochial systems.

The same holds for public leadership. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has largely failed to offer ­effective public leadership since Vatican II. Instead, lay-led initiatives and projects have come to the fore. The pro-life movement has succeeded in spite of efforts by some leading bishops to stymie its influence with talk of a “seamless garment.” Lay Catholics and lay-funded, stand-alone organizations took the lead in the same-sex marriage debate. There are at this point very few clerical voices of public consequence in American public life. That role is instead played by lay Catholics such as Garry Wills, George ­Weigel, and Ross Douthat. This magazine is not in any way connected with the institutional Church.

A recent episode epitomizes our situation, illustrating what’s failing—and where the future of the Church will be shaped. Some young friends of mine recently tried to open a lay-run, Catholic great books school. Archdiocesan school officials resisted their efforts and refused to make a vacant parochial school available at anything less than market rent. Facing declining enrollments and tight budgets, the old parochial system fights for survival.

But there’s good news. This tussle over a school building came to pass only because there are committed Catholic parents alive to present-day realities. They do not want to send their children to existing parochial schools, which are ineffective in passing on the faith. And in this case they gathered themselves to take action and overcome the resistance from the failing, bishop-centered establishment. The Neumann Classical School recently opened in ­Tuckahoe, New York.

There are many young Catholic parents making the same decision as my friends did in Westchester County. They are starting new schools and sidestepping the ecclesiastical establishment. The same thing is happening in higher education. Two generations ago, almost all Catholic parents trusted the established Catholic colleges and universities. That’s not true today. As a consequence, brave souls venture new foundations. Here, as in so many other spheres of contemporary Catholic life, the spirit of initiative moves away from episcopal control.

This migration does not suggest an anti-clerical impulse. New projects are often undertaken in close cooperation with clergy. Moreover, priests themselves often recognize the need to “freelance.” I know of priests who would like to reform the liturgies in their parishes and launch new initiatives, but the keep-it-together mentality in the chancery blocks them. They’re told not to rock the boat. After McCarrick, they should not wait for orders from HQ. The bishops have squandered their theological authority. Say you’re sorry, if needed, but don’t ask for permission.

Parishes can flourish in today’s climate of anger about feckless episcopal leadership, and they will if priests are bold and willing to take some risks. (The same holds for bishops.) For the last fifty years, angry liberals have found spiritual strength in social justice parishes that aren’t afraid to get sideways with the local bishop. Those of us whose theological convictions turn the other way need to learn from their experience. Any priest who thinks he should be celebrating the Mass ad orientem should make the change. Angry laymen like me are hungry for stalwart action on behalf of liturgical and theological integrity. We’re tired of “avoiding opposing extremisms,” a mentality that was perhaps fitting for a period of time, but which has decayed into mediocrity and paralysis.

Religious orders and newer lay ecclesial movements operate independently of the commissions, offices, and committees directly controlled by bishops. The priest and lay affiliates of these orders, as well as members of ecclesial movement, are free agents within the Church. Their roles on the peripheries of the bishop-dominated establishment in the American Church will become more and more important in coming years. The anarchy will leave the field open for bad things to happen. Marcial Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ offer a sober warning and a reminder of the necessity of superordinate ecclesiastical authority. But good will come as well, emerging from initiatives, movements, and projects outside the Church’s establishment, as so much already has.

Specific things need to be done. (1) An investigative commission must chronicle McCarrick’s misdeeds and expose those who helped him evade proper church discipline, whether by sins of commission or omission. That commission must have lay members of weight and integrity. (2) The bishops must impose upon themselves the strict standards for dealing with clerical sexual abuse that they formulated for priests after the Boston crisis of 2002. (3) Canon lawyers need to design a mechanism to protect priests and seminarians who come forward to report sexual misconduct—and to ensure that it is addressed rather than ignored, as it was in the case of McCarrick.

We need to be clear-minded about the future. These particular remedies will not in themselves bring justice to victims. They will not repair the spiritual damage done by this summer’s revelations. Nor will they remedy the many other failures of our ecclesiastical status quo. The Church has a supernatural constitution, one that establishes the three-fold order of bishop, priest, and deacon. No amount of mismanagement or malfeasance changes this supernatural order, nor should it. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in the deposit of revelation that says the bishop and his bureaucracy must be the source of spiritual renewal—or that we need their permission to do the Lord’s work in our time. We are moving toward an anti-­establishment ecclesiastical culture, one in which the bishops have a less important role. Their canonical authority will remain intact. They are and will always be the governing authority in their dioceses. But they will lose their moral and spiritual authority. They already have.

It’s up to us to rebuild that moral and spiritual authority, which inheres in the Body of Christ as a whole.

while we’re at it

♦ As we were preparing this issue for publication, ­Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò released a long letter detailing the toleration of McCarrick’s moral corruption, toleration that reaches to the highest levels of the Church. Former papal nuncio to the United States, Viganò was in a position to know. His credible accusations make our situation all the more urgent. We must dismantle the entrenched leadership of the Church, including what seems to be an inner circle of corrupt ecclesiastical eminences who ­dominate the current pontificate with the pope’s knowledge and approval.

♦ I am not demoralized by these revelations about church leaders. My mood is quite the opposite, in fact. A clerical friend observed after the McCarrick revelations: “Over the last generation it’s been far more fatal to your career to say the Mass in Latin than to groom seminarians as love-boys.” Viganò’s letter underlines that assessment. We cannot control the secular world and its progressive ­crusaders, who present us with many challenges. But because of the courage of men like Viganò, we can see that God is preserving the Church. His revelations empower all of us to do what is necessary to purify the Church. This is encouraging.

♦ When Judge Amy Barrett’s name appeared on the short list to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, Michael Sean ­Winters saw it as an opportunity to denounce “the conservative Catholic legal establishment” that Barrett ­supposedly represents. He bemoaned the way in which controversialists (not himself, of course) played up ­Barrett’s Catholic commitments. “Once again,” he wrote, “the role of Catholics in public life is reduced to issues of pelvic theo­logy.” That’s a peculiar way to describe a commitment to the sanctity of life. After all, Barrett aroused ­anxiety among liberals because they perceived her to be anti-abortion and thus poised to overturn Roe. It appears that ­Michael Sean Winters regards unborn children as collateral damage in today’s sexual politics (“pelvic theology”) rather than as proper objects of moral concern in their own right.

♦ A friend and I were recently discussing the sources of our “me”-oriented culture. He pointed out that after World War II, many who went on to shape culture were in New York and Hollywood, where they went through years of psychoanalysis. As a consequence, their most ­extended period of sustained reflection involved deep thinking about themselves.

♦ Paul Griffiths recently chastised me for suggesting that we’re in a period of moral decline. No, he said, that’s an inverted progressivism. Both are false. It is not the case that things get better or worse. Instead, historical change is best understood as a redistribution of evils.

♦ Solzhenitsyn put the point differently: “It is up to us to stop seeing Progress (which cannot be stopped by anyone or anything) as a stream of unlimited blessings”— he could have said “curses”—“and to view it rather as a gift from on high, sent down for an extremely intricate trial of our free will.”

♦ Russell Kirk’s memoir, The Sword of the Imagination, was my beach reading this summer. I was entranced by his idiosyncratic prose, “oldfangled” in diction, image, and expression. The Mecostan knight errant charmed me, which was not the case when I first picked up Kirk thirty years ago. He seemed then a conjurer rather than a thinker, always evoking “Permanent Things” but never defining them and stating them as clear principles. Over the years, perhaps I’ve gained some wisdom. Reading Newman has helped me see the limits of rigorous argument: “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds ­inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” This is as much a political truth as a religious one, as Kirk recognized. We imagine politics is driven by rational calculations of self-interest. This is true to some extent, “but the world really is governed, in any age, not by rationality, but by emotion: by love, loyalty, faith, and imagination.” We do vote our interests; yet it is the imagination—our endeavors to depict life’s larger purposes—that allows us to identify our interests in the first place.

♦ A new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reports that only a tiny percentage of heterosexual men or women would consider a romantic relationship with a transgendered person. You don’t say.

♦ John Lynn Gullickson would like to form a ROFTERS group in Las Vegas, Nevada. Contact him at Prudence Robertson is forming a group to meet in Steubenville, Ohio. You can join by dropping her an email at