Sixth anniversaries aren’t really a thing. Nobody thinks they are — not really — except insofar as it is a news hook on which to hang editorial copy, like that, which came on the occasion from the pen of the Vatican media factory’s Editorial Director, Andrea Tornielli.
“The sixth anniversary of the election sees Pope Francis engaged in a year filled with important international journeys, marked at the beginning and the end by two ‘synodal’ events,” Tornielli wrote in an editorial published on the eve of the recurrence, “the meeting for the protection of minors, which took place last February with the participation of the presidents of the episcopal Conferences of the whole world; and the special Synod on the Amazon, which will be celebrated – also at the Vatican – this coming October.”
The Editorial Director of the Dicastery for Communication went on to discuss salient events in the year that was for Pope Francis and the whole Church, citing first “the re-emergence of the abuse scandal.” The choice of terms in which Tornielli couches the thing is interesting, and perhaps telling.
While it may be true that the scandal re-emerged, the crisis has been with us the whole time.
That the Vatican continues to speak of a scandal instead of a crisis, or at least to use the terms interchangeably, suggests an unwillingness to come to grips with reality: to admit that there is persistent moral failure — at times criminal — protracted over generations within the clerical and hierarchical leadership and diffuse throughout the local and national Churches, reaching all the way to Rome and through the Curia — its precise extent and depth there is not yet fathomed — and all the way to the Apostolic Palace.
It also bears mention that the scandal of the crisis did not so much re-emerge as explode in Francis’ face, when he disastrously mishandled the Barros Affair last year, shortly before the fifth anniversary of his election. When that anniversary rolled around, the business was already in full swing — though no one could have imagined even then, what waited for the Church in the balance of the intervening year.
Tornielli also made note of, “[T]he internal divisions,” which, he wrote, “led the ex-nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò to publicly call for the resignation of the Pope for the handling of the McCarrick case, precisely at the moment Pope Francis was celebrating the Eucharist with thousands of families in Dublin, proposing anew the beauty and value of Christian matrimony.”
This framing of the Viganò matter only sets in relief the Vatican’s determination — from top to bottom — on treating the former nuncio’s allegations as an impertinent distraction. It also highlights their studied, deliberate refusal to address the merits of the Archbishop’s brief, which any candid mind will — without respect to questions of motive — consider largely vindicated and therefore devastating.
“Confronted with these situations,” Tornielli went on to write, “the Bishop of Rome asked all the faithful throughout the world to pray the Rosary every day, throughout the following Marian month of October, in order to unite themselves ‘in communion and penance, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael the Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to divide us from God and to cause divisions among ourselves’.”
Pope Francis was certainly right to call the faithful to prayer. The association of this call with the “divisions” to which Archbishop Viganò contributed, hence to the Devil — the Great Divider, or in Francis preferred nomenclature for that creature, the Great Accuser — continue an insinuation Pope Francis began in the late Summer of last year: that the long-suffering faithful, grown impatient with the hierarchy’s craven cowardice and disregard and now clamoring for an account, are “deceived by the powerful,” and in their state of exercise resembling the crowds who called for Christ’s innocent blood.
“With his words and the appeal to the people of God that they pray to maintain unity in the Church,” Tornielli opined, “Pope Francis has made clear the gravity of the situation, and at the same time has expressed the Christian understanding that human remedies alone are not able to ensure a way forward.”
Francis has certainly made clear what is his estimation of the situation’s gravity. How closely that estimation comports with reality is another matter.
Tornielli is right about another thing. “The Church,” he wrote, “cannot redeem herself alone from the evils that afflict her.” Tornielli went on to write:
Even from the horrible abyss of sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, one does not escape by means of the processes of self-purification, let alone by relying on those who have been charged with the role of purifier. More and more effective norms, responsibility and transparency are necessary, indeed indispensable, but they will never be enough. Because the Church, as Pope Francis reminds us today, is not self-sufficient precisely because she too recognizes herself as a beggar asking for healing, in need of mercy and forgiveness from her Lord and she bears witness to the Gospel to many wounded men and women of our time. Perhaps never before as in the troubled year just gone by, the sixth of his pontificate, has the Pope who presents himself as “a forgiven sinner”, testified to this essential and most relevant fact of the Christian faith, following the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI.
They still want people to believe the bishops are all right, that the problem is only the abuse, and not the culture of moral rot and dereliction the bishops have fostered for generations in service of their vaunts and vantages. Doubtless, “[M]ore effective norms, responsibility, and transparency,” as Tornielli says, “will never be enough.” They are, however — as he also says — necessary. We have heard more than enough talk of them.
There also needs to be a reckoning. There will be. It has already begun. In that sense, reforms are late, and for that, irrelevant. As John Allen couched Charles Collins’ surmise of the situation: “It doesn’t matter [what Church leaders do], because grand juries and public prosecutors will do it for them.”
Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, the stakes were as high as they had been at the beginning of 2018. Then, the question was whether Francis would decide to use his gifts to set his reform project on track, or continue trying to remake Rome into “Buenos Aires-on-Tiber”. Now, the stakes are even higher.
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