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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!