The whole course of Christianity from the first ... is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing ... Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony.
-Blessed John Henry Newman, Via Media (1834)
John Henry Newman’s tart view of the ongoing mess that is the history of the Church was written when he was still an Anglican, but it seems unlikely that his sense of things changed materially after he entered the Catholic Church—indeed, it probably intensified. Nonetheless, Newman’s panoramic, if mordant, overview of Christian history can be consoling whenever Catholicism finds itself in crisis, as it surely does now. Things have undoubtedly been worse than they are today. And for all the muck, pain, and anger of today’s Catholic crisis of sexually abusive clergy and failed ecclesiastical leadership, the Church has not been abandoned by its Lord or by the Holy Spirit. Many good and life-giving things happen throughout the world Church every day: the sacraments are celebrated and grace is bestowed; sins are forgiven and wounded souls healed; those with nowhere to go find a home. And in its social doctrine the Church continues to bear a message that an increasingly incoherent postmodern world badly needs to hear.
But let’s not have too much consolation, please, on the eve of the eve of the meeting of Church leaders called by Pope Francis to look at the abuse crisis in global perspective. Catholicism needs to confront the full reality of this crisis “with the bark off,” as Lyndon Baines Johnson used to say. And it has to confront the crisis in a distinctively biblical and Catholic context, not according to story lines already being hawked by various interest groups, on social media, and in the world press.
The Body of Christ in the world is sick. And in addressing an illness that is making the Church’s primary missions of evangelization and sanctification ever more difficult, the caution observed by all serious physicians, “First, do no harm,” is worth keeping in mind. For that adage reminds us that accurate diagnosis is the beginning of real cure.
What will four days of deliberations by the presidents of over one hundred national and regional bishops’ conferences, meeting with the leadership of an often-dysfunctional Roman Curia, produce by way of specific reforms? No one knows, and the safer bet would be “not much.” Such a diverse group, examining a complex set of problems that presents itself in different ways in different ecclesial contexts, is not going to come up with a comprehensive menu of reforms that satisfactorily addresses the crisis in full. The prudent hope would be that the “Meeting for the Protection of Minors” will at least get the problem right. The more hopeful expectation is that by February 25, it will be understood, here in Rome and throughout the world Church, that different local churches are going to have to deal with the abuse crisis in distinctive ways, given their different situations and the widely divergent capacities of local churches. An even more hopeful expectation would be that those parts of the world Church that have barely begun to recognize the crisis of clerical sexual abuse (e.g., Latin America) will begin to understand that there are things to be learned from local churches that have gotten to grips with the crisis, however imperfectly (e.g., the United States).
With that range of possible outcomes in mind, what might reasonably be expected from this week’s four-day meeting, both in terms of getting the problem right and in identifying important pieces of the solution to it?
If this papally-summoned meeting facilitates agreement on the following ten points, it ought to be reckoned a considerable success.
1) Sexual abuse, whether of minors or vulnerable adults, is a global plague. No society is immune from it: The plague takes a variety of forms, including the 21st-century slavery of sex-trafficking, and the plague’s metastases touch virtually every institution in the world, not just (or even primarily) the Catholic Church. The sexual free-fire zone created over the past sixty years by the sexual revolution, which has been empowered by a contraceptive culture that reduces sex to a mere contact sport, has wrought havoc in individual lives and has warped entire societies.
2) Institutionally speaking, the Church may once have thought that the discipline on which it long prided itself rendered the Catholic clergy relatively invulnerable to the sexual revolution; that fantasy can no longer be indulged. The corruptions and perversions of the sexual revolution have seeped into the Church, not unlike the “smoke of Satan” to which Pope St . Paul VI referred in a homily on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1972. The Church must not, however, blame this vulnerability, and the evil that has come into Catholicism because of it, on “the world.” That is too easy. A truly Catholic understanding of what we now face will recognize that the fundamental issue in today’s crisis is fidelity—fidelity to the truths inscribed in the embodied human person by the Creator; fidelity to the gospel, which demands respect for the dignity of everyone; and fidelity to the Catholic ethic of human love, which is rooted in biblical revelation and has been refined by moral reason for almost two millennia.
Sexually abusive behavior by clergy preying on minors is one gut-wrenching expression of this crisis of fidelity. The Church’s crisis of fidelity is not limited to “minors,” however, and while the protection of vulnerable children and young people is essential in addressing the crisis, it is insufficient. The crisis of fidelity also involves consensual adult sexual relations, either heterosexual or homosexual, by clerics who have promised God and the Church to live lives of celibate chastity. The crisis involves the failures of all the people of the Church, in whatever station of life, married or single, to live chastity in what Pope St. John Paul II called “the integrity of love.” And the crisis involves the failure of the Church’s chief teachers, its bishops, to teach the Catholic ethic of human love effectively, to enforce discipline among the clergy, and to call the laity to be exemplars of chaste love in a world that has increasingly succumbed to a false promise of sexual liberation.
In this biblical and theological perspective, the “solution” to today’s crisis is not going to be found in “best practices” alone, as important as pastoral and structural reform and competent management are in the Church. The “solution” is a deeper conversion to Christ by every Catholic. And that deeper conversion includes a more radical, thoroughgoing embrace of the Church’s ethic of human love. That, in turn, means that those who dissent from the Catholic sexual ethic, whether their dissent involves heterosexual or homosexual relations, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. For intellectual dissembling in the Church has indisputably facilitated behavioral dysfunction (to put it gently).
3) The causes of sexually dysfunctional, abusive, and predatory personalities are as various as the personalities involved in abuse. Clericalism—the wicked exploitation of the authority Catholics recognize in their ordained ministers and leaders as one effect of the sacrament of Holy Orders—is a facilitator of clerical sexual abuse, not its cause. Clericalism makes it easier for sexually dysfunctional clergy to become sexual predators; that is why clericalism has no place in a Church that teaches that the sacrament of Holy Orders is “ordered” to service, not power. To blame sexual abuse on “clericalism,” though, is to confuse facilitation with causality.
4) The celibacy to which Latin-rite Catholic priests and bishops pledge themselves is not the problem, and the ordination of viri probati (mature married men) to the priesthood is not the solution to the abuse crisis. Clerical sexual abuse is at least as much a problem in Protestant denominations with a married clergy as it is in the Catholic Church; it may be more of a problem, in that empirical studies suggest that the ultimate horror of the sexual abuse of the young is that most of it takes place within families. Moreover, marriage, as the Catholic Church understands it, is not a crime-prevention program; a Church struggling to proclaim the beauty and dignity of marriage should not suggest that it is.
5) In Latin-rite Catholicism, living celibacy well is the solution—and it must be recognized that that challenging way of life is becoming ever more difficult throughout the world. The Western sexual free-fire zone places heavy demands on those living celibate chastity (as it does on those living marital chastity). Celibate love is also a challenge in traditional societies where the exploitation of women by men is a deeply ingrained cultural habit. The LGBT revolution poses its own challenges, and not only in the West. All of this underscores the imperative of the most careful scrutiny of potential candidates for the priesthood, the further and deeper reform of seminary formation for celibate love, and the necessity of ongoing personal and professional development programs for those who have been ordained.
6) Bishops must be held accountable to the standards of behavior to which they hold their priests and to which they call the laity entrusted to their care. This requires the recovery of the ancient practice of fraternal correction of bishops by brother-bishops, and the development of mechanisms by which incompetent, malfeasant, or corrupt bishops can be readily removed from office. The Catholic Church spent the better part of two hundred years wresting control of the appointment of bishops from various state authorities, so that the Church could choose its principal leaders by its own evangelical and pastoral criteria. Having claimed the right to choose its own leadership, the Church must now own the responsibility for disciplining that leadership—and changing it when the evangelical and pastoral good of the Church requires change.
7) Effective episcopal leadership of the priests of a diocese demands that the local bishop treat his brother-priests as sons and friends, not as chattels or employees. A bishop who knows his priests well, who thinks of his priests as a presbyteral college sharing responsibility for the evangelization and sanctification of the diocese, and who participates with his priests in programs of ongoing formation is far more likely to spot issues before they become problems—and far more likely to have the cooperation of his priests in dealing with problems when they occur.
8) Episcopal credibility in the Church (at least throughout the West) is at a low watermark—in part because of political grandstanding and media hostility, which have skewed Catholics’ perceptions of their leaders, but also and more fundamentally because of too many episcopal failures in governance. When episcopal credibility wanes, so does episcopal authority. Lay collaboration in the governance of the Church—collaboration that respects the bishop’s ultimate authority in the local Church but brings lay expertise to bear on the exercise of that authority—enhances episcopal credibility and thus strengthens the bishop’s authority. This lay collaboration will necessarily take different forms in different local churches. But the current Roman habit of dismissing as “Protestantizing” any proposals for lay collaboration in the local bishop’s exercise of authority with priests, and in the bishops’ exercise of correction among themselves, must end.
9) Being a bishop in the Catholic Church today is a very tough job. Choosing the right men for that job is not easy. Those choices will be better made when the pool of those consulted about a priest’s fitness for the episcopate is broadened to include knowledgeable lay people—a rare occurrence today. Lay people, and especially lay women, see both capacities and deficiencies in their pastors that priests and bishops often miss. There is no way out of the current Catholic crisis without credible and effective episcopal leadership; finding that leadership will be facilitated by involving knowledgeable, orthodox lay men and women in the process.
10) Resolving today’s Catholic crisis—which is a crisis of chastity and a crisis of leadership—is thus everyone’s responsibility, because the renewal of holiness in the Church and the effective proclamation of the gospel are everyone’s responsibility.
- Xavier Rynne II
THE DIFFERENCE THE McCARRICK LAICIZATION MAKES
by George Weigel
On Saturday, February 16, the Holy See announced that the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore Edgar McCarrick, had been “dismissed from the clerical state”—laicized—for the grave ecclesiastical crimes of sexual solicitation in the confessional and the sexual abuse of minors, compounded by the abuse of authority. Within a few hours, the Washington Post had a story up on its Web site, asking, in effect, so what? Or as a former Church employee put it to Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein, “The reality is that, leaving aside the issue of embarrassment, and I’d be cautious on that, what difference does it make to McCarrick?....Realistically, when we think of justice, what will he experience? And he will know in his heart of hearts that he’s still a priest.”
The last, of course, is true enough, in that neither the wickedness in which Theodore McCarrick engaged, nor the penal action of the Church, has destroyed the sacramental character he received on the day of his ordination. But what difference did his laicization make? Let me suggest an answer. The difference it made is that, two days ago, Theodore McCarrick did not celebrate Sunday Mass for what was likely the first time in sixty years, eight months, and two weeks.
I have no idea what Mr. McCarrick’s present mental condition is, although he is said to be suffering from dementia and is not fully aware of what has happened to him since last June, when his crimes were first publicly revealed. But if this man who exercised the ministry of priest for more than six decades has any awareness of his situation, no more damning sentence—no more crushing penalty—could be imagined than the prohibition of celebrating Mass. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the priesthood of the Catholic Church.
As my friend Robert Louis Wilken (who was a Missouri Synod Lutheran before entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in his seventh decade) has frequently observed, Lutheran pastors think of themselves primarily as teachers and Catholic priests don’t (which is one reason, Dr. Wilken ruefully suggests, why Lutheran pastors are generally much better preachers than Catholic priests). Catholic priests think of themselves primarily as celebrants and ministers of the sacraments. That is why a priest’s “first Mass” is such a tremendous occasion in his life: for to be the celebrant of Holy Mass is the very center of his vocational identity. The priesthood is many things, but the celebration of Mass is that for which virtually every seminarian longs during his years of preparation for Holy Orders. To be forbidden to celebrate Mass licitly, which is one facet of the sentence of laicization imposed by the Holy See on Theodore McCarrick and confirmed by the pope, is thus the ultimate penalty.
That’s one huge difference the penalty of laicization makes. And if there is anything of conscience left in Theodore McCarrick, he felt the sting of that sentence in an unimaginable way on Sunday, February 17. McCarrick was not my friend; quite the opposite, in fact. But I can only hope that if, in whatever diminished way, he feels the pain of being forbidden to function as a priest at the altar, that pain is purifying and cleansing. For at some point in the not too distant future, Theodore McCarrick will answer at the ultimate tribunal and before the final Judge for the many ways in which he betrayed and defaced the priesthood that was bestowed on him on May 31, 1958.
If the question, “What difference does it make?” has an answer, what about a further question: How did “McCarrick” happen? And by “McCarrick,” I mean the phenomenon and the career as well as the human personality.
The latter is, of course, finally impenetrable, but some obvious characteristics of the man should be reckoned with. Many (although I exclude myself from their company) found him engaging: a gregarious, nickname-confecting knock-off of the Irish Catholic hail-fellow-well-met priest of Hollywood lore. He had talent, including a capacity for hard work and a gift for languages. He was a prodigious fundraiser. His politics were generally indistinguishable from the Democratic Party orthodoxies of the moment, but he cared about religious freedom, serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. His approach to international conflict was too often reminiscent of Rodney (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) King; but I choose to believe that, beyond the narcissism that led him to insert himself as an (often self-appointed) envoy of the Church in difficult situations, he really did care about peaceful conflict resolution, especially among religious groups.
But he was also a psychopath. And a Church more alert to red flags about pathological personalities would have caught at least some of the signals. He was a shameless self-promoter, sending letters of blatant sycophancy to popes and other superiors and spreading money (raised from others) around projects he thought would win him favor in Rome and elsewhere. He was also brazen, carefully redacting a letter sent by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2004 so that the sharp edges of Ratzinger’s comments on pro-choice Catholics and the reception of holy communion were blunted to the point of invisibility.
It now seems reasonable to conclude that he defied the orders of Pope Benedict XVI to retire to a private life after financial settlements were reached with some of his abuse victims in the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark. Yet even after that, his brazenness extended to his attempts to influence both the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (where he tried to prevent the election of then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president in 2010) and the conclave of 2013 (although his cringe-inducing lecture on that conclave at Villanova University, still available on YouTube, was more self-promotion that accurate history). I have no doubt that he tried to give Pope Francis a warped view of the American Church as a reactionary throwback to pre-Vatican II days, led by right-wing bishops in cahoots with the Republican Party.
No one who knew Pope St. John Paul II—nor anyone who has studied his life, thought, and ministry—can imagine for a nanosecond that he would knowingly appoint a serial sexual predator as archbishop of Washington and a cardinal of the Church. That those appointments took place, however, points to deep flaws in the process of selecting bishops and cardinals that must be addressed by any serious Catholic reform in response to the current crisis: that process must be refined so that it becomes much less likely that pathological personalities can mislead men who reposed trust in them. There must also be a reckoning with the question of why, after McCarrick had been quickly retired as archbishop of Washington and told to lay low, he continued to “operate,” as he was wont to put it, in the Church and the world; for that was not a failure of perception, but of discipline.
Psychopaths can fool even astute and experienced leaders; that is one lesson that the Church must learn from its tawdry experiences with Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick. And there is another: Never underestimate the power of the Evil One in these matters. I once had a conversation about Maciel with the late Father Benedict Groeschel, a true Church reformer and a professional psychologist. After telling Father Benedict how I usually disliked reaching for the explanation, “He was demonically possessed,” because it seemed something of a dodge, I then said that the extraordinary character of the Maciel case did seem to point in that direction. So, admittedly from a distance and with no firsthand knowledge of the man, did Groeschel think Maciel might have been demonically possessed? Father Benedict thought a moment and said, “I would say, ‘demonically oppressed.’”
It was a fine distinction, the specifics of which I am happy to leave to competent theologians and mental health professionals. But I cannot exclude, and no one else should exclude, the work of the Evil One in pondering the terrible story of Theodore McCarrick. Was he demonically oppressed? What McCarrick did over a period of years to the young son of a family he had befriended arguably bespeaks wickedness of a more-than-natural sort. And so here is another lesson of the McCarrick case: Do not dismiss satanic interference in the world and the Church as cinematic fantasy. Be alert to it. The Evil One is real; he hates Christ and Christ’s Church, and his hateful works have real effects in and on the Church.
Having said that Theodore McCarrick and I were not friends (which is to put the matter mildly), I must also say that, however much I disliked him, he was and remains, by virtue of baptism, my brother in Christ. I cannot deny that without denying the faith. And while I do not regret the penalty imposed on him, which was entirely warranted in itself and an essential act of purification for the Church, I can, and do, pray that his laicization brings him to whatever repentance of which he is now capable.
And I also pray that this awful episode is a reminder to everyone, but especially to those with real power in the Church, that catching red flags and confronting wickedness, however painful, is far better for the Church and its mission than ignoring signals—or worse, avoiding confrontation for the sake of putatively avoiding scandal.
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.