By refusing to assist the US bishops in their investigation of Archbishop McCarrick, and then ordering the US bishops to delay any corporate action to achieve a measure of accountability (and stop the massive hemorrhage of credibility with the faithful, civil authorities, and the public), until after the February 21-24 gathering of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences, the Vatican really has raised the stakes on the February meeting.
At the same time, the meeting’s principal organizers have attempted to lower expectations. “[The February meeting] is a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — recently named adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a leading organizer of the gathering in February — told America Magazine shortly after the Vatican announced he would lead the organizing committee.
By calling it the beginning of a process, one may also detect an attempt to escape, if not to erase the past, take back promises, or otherwise rewrite history, rife as it is with protestations to the effect that Church leaders — including Pope Francis — really get it now, and replete with assurances they’re going to do better. As Phil Lawler pointed out in a terse commentary on the announcement, “[A]ll those times in the past, when we’ve been told that the all-out response was underway, it actually hadn’t even begun?”
The “process” has begun, in fits and starts, and with more help from Caesar than anyone wants — in places ranging from Chile to Ireland to the US, the Philippines, and now to Germany, not to mention the Pope’s own native Argentina. Nor will it do for the Pope or his lieutenants to protest that they need to get everyone on the same page, before letting any bishops anywhere have any sort of go.
“Many [bishops from the developing world, particularly the global south] are convinced that their cultures don’t harbor the problem to the same extent, and they resent the way that Western discussions of abuse scandals overshadow their own concerns and priorities,” Crux’s editor-in-chief, John Allen, wrote in an analysis piece this past Sunday. He’s right.
“They question the need for their nations to make a priority out of something many of them regard as a geographically and culturally limited phenomenon,” Allen continues, right once more. Francis, however, should know how perception in these regards does not always line up with reality. He was, by his own admission, part of the problem.
It would be easy to get into the weeds at this point, especially if one were to indulge the temptation to explore even a few of the ways in which the Pope’s preferred polyhedral (or prism) model of the Church could apply to the current crisis, and his handling of it. Suffice it to say that uniformity is not always to be desired, and almost never — to hear Pope Francis tell it, anyway — to be imposed:
[N]ot all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. (Amoris Laetitia, 3)
In that passage, Pope Francis was primarily concerned with teaching. The crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church is a problem of governance. That is to say, with precisely those practical consequences of doctrine, over which there can and indeed must be plenty of room for legitimate difference.
Just how much difference is legitimate, will always be a matter of tension if not contention, and that is one of the reasons we have the authority of Peter in the Church. But to say that the Church in the United States, for example, ought not address the burning question of episcopal accountability at all, because bishops in other jurisdictions do not have the same problems to the same extent — or do not perceive that they do — ignores the bishops’ duty to care. That is the fact of the matter, even as it flies in the face of the Pope’s own statements on the proper mechanics of governance, betrays a callousness to the needs of the faithful, and frankly beggars common sense.
For one thing, anyone who needs a three days’ meeting in Rome to learn that raping children is wrong and aiding and abetting it either before or after the fact is in many respects worse, should not only not be a bishop, but should not be in Orders at all. Indeed, anyone who doesn’t get that is unfit for decent society.
For another, the evils plaguing the US hierarchy are not limited to the capitally gruesome realities of child abuse and coverup, but include entrenched networks of corrupt and morally bankrupt clerics, high and low, as well as endemic cowardice even among those not guilty of the worst crimes, or any crimes at all.
If there are bishops in some parts of the world, who do understand that these things are enormities, but have a hard time getting their heads around the extent to which the practice of them has affected the life of the Church in other places, then that’s more reason not to insist on waiting where there is a need for action that has gone unmet for generations.
Nevertheless, the idea that Catholics in some places plagued by these evils will just have to wait for bishops in other jurisdictions to be brought up to speed, is the message Catholics in the United States have received, and it is a message not lost on Catholics wherever the crisis has come to the attention of the faithful and the broad public. It is a message driven home for Catholics in the United States by the double blow of the Vatican’s refusal to assist in the US bishops’ attempt to fathom the depth and breadth of the rot spreading from McCarrick’s forty years’ malign presence, and the heavy-handed intrusion on the US bishops’ recent business in Baltimore.
Neither Pope Francis nor his handlers and lieutenants in the Vatican can have it both ways. They cannot arrest responses already underway and announce they’re taking the reins, and in the same breath announce they’re pulling those reins in — let alone beg leave to tinker with their own takes on the crisis. That, however, is the path they have chosen.
The upshot of all this, however, is that the US bishops have, indeed, been hamstrung: forced to wait more than three months before they can attempt to do what they were going to do anyway.
When they are finally let off the leash, they will be operating under strictures: tethered to an appraisal of the crisis designed for bishops, who either haven’t the same skin in the game, or will have only very recently discovered how much they do have in it, or are working in very different socio-political and cultural environments.
“It is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces,” Pope Francis advises parents in Amoris Laetitia. Apparently unwilling to admit he’s missed the chance to do the former, he seems now bent on the latter.
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