This week has been another that has kept reporters and analysts on the Church beat dizzyingly busy. A full list of the week’s stories would run to the length of a broadsheet page before it was done — and stories are breaking and moving so rapidly, that any such list would likely be dated before it got published. Here, however, are a few of the highlights, with a few other stories readers might have missed along the way, followed by a look at some of the most salient news analysis, and then a brief take on where things stand in general.
The first piece of big news — that the Vatican has done its deal with China — actually broke Saturday, though it continued to dominate headlines for several days. The Catholic World Report had ample coverage of that news, including pieces by Samuel Gregg, Anthony E. Clark, and Ines Murzaku.
On Thursday, the Viganò saga returned to the forefront of attention, after the former nuncio to the United States released another letter — a follow-up to his spectacular 11-page J’Accuse! of August 26th — in which he accuses Pope Francis of engaging in a “subtle slander” against the archbishop, who has not-so-subtly accused the Holy Father of complicity in a decades-long and systematic cover-up of serial misconduct by the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.
On Friday, Pope Francis laicized Chile’s most notorious abuser-priest, Fernando Karadima. The measure was an extraordinary one, not only because Karadima had been convicted and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance in 2011. To say there are outstanding issues in Chile quite apart from Karadima is to put oneself in the running for understatement of the year. How the move fits into Francis’s larger plan to repair the crisis in Chile is anyone’s guess, since Francis’s approach there as elsewhere has been to play his cards close to his cotta.
Three Polish dioceses have published information regarding their records on abuse, in an effort — they say — better to understand the phenomenon and so the better to prevent it. A statement from the Polish bishops’ conference says, “[Our position] in the matter of Church sex abuse is still valid and unchangeable: Zero tolerance for the sin and the crime of pedophilia in the Church and in society.” The Polish bishops go on to reiterate their “determination to fight this sin and crime, stressing the need to care for the victims and the need to build a culture capable of preventing such acts.”
In the United States this week, news came of an investigation begun by Maryland’s Attorney General into the historical records of the Archdiocese of Baltimore — the “premier see” of the United States — where Archbishop William Lori currently leads the Church. Archbishop Lori is himself currently leading an ecclesiastical investigation into the former head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose resignation Pope Francis accepted earlier this month — for reached limits of age — amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving at least one adult man.
Archbishop Lori has welcomed the Attorney General’s investigation into his archdiocese, saying, “I have informed the attorney general that the archdiocese is supportive of the review and will be fully cooperative throughout the process.” That line was from a letter Archbishop Lori delivered to the clergy of Baltimore on Wednesday, in which he also said, “[I]t is clear that we are a Church in crisis and that crisis is one of trust.”
Also this week, Catholic News Agency reported a story out of Crookston, Minnesota, containing details of an abuse allegation in which the person making the charge was a candidate for the permanent Diaconate, and the bishop — Michael Hoeppner — admittedly less than perfectly ready in his response.
Broadly speaking, however, the bishops of the United States do seem to be coming to terms with the idea that their credibility is tattered beyond their ability to mend it unaided, and have sought the help of the Apostolic See to repair the damage — help that has not been forthcoming.
On Friday, John Allen of Crux floated a four-point plan to break the apparent impasse, the essence of which is: create the conditions in which Pope Francis can do what he needs to do, by presenting him with a way to save face while doing it. That the US bishops should have to provide the Pope with an out in the first place, is itself a fairly shocking idea.
The not-quite-explicitly-stated-as-such premise of Allen’s analysis appears to be that Pope Francis feels himself boxed in politically as a result of the Viganò letter, and quite possibly perceives the US bishops’ calls for an Apostolic Visitation as contributing to the pressure created by Viganò’s epistolary exploits. That is no real reason not to do what the US bishops are asking him to do, though — and if the Pope really is worried about a plot to delegitimize his pontificate — as some of remarks in recent morning fervorini suggest he might be — the best thing to do would still be to order an Apostolic Visitation.
Meanwhile, signs of frustration and impatience with Francis have also started to emerge in the worldwide press.
Last weekend saw the release of an in-depth look at Pope Francis in the German weekly, Der Spiegel, a left-of center publication generally well-disposed to Pope Francis and what Der Spiegel’s editorial board perceives to be his agenda. The 19-page treatment goes over a good deal of already trodden ground, but concentrates significant focus on the Pope’s record as archbishop of Buenos Aires, especially insofar as his leadership record in the fight against clerical sex abuse is concerned.
Reporters on the return flight to Rome at the end of the Pope’s four-day, three country trip to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — yes, that happened — were flummoxed by a Pope who refused to answer their questions. A few of them wrote about it, including the National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua McElwee.
Popes do not rule by consensus, but in this day and age — in which the papacy as an institution is either a prophetic moral voice on the global stage, or it is nothing — a trust deficit such as the one facing Francis as a result of his own unforced errors is debilitating, even if it is not disqualifying.