The burgeoning crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church that is the result of organized coverup and winking at rot in the moral culture of the clergy, high and low, was largely absent from the reports of the Fathers’ consultations at the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops over the past weeks. Nevertheless, Pope Francis’s remarks to the prelates on Saturday, at the close of their work, show unmistakably that the crisis continues to occupy his mind.
In extemporaneous remarks to the Synod Fathers gathered in the Synod Hall shortly after they voted to approve the final document, Pope Francis first made his perfunctory thanks to the organizers. Then he said, “Because of our sins, the Great Accuser seizes the advantage, and — as the first chapter of the Book of Job tells us — goes about the earth looking for whom to accuse.” It is a theme that has become familiar over the past several weeks.
“In this moment, he is accusing us strongly,” the Pope went on to say, “and this accusation becomes persecution.” Francis noted the persecution of Christians in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, as well as in various other parts of the world. Pope Francis said the persecution of which he speaks also takes the form of “continuous accusations,” the purpose of which is “to sully the Church.” Then, he offered this:
The Church is not to be sullied: her children, yes, we are all dirty, but the mother is not — and this is the moment to defend our Mother — and we defend our Mother from the Great Accuser by prayer and penance. This is why I asked, in this month that ends in a few days, for people to pray the Rosary, to pray to St. Michael Archangel, to pray to Our Lady, that she might always cover Mother Church. Let us continue to do so. This is a difficult moment, because the Accuser, through us, attacks our Mother — and no one is to lay a finger on our Mother [the Church]. This, I had it in my heart to say at the end of the Synod.
On the one hand, he acknowledges that the bishops are to blame: “[T]he Accuser, through us, attacks our Mother,” On the other, the bishops seem to get a pass, because they are simply sinners just like everyone else. It is as if he will not see that the bishops have already harmed the Church by their winking and coverup, while the people within the Church, who are clamoring for transparency and accountability from the bishops, are motivated by the very filial love he praises.
The final document of the Synod does contain some reference to the crisis. In Paragraph 30 we read, “It has become clear that our work is cut out for us, when it comes to eradicating the forms of exercise of authority on which the various forms of abuse are grafted, and of countering the lack of accountability and transparency with which many cases have been managed.” Paragraph 30 of the final document goes on to say, “Desire for domination, the lack of dialogue and transparency, the forms of double life, spiritual emptiness, as well as psychological fragilities: these are the terrain on which corruption flourishes.”
Francis is not wrong to call for prayer and penance — no Christian can fail to confess that we need much more of both — but the Church must be governed, and Peter’s office is for the governance of the Church. Governing means putting aside personal interests—not ignoring the noise of division and agitation, but rising above it — and acting for the true good.
In any case and inescapably now, the presence of serious rot reaching the highest echelons of Church governance is laid bare. We must fathom full extent of it. We must discover its origin, as well as the proximate and more remote causes of it. We must have it out.
Pope Francis alone in the Church holds power by indisputable right to make the source and reach of the rot known, and to begin at any rate to rid us of it. That is the one thing needful, and that is the thing Francis refuses to give. The documentary review he has promised is at best a half measure. At worst, it is a scrap thrown to dogs about the table.
Pope Francis did not create this crisis. He is not to blame for the rise of evil men before he assumed the supreme governance of the universal Church, nor is he to be saddled with the guilt of his predecessors’ unhappy decisions and unready responses. Francis is Pope now, however, and that means he is chiefly responsible for her earthly welfare.
Whatever one thinks of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, it is largely owing to his testimony that the rot is exposed.
Some in the Church are of the opinion that the former nuncio to the United States is a hero of the faith. Others believe he is a scheming Machiavel, ambitious and cunning, and thirsty for the ruin of men by whom he feels himself wronged. It is evident that his motives — like those of all men — are alloyed: he used his original letter to impugn the reputations of men with no discernible tie to his core allegation, or to sully the names of certain others in ways not strictly necessary to the making of his case.
There is another fact, bright-shining, adamant and ineluctable: Archbishop Viganò’s motives are largely irrelevant.
If his aim was to topple the pontificate of Francis, then it was a fool’s errand from the start: Apostolica Sedes a nemine iudicatur — the Apostolic See is judged by no man — and if part of his purpose was to destroy his enemies in the Curia, let him be tried for it in open court and pay the price of his folly. (Such a trial would also give him ample room to make his case before a candid world, and expose the miscarriages not only of the reigning Pontiff, but of the last two and their underlings, as well. If Francis would right the Church and see Archbishop Viganò held to account for his intemperances, then there is arguably no better way to achieve both in one.)
I think that Archbishop Viganò drew too facile an equation of silence with complicity in his third testimony, when he addressed himself to his brother bishops. Many of them — especially those in the Roman Curia — are legitimately pained in conscience, racked between love of the Church and fear for their souls’ safety, should they abjure an oath sworn in good faith. Nevertheless, Viganò was right on the fundamental point. Those two goods can never be the poles of a dilemma for any true son of the sinless Mother, nor can they ever face a true spouse of the spotless bride as genuine alternatives in a devil’s choice. Salus animarum suprema lex.
Pope Francis still has a chance — perhaps his only one left — to right the ship.
There is no wicked power in the universe that can reach him, and no faithful son or daughter of Holy Church, who would not support him to the last in any sincere and whole-hearted effort to set her aright. If he does not make that effort, and soon, then it will become impossible to avoid the conclusion that the interests he is pursuing do not constitute the true good of the Church.
That effort must begin with transparency: justice must be seen to be done.
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