Pope Francis misses the mark in focusing on clericalism and synodality

A recent essay by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh about Pope Francis’ approach to the abuse crisis fails to recognize the pressing need to start with institutional reform.

Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2019. (CNS photo/Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh has written a piece for Commonweal, on the meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences scheduled for February 21-24 to discuss “the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.” Francis is right, Ivereigh contends, to urge us to deflate our expectations of the meeting—especially those who are expecting major reforms to come from the gathering.

The thing is, very few people are expecting major policy changes to come from the meeting, nor are there many people expecting the meeting to fail solely on the basis of their lack.

The main concern of skeptics—of those, at least, who do not see the whole thing as a mere publicity stunt—is that the meeting is fighting the wrong battle, i.e., “child protection” narrowly construed, rather than the rot in Church leadership and leadership culture.

Ivereigh’s framing of the business is therefore a strange hybrid: a cross between a straw man and a red herring.

Ivereigh’s central thesis regarding the crisis and Pope Francis’ approach to it is not unsound: the Holy Father sees the crisis as a particularly sickening manifestation of the libido dominandi, the only Christian response to which is and must be radical conversion to Christ. The word Francis uses to convey his sense of the specific evil at the root of this crisis is “clericalism.” Ivereigh is right on that and so is Pope Francis.

To say that clericalism is at the root of the crisis is true, but it doesn’t get us very far.

As long as there are clerics, there will be clericalism. We need clerics to do their work in the Church, with and against the forces of disorder in the soul that are themselves the cause of human brokenness and of its peculiar manifestation in men of the clerical state. Still, this crisis will not pass without soul-reform: in a word, conversion—and more particularly—the conversion of the Church’s hierarchical leadership.

Ivereigh is also correct when he says that institutional reform is insufficient. “New norms, guidelines, and mechanisms will be necessary,” Ivereigh says, “but they are by themselves powerless to bring about the metanoia to which the Holy Spirit is calling the Church.” That’s right.

One of Pope Francis’ major problems—and Ivereigh’s, in his analysis—is that neither recognizes the pressing need to start with institutional reform. In fact, they both get it exactly backward. “Before talking about new protocols and procedures,” Ivereigh accurately paraphrases Pope Francis’ remarks to journalists traveling with him to Rome from Panama last Sunday before quoting Francis directly, “we [the bishops] must become aware.”

The hierarchical leadership of the Church has had decades to become aware of the wickedness plaguing the Church. The crisis has been on Rome’s radar for more than half a century.

Even if that were not so, any man who does not understand immediately and viscerally how awful the sexual abuse of minors is, has no business exercising Orders. That anyone with difficulty wrapping his head around the awful enormity of such abuse should have been admitted to a discernment program, let alone to formation, is itself a scandal in both the colloquial and the technical senses of the term. On the individual or micro level, the only responsible thing to do with a bishop who doesn’t get it is to deprive him of his see.

When it comes to the macro level of institutional reform, pace Francis and Ivereigh, history both sacred and secular is replete with examples of culture following law. Whether one looks to St. Gregory the Great, or the Cluniac reforms, or Trent, or the Second Vatican Council—or even further back, to King Josiah or David or Moses himself—one will find enlightened rulers using legal reform to drive the renewal of culture.

The US Supreme Court did not wait to strike down Plessy for fear the country just wasn’t ready for racial integration. Ten years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act over and against the protests of citizens who urged “moderation” and “prudence” and not forcing people to give up their racist ways until they saw the error of them.

In any case, the need to raise awareness in some quarters is no reason to truncate reform efforts in others.

Whether owing to a desire for everyone to be on the same page, or owing to specific concerns over the legalities of the reforms the US bishops prepared to adopt at their Fall Meeting, the Pope’s decision to impede the US bishops was frankly indefensible. For one thing, the US bishops were not looking to strengthen their child protection protocols, but to achieve a measure of accountability for themselves in the wake of revelations incontrovertibly manifesting their failures of oversight. For another, there would have been ample opportunity to fine tune the measures in concert with the Roman bureaucracy after the bishops passed the measures.

Then, Ivereigh’s treatment of the incident that sparked the current phase of this crisis ignores or elides certain pertinent details, which tend to vitiate his analysis.

Ivereigh says, “When Francis stubbornly defended his nomination of Bishop Juan Barros to the Chilean diocese of Osorno, he was caught up in a web of institutional desolation.” Again, Ivereigh is not wrong. What he ignores, or elides, is Francis’ own role in creating and perpetuating that institutional desolation. “I was part of the problem,” Francis reportedly told the victims he had repeatedly attacked in public as calumniators, before “new elements” came to light, which prompted his decision to send his crackerjack investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to look into things.

Ivereigh goes on to say, “[Francis] was presented by the local church with a false picture, one that concealed the truth not just about the abuser priest Fernando Karadima, but about the widespread corruption and cover-up in many dioceses.” That is a very incomplete summary of the matter, and inaccurate in two crucial particulars.

First, the “local Church” did not present Pope Francis with a false picture—the bishops did.

The Chilean faithful had been crying foul over the ineptitude, irresponsibility, and downright corruption of their hierarchical leaders for at least a decade. The faithful of Osorno were vocal and organized in their opposition to Barros’ appointment.

Francis’ response to the suffering faithful of Osorno was to tell them their suffering owed itself to their own stupidity. “[The Church in] Osorno suffers,” Pope Francis told pilgrims who had asked him about the situation in Osorno when they met him on the sidelines of a weekly General Audience in May of 2015, “because she is stupid, because she does not open her heart to what God says and she lets herself be carried away by the idiocies that all those people say.”

Second, the “incomplete picture” line is more than merely evasive.

Pope Francis reportedly received an eight-page letter from Juan Carlos Cruz no later than April 2015, detailing Barros’ role in enabling then-Fr. Fernando Karadima’s abusive behavior and in covering it up. If Francis did receive the letter, then he had evidence of Barros’ wrongdoing, perhaps a month before he spoke with the pilgrims and years before he publicly accused Karadima’s accusers of calumny.

The Chilean bishops also warned Pope Francis against the appointment of Barros to the See of Osorno. They likely knew which way the wind was blowing, and cannot be accused of having unalloyed motives. Nevertheless, Francis had fair warning from them, as well. In fact, a letter obtained by the Associated Press, which Pope Francis sent to the Chilean bishops in early 2015, shows that Francis wanted Barros and two other “Karadima bishops” to resign and take a sabbatical year before receiving any new posting — in essence, to send the tainted men into quiet ecclesiastical retirement. In the letter to the Chilean bishops, Francs alludes to something that happened to derail that plan, though what it was remains unclear to this day.

Ivereigh praises the genius of Pope Francis’ approach to the crisis, and cites the Pope’s newfound reliance on the faithful as evidence of his turnaround:

New norms, guidelines, and mechanisms will be necessary, but they are by themselves powerless to bring about the metanoia to which the Holy Spirit is calling the church. Only God’s grace and mercy can do this; and these are found in His people. Hence the pope’s call in August to the whole people of God to pray and fast. The people of God is the “immune system” of the church, as he told Chile’s Catholics. If that immune system isn’t working, no amount of procedural reform will be sufficient. Clericalism is a problem that affects every member of the church in one way or another, and so we can expect its solution to involve every member.

That is textbook gaslighting. It might not be quite tantamount to saying that priests never would have abused the children and the bishops never would have covered it up if only the laity were better Christians, but it does share the blame for the crisis without even suggesting a real responsible role for the laity in the solution. For centuries, the clergy have expected the lay faithful to pray, pay, and obey. For all his talk, the closest thing Francis has offered in the way of a concrete remedy to the awful, untenable state of affairs into which we have fallen as a result of clerical chauvinism, is more of the same.

Ivereigh goes on to say that Francis’ vision of a “synodal” Church is just what we need for these troubled times:

If clericalism is the disease, synodality is the cure. Only when the church embraces its identity as what the Second Vatican Council said it was, the people of God, can the clericalist mentality behind the crisis be expunged. This means clergy and the hierarchy serving Christ in the people rather than the people serving priests as if they were Christ. It means getting over the institutional self-involvement that has led to so much desolation and denial, and putting the poor, the hungry, and the abused back at the center of the church’s attention, where they belong.

Just as Francis himself could not resist a sop to his favorite talking points in the closing lines of his Letter to the Faithful of Chile, Ivereigh—riffing on Francis’ Chilean letter—cannot avoid trying to make the crisis about something else. This is the heart of the problem with reducing the crisis to “clericalism”: in technical language, it is an inadequate heuristic.

Said simply: it is a catch-all—a cartoon villain—a bogeyman.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 231 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. “The people of God is the “immune system” of the church, as he told Chile’s Catholics. If that immune system isn’t working, no amount of procedural reform will be sufficient.”

    That’s all very well, but hen there’s an enormous festering abscess in someone’s body, you don’t just say, “Well, the immune system will take care of it.” It needs to be lanced, drained, and bandaged, and then the immune system can take care of the remaining germs.

    The priests who are committing and concealing these horrible sins (primarily homosexual in nature, as we all know) need to be removed from any location or office that would enable them to continue in their evil. Then the “immune system” will have a fighting chance.

  2. In fairness to Pope Francis, he actually has called for a widespread conversion (metanoia). But it is said that “he’s not a systematic thinker.”

    But as for Altieri’s observation that the focus of the February event misses the mark–combined with Scott Hahn’s assessment that the present situation is the worst for the Church since the Reformation–perhaps even Martin Luther (!) can shed some light.

    As the new secular politics was beginning to overwhelm the dividing Church, Luther was visited in Wittenberg by his close friend and collaborator, Philip Melanchthon. The conflicted Luther issued this prophecy:

    “How many different masters will men be following in a hundred years’ time? Confusion will then be at its height. No one will submit to government by anyone else’s ideas or authority. Everyone will be trying to make himself his own Rabi [….] What enormous scandals are in the making? [He even hoped for a “council.” Trent came much later. Then THIS:] “The Papists will evade it; they are so scared of the light” (Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation, vol. 2, 1963, p. 104).

    Scared of the light! And we might even recall that, along the way, Melanchthon tried to paste Humpty Dumpty back together with the Augsburg Confession—which on central disputed points of doctrine and ecclesiology was either silent, evasive or ambiguous.

    Today, an off-the-mark, four-day, clericalist experiment in (undefined and unvetted) “synodality”, in a “polyhedral” Church. As the great theologian Yogi Berra would put it: “Its déjà vu all over again.”

  3. The best response to this “inadequate heuristic” is to reject it in its entirety as an utterly false starting point. This never ending attempt to challenge Bergoglio’s “interpretation” and now find flaws with Ivereigh is itself an absurdity. There is nothing to “interpret.”

    The sexual abuse crisis does not need an “interpretation.” There are events, names, places and dates…the noted preponderance of homosexuality/pederasty in the sexual scandal is not an “interpretation” nor is the money/criminal activity involved in this scandal an “interpretation.”

    Blaming the laity in any variant needs to end, starting now.

    To Bergoglio and all the Cardinals and Bishops: “We are not stupid! You are lying! We will no longer accept interpretations… only the names, the events, the money involved and now justice! Resignations!”

    If McCarrick had been called “Uncle Ted” or even just “Ted” over the years by every member of the Catholic laity instead of “Your Excellency” and “Your Eminence” and not given tons of “devotion” (not tons of money?) by overly devout lay folks and the kind of Catholics Bergoglio doesn’t like… ..

    There is no need for “an adequate heuristic.”

  4. When, when is the Holy See going to wake up? Saying that clericalism is the problem shows a willful disregard for the precepts of the Church and God’s law! Homosexuality in the Church is the problem, homosexuality! The performance of homosexual acts is “intrinsically evil”, period, and is a mortal sin. It is time that good Catholics raise their voices by writing their Bishops and demanding that God’s law be supported and promoted. The faction, and we know that it exists, must be rooted out! Whatever happened to the Vigano Letters and the McCarrick Investigation? It is hardly spoke of anymore! Let us all pray that a high ranking official of the Holy See will step forward, admit what they knew and when, and resign themselves to a life of prayer and penance. ANYONE who willing turned their back on this despicable behavior SHOULD resign including Pope Francis. Good Catholics, let’s take our Church back! I love the priests, I love the Bishops and the Cardinals and the Pope but I love God more! It is time that action be taken!

  5. “I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any council; not even in the abolition of abuses…, but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place” – St. Gregory Nazianzen

  6. Pope Francis and “his team” (as Ivereigh calls himself and his teammates) are the problem.

    Their incapacity to grasp that they are the problem is neatly summed up by their “teammate” John Allen (Crux and National (anti) Catholic Reporter. Allen recently wrote that they see Feb as Pope F’s chance to “get back in the game.”

    That is the voice of idolatry speaking, and their golden calf is “their status.”

    The men above are incapable of confronting the three ancient evils now ruling the “worldwide confederation of compromised Bishops,” because they do not see the Church’s mission as Jesus commands…they see it as McCarrick commands.

  7. Clericalism is only the brand on the bottle. The apologists list ingredients on the label: “policies protocols programs and practices.”

    The label lies.

    Inside – and kept inside – are a majority of bishops who covered up in 2002, and *every* bishop who covered up for Bp. DiLorenzo in 2008 (when his Catholic Charities (!!!) sent a 15-yr old Guatemalan girl to an abortionist. DiLorenzo and USCCB officials warned *every* bishop that there might be a scandal, but kept it secret for months until the Wanderer broke the story. Payoffs for silence, kept from diocesan “child protection” head – same ingredients in diocese after diocese.)

    Break the bottle. Identify the ingredients one by one. Discard them.

    The bottle should have “POISON” on the label.

  8. This pontificate has been about normalizing homosexuality in the Church from the beginning. Therefore, there is no way they can ever admit a connection between homosexuals in the priesthood and the abuse crisis. The will do whatever is necessary to deny such a connection. If it means they are seen as being willfully obtuse by faithful Catholics, so be it. They know the “world” and most Catholic laity are on their side. They will not let this “moment” be stolen from them.

    • From the beginning the Pope’s plan was to make homosexuality acceptable.That is why he started the year of mercy.He wants mercy to trump the commandments. His adviser Fr Rosica claimed that the Pope is above Scripture and Tradition. Expect that during the General Synod this month, the Pope will not condemn clerical and laical homosexual
      behaviour neither same-sex marriage.The topic of the sexual abuse of minors will get
      all the attention. But that is a diversionary tactic. Homosexuality is the elephant in
      the room, but will be bypassed.Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Msgr Capozzi are having their homosexual orgies in Vatican buildings, but no condemnation by the Pope. Why should he. Gay sex is not illegal in the Vatican State.

  9. “The floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.”
    St. Athanasius

    Pray, pray, pray and fast for our bishops who are so under attack!

  10. “Pope Francis misses the mark in focusing on clericalism and synodality.”

    To focus on clericalism and synodality is to deflect from the obvious role the unfaithful, those who deny Christ’s teaching on sexual morality that remains True whether we are residing in private or in public, have played in the abuse crisis. We can know through both our Catholic Faith and reason, that it is not The Faithful who are responsible for the heinous abuse crisis, the bullying and sexual harrassment in various seminaries, and the scandalous cover up. The Faithful assent to that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith.

  11. Besides the obvious biggie “homosexuality”, the February gathering in Rome should think very much about how flippant the Church has become about sacrilege and even bearing false witness, also known as lying. Yogi would probably call it more like a “three strikes and you’re out” problem, only very much worse of course.

  12. Pope Francis misses the mark? That is to put it politely. Pope Francis “misses the mark” on everything except when he targeting your back. Witness the news today of his admonition to the Chinese bishops.
    It is beneath contempt.
    Time for us to pull our heads out of denial and recognize exactly who we have on our hands.

  13. We are comparable to the dog chasing its tail seeking to interpret and comment on obvious deception during this Pontificate. My initial thought to comment seemed superfluous because my prev thoughts on this Pontificate are most likely known. Furthermore BXVI states my conviction to a T. Added to the conundrum is discussion must continue and I don’t possess absolute certitude. Perhaps my contribution to continued discussion is to urge authors to add a deeper shade of acknowledgment to what has been consistently evidenced. That serves intellectual integrity and importantly the edification of the faithful.

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