With the release of the so-called “McCarrick Report,” this brutal, bizarre year has a new low point. Many priests have already begun whispering among themselves: When we eventually reinstate the Sunday Mass obligation, what if our numbers don’t budge? What if what we have now—about 30 percent of the 30 percent who were actually attending Mass before the pandemic—is what we have? And if so, does the “institutional knowledge and decision-making” detailed in the McCarrick Report have anything to do with it?
Those of us who were ordained to the priesthood in the last decade went in with eyes wide open to the realities confronting the Catholic Church. Unlike those who entered the seminary before 2002, we cannot say that we were unaware of the gravity of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Nor, if we are honest with ourselves, can we deny recognizing the collateral damage: not just the trauma endured by victims and families, as horrible as that is, but also the scandalized faithful, the loss of trust in the Church, and even the resulting financial crunch.
It’s easy for us to blame the decline of faith in the West on a secularist mentality and a hostile cultural environment. But that’s only part of the picture. How much of what we call secularism is a result of the Church’s failure to clearly manifest Christ to the world? Every time we meet a disaffected or fallen-away Catholic, we can wonder: Were they lured away by secularism, or were they turned away by the sins of Catholics? And this goes back generations. After all, long before there were Boston Globe headlines, there were whispers in high school hallways and stammered reports to disbelieving parents. How many of those people silently fell away from the Church long before anyone took their experiences seriously? How many of them fell away before they finally left? Why is it that public shaming and the threat of litigation were what it took for officials at every level to act?
Even though we are frequently as bewildered as the laity by each new revelation, there are ways that younger clergy can respond. One way is to recognize that while we did not “create” the mess, we are not free of culpability. Structures of sin—even within the Church, sadly—can pull us in subtly. Because we are not implicated in the horrible decision-making of the past, we have the opportunity to look forward with confidence. But that confidence is misplaced if it relies on our own ability to avoid the same mistakes. What’s clear from the past two decades is that in too many instances, too many men relied on their own wisdom and made terrible decisions. Not only do we have to preach Jesus Christ, we have to live the moral life demanded by the gospel.
Another way to respond is to remember that putting the fire out in the Church is not the same thing as preserving institutions. The credibility of the Church was never the result of technocratic expertise in organizational dynamics, spreadsheet management, or facilities maintenance. Her credibility was the result of the witness of faithful Catholics who quietly and unassumingly lived devout lives and cared for others as best they could. Forming a new generation of disciples does not require, in the end, many or most of the structures of former eras. So much of the Church’s internal life—from the smallest parish to the Vatican bureaucracy itself—is bent under the weight of error, perversity, maleficence, incompetence, or any combination thereof. If there is to be a renewal, we must have the insight to recognize what is essential and worth preserving, without any of the nostalgia that would shackle us to models that have outlived their usefulness.
Hannah Arendt talks about the banality of evil. But in the case of McCarrick, there was no banality. It was all pizzazz and flashiness. With a smooth tongue and mountains of charm, he was able to enter the most exclusive echelons of the Church and society. His ascent was aided by some, willfully ignored by others, and naively dismissed by yet more. The evil that lurked just beneath the smiling façade was successfully hidden. That is what evil does: It hides its true face. It obfuscates and throws us into doubt about its true nature. And it always, always, always lies.
It is for us, in 2020, to begin to tell the truth to everyone, and about everything: the sex, the money, the lies, the cover-ups—from the narthex of the sleepiest parish to the halls of the Apostolic Palace. We have to open everything up without fear of misunderstanding media or threats from plaintiffs’ attorneys. The Lord Jesus formed his Church in the upper room with twelve unlikely men. But the Church actually began on a crossbeam of wood in the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. In other words, salvation is not dependent upon palaces, assets, or the esteem of the world. Now that we have less of all three, perhaps the work of repairing what Uncle Ted and his associates have bequeathed to us can begin.
Rev. Eric Banecker is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Rev. Bryan Kerns, O.S.A., teaches in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA.
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