After a month out of the country, working in Rome at Synod-2018 and helping mark the fortieth anniversary of John Paul II’s election at events in Brussels and Warsaw, I came home to find Catholic anger over the latest phase of the abuse crisis unabated and intensified in some quarters. That this crisis is not acknowledged for what it is by the highest authorities in Rome is a subject for another reflection at another time. The question today is: What are the roots of today’s Catholic anger and disgust?
Part of the answer to that, surely, is exhaustion. Why must we go through this again? Wasn’t the Long Lent of 2002 enough? Weren’t things fixed then?
Those whose anger is stoked by these understandable questions might have a look at a recent and thoughtful article by Kenneth Woodward in Commonweal. Woodward understands that ripping the cover off the serial sexual predations of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, triggered a gag-reflex among the Catholic laity that seems to have been bred out of at least some Catholic clergy, both here in the United States and in Rome. But the longtime religion editor of Newsweek also identifies another factor in today’s Catholic rage that ought to cause all of us to pause and think for a moment. Writing about the Pennsylvania grand jury report that sent Catholic anger through the roof this summer, my friend Woodward made a crucial point:
…the way Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented the report—and the way it was often described in the press—made it easy to assume that the grand jury had unearthed three hundred new clerical abusers, when in fact most of the abuse covered in the report occurred in the last century and roughly eight out of ten of the alleged abusers are dead. It was easy to overlook the good news in an otherwise disheartening report—namely, that since the U.S. bishops established stringent new procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse in 2003, only two priests from the seven dioceses studied have been accused.
The “narrative” of an ongoing, widespread, and unaddressed rape culture in the Catholic Church in the United States is false. There are still abusive Catholic clergy in America; they must be rooted out and dismissed from the ministry. There are still bishops who don’t get it and they, too, must go. But as one state attorney general after another finds political hay to be made by investigating the Catholic past, it is essential that Catholics understand that a lot of the awfulness that is going to keep coming out—both in terms of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops—was in the past. Effective anger today will focus on the present. And it will not be limited to local situations but will include the obtuseness (and worse) of officials in Rome.
Digging deeper, one hits another question: Why were so many Catholics, who don’t believe much else they read in the papers or see on TV, so ready to believe the misrepresentations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with pent-up Catholic anger with clerical narcissism.
A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.
At the same time, it must be remembered that most priests and bishops in the United States are not narcissists: rather, they’re men with a deep sense of vocation who know they’re earthen vessels through whom flows unmerited but superabundant divine grace. Those men deserve our support, affection, and gratitude as they, like the rest of us, deal with the fallout of this season of humiliation and purification.
As for the narcissists, they need help—and disciplining.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.