The crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church is protracted, persistent, and global. It is already almost unbearably awful in its details, and has barely begun to be reported. What follows is neither reportage — except incidentally — nor analysis, strictly speaking — but commentary, and it is personal.
In January, I predicted that 2018 would be a make-or-break year for Pope Francis — a year in which he would have to decide whether to use his gifts to set his project of curial reform and Church renewal on track, or whether to continue his efforts to remake Rome into “Buenos Aires-on-Tiber”.
In March, on the fifth anniversary of Francis’ election, I considered that the year had got off to a rough start, but noted that we were still in the first quarter. Now the third quarter is rapidly approaching its end, and things have not improved for Francis, who, whatever the external pressures on him, just can’t seem to get out of his own way.
The election of Francis thrilled me, as it did many others, despite my concerns at having a Jesuit pope — concerns perhaps paradoxically rooted in my love for the Ignatian charism and my many personal spiritual debts to great Jesuits, living and dead — and I must say his early forays into pot-stirring and mess-making did not dissuade me from my hope that he was most, at any rate, of what he was cracked up to be.
His remark about gay priests — “Who am I to judge?” — read in context, was unexceptionable, and had enough of the wily Jesuit in it to make me think that his play was inspired. He brought faithful Catholics of every age and state of life in the Church out of the woodwork and into the public conversation to say what the Church really teaches — and people who otherwise wouldn’t have, perked up and listened.
It was more gambit than gamble — there was a downside — but I was game for it, even after I had read reports regarding the case of the specific figure, which gave rise to the question that elicited the now famous answer — Msgr. Battista Ricca — whom Francis apparently trusted, based on limited personal acquaintance and the absence of any official condemnation in Ricca’s jacket, even though the Apostolic Nuncio under whom Ricca had worked in Uruguay did not, owing to serial ambiguities in Ricca’s personal moral conduct. It is worth revisiting Pope Francis’ full response to the question from Brazilian journalist Ilze Scamparini:
About Monsignor Ricca: I did what canon law calls for, that is a preliminary investigation. And from this investigation, there was nothing of what had been alleged. We did not find anything of that. This is the response. But I wish to add something else: I see that many times in the Church, over and above this case, but including this case, people search for “sins from youth”, for example, and then publish them. They are not crimes, right? Crimes are something different: the abuse of minors is a crime. No, sins. But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope. We have to think a great deal about that. But, returning to your question more concretely. In this case, I conducted the preliminary investigation and we didn’t find anything. This is the first question. Then, you spoke about the gay lobby. So much is written about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with “gay” on it. They say there are some there. I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying … wait a moment, how does it say it … it says: “no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”. The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and there is this one and there is that one. The problem is in making a lobby of this tendency: a lobby of misers, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of masons, so many lobbies. For me, this is the greater problem. Thank you so much for asking this question. Many thanks.
That was then. This is now. The pope’s basic instinct may well be sound — he’s not wrong to say, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” There are many men in priestly ministry who experience same-sex attraction and struggle to live chastely. Sometimes they fail. They are not to be lumped in automatically with the evil men who sought Holy Orders for the target-rich environment and protection a collar affords, while never intending even to attempt a life of chastity.
The real lavender mafiosi groom boys for membership in their ranks, but that is not all they do — they work their work across the board, and may exploit a straight priest’s dalliance just as easily as they might a gay one’s. Exploiting the confusion and naiveté of an adolescent struggling to understand his identity is worse, on the whole, but exploiting the foibles of a grown man is still very bad. The more disorderly men there are in the clergy, the more powerful the lavender mafia will be, regardless of their marks’ status as members or affiliates of the syndicate.
We need to know the extent of the rot, which may — as I have noted elsewhere — go all the way up, and all the way through.
Nearly a month has passed now, since the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published his 11-page “testimony”, and while pundits and professional Catholics continue debate whether the Francis pontificate will survive the scandal, the pope himself keeps silence. Sort of.
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis devoted his morning reflections — billed as homilies, though they aren’t really homilies, but brief moral exhortations based loosely on the Readings of the Day — or fervorini to use the Italian word for the genre, to the Great Accuser, saying he attacks bishops especially, trying to expose their sins and scandalize the faithful, whose default disposition is to love their bishops.
Last week, he returned to the theme and enlarged upon it, saying that it was the people who cried out for Jesus’ crucifixion, and it was Jesus, who kept compassionate silence because “the people were deceived by the powerful.” Francis went on to say the true shepherd chooses silence when the Great Accuser attacks him “through so many people.” On Thursday, Pope Francis offered:
[T]he Church, when she journeys through history, is persecuted by hypocrites: hypocrites,within and without. The devil has nothing to do with repentant sinners, because they look upon God and say, “Lord, I am a sinner, help me!” and the Devil is impotent; but he is strong with hypocrites. He is strong, and he uses them to destroy, to destroy the people, to destroy society, to destroy the Church. Hypocrisy is the Devil’s workhorse, for he is a liar. He makes himself out to be a prince, powerful and beautiful, though from behind he is an assassin.
On a good day, comparison of the bishop — who stands among his flock in Christ’s stead, as their pastor — to Our Lord, ought to be aspirational. In the midst of worldwide outcry for accountability from bishops, who have sinfully miscarried in their duty of care and used their power to coverup terrible wrongdoing — their own, and that of others in their charge — and coupled with juxtaposition of the faithful thus alarmed with the people who sought Christ’s blood, such comparison is so far beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse, that one is embarrassed for all those who saw the remarks published on their watch.
If Pope Francis did not have the current crisis of leadership in mind when he uttered those words, then it is fair to say he ought to have been more careful in his choice of them. That he did not, frankly beggars credulity. In any case, he cannot have it both ways: silence is silence, and talk is talk.
The US bishops seem to have begun to grasp the nature of the crisis, and its gravity. They announced new oversight measures this week. However well intentioned, those measures will likely prove toothless without precisely that support from Rome, in the absence of which they announced them.
Last Friday, Pope Francis did accept the resignations of two more bishops in Chile — where he faces a terrible dilemma — but his piecemeal response to that theater of the global crisis has done little to convince the faithful — there or elsewhere — that he even understands how bad things are, let alone that he is serious about addressing the crisis. The bishops he removed on Friday are both credibly accused of abusing minors, yet it took him four months to accept their resignations, even though both had been accused of abuse years ago.
The removals have done little to reassure Catholics in the United States of Francis’ commitment, especially in light of his apparent refusal to support the US bishops in their efforts. Even Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — who last week announced the appointment of an independent investigator in his archdiocese — has voiced his impatience with the Pope.
Cardinal Dolan’s impatience is eminently understandable: Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick was a priest of the archdiocese of which Dolan now has charge. McCarrick— who did not rise in the ranks alone —ordained hundreds of priests, and oversaw the formation of hundreds more. For every one that has come forward with allegations of untoward behavior suffered at McCarrick’s hands, there could be dozens who have not. Whether their silence is due to complicity, or to fear of repercussion, the situation is appalling and untenable.
Francis did not cause the crisis, but he is pope now. If his recent predecessors’ records of leadership must be given the most careful scrutiny, that the People of God may judge them candidly — and there must be such a reckoning — Francis sits on Peter’s throne, and is the only one with power to dispose of our circumstances.
In an open letter I wrote to Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence in July, I said, “I believe I speak for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, when I say that we will not fail to support any shepherd who proves his willingness to toil and to suffer in this cause for our sake and Our Lord’s.”
I said to a friend recently that I still believe the sentiments I expressed to Bishop Tobin to be true, and pray God that Francis of Rome, His vicar on earth, will be that shepherd. If Francis will not be that shepherd, I pray God send us another. What follows is the rest of my response, with minor cosmetic editions:
God will act in His time, not ours, and by means inscrutable to us. In the mean, I am the Pope’s man, God help me, to the last gasp and — quod Deus avertat — the last drop. Finally, there is no other stance for any Catholic to take.
If Francis or anyone else thinks that I or any other member of Christ’s Body as such owes him anything other than this promise and the parrhesia — the manly frankness — for which he himself has called, then he is mistaken. It is because Francis is the Pope, that we must speak our minds to him. It is because Christ is Lord, that we must speak our minds to one another.
There will be hard words in the days and weeks and months to come.
Let us remember that this too, shall pass: that we share one Faith and one Baptism; that nothing we say or do should jeopardize the place of any one of us at the heavenly feast, which is our common hope.
To this, I would add something else I’ve been saying lately — to myself and to others — in essence that, as all this continues to unfold, we must remember that God is good.
His mercy — the response of self-subsistent Charity to sinful creatures — is severe: stern as death, and not less terrible than His wrath. His Church is true: She is His bride, and she must be spotless; He will not have her any other way. There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism: one Church founded by Christ on St. Peter for the forgiveness of sin, the redemption of flesh, and the salvation of the world.