I am dating myself with this reference, but in the old BBC sketch comedy show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” there was a sketch in which Michael Palin plays a cheese shop proprietor and John Cleese a customer asking for various cheeses, all of which the cheese shop does not have. The list of Cleese’s cheese requests grows to include just about every known variety and the scene becomes ever more comical as it becomes apparent that this purported cheese shop has no cheese at all. At one point, however, Palin indicates that they do have some Brie but then immediately looks down and says, “Oh my, sorry, but the cat’s just eaten it.” We are never told why the shop has no cheese, but that only adds to the humor as Palin’s character attempts to continue the pretense that this is, indeed, a real cheese shop.
The entire scene highlights the fact that outward appearances, no matter how compelling, can be deceiving. A police officer, for example, may have all of the outward accouterment of his office, but if he is corrupt – taking bribes, planting evidence, lying under oath, etc. – then he is in reality no peace officer at all but an agent of injustice. Likewise for a judge who, no matter his fine robes and high bench, if he is “on the take” from the mob, is a perverter of the law and not its impartial adjudicator. You get the point. And unlike the Monty Python sketch there is no humor in it on any level. The hollowing out of the moral integrity of our most valued institutions via the path of posturing in the direction of propriety and rectitude, all the while misusing the outward trappings of office for the sake of corrupt aims, forebodes institutional collapse when it comes from those in the highest levels of authority.
And the Church, as we well know from history, is not immune from such moral evacuations through the exercise of ecclesial power in duplicitous and mendacious ways. Those in high ecclesial office can preen and posture in public, bedecked in their epicene frills, red robes, and pectoral crosses, and wax rhapsodic about the glories of the Gospel, all the while using those outward appearances to hide their various misdeeds. They can play us for fools and speak of “Roman authority” and of our need as laity to engage in a “religious submission of mind and will” to every official diktat they issue, cynically using our own obeisant piety against us. And, like corrupt Renaissance princes, they have their court sycophants and jesters in certain circles of the Catholic media ever-ready to pronounce that those of us who dare to raise our voices in protest are being sinfully disobedient to the Magisterium.
As a devout Catholic with a total commitment to moral and doctrinal orthodoxy, as well as the Magisterium that upholds it, these words of criticism do not come easily. In fact, they grate and irritate and cause deep inward anxiety owing to the cognitive dissonance induced by the clash between my devotion to the Church and my belief in her doctrines and apostolic authority, and the ongoing abuse of power we see today at the highest levels. In other words, the dissonance is caused precisely by my loyalty to the Church and not because of any insouciant disregard for her claims.
I dare say that in uttering these words I speak for many other thoroughly orthodox Catholics who today feel the same tortured anguish as they try to renegotiate their filial devotion to the Church in the light of the current confusions emanating from the Vatican. My email inbox attests to a widespread malaise among faithful Catholics who, in the face of such dissonance and confusion, routinely ask one simple question: “How do we renegotiate our faith in the face of such outrages?” And many of them tell me that this renegotiation might just lead them out the Church door never to return.
This malaise is a reality that has been building for the past several decades in the Church, and the recent revelations concerning Father Marko Ivan Rupnik are only going to make matters worse. I will not repeat the particulars of the case against him since others have done that admirably. Notably, Christopher Altieri has recently penned several scathing reports for CWR on the scandal (which you can access here, here, here, and here). My focus in this essay is on the damage done, once again, to the Church’s credibility in dealing with the sexual abuse scandal in general, with the latest case of Fr. Rupnik providing evidence of a Church that once again is good at words and outward gestures but lousy at actually doing anything of substance.
When it comes to the sexual abuse crisis it is now becoming abundantly clear that the Church’s hierarchy is often like that cheese shop without cheese. There are several Vatican dicasteries with all of the proper signage and outward trappings of a proper judiciary, but when pressed for details on how they are handling this or that case, give the ecclesiastical equivalent of, “Oh, sorry, but the cat’s just eaten it.” We now have official “policies” that pose as outward markers of seriousness but which are not, apparently, taken seriously by many in power, which seems, at this point, to be a deliberate exercise in ecclesiastical legerdemain.
And that is because the policies – e.g. vos estis – which advertise themselves as real policies with real teeth are in actual practice nothing of the sort. And in the case of vos estis in particular, which is designed to give the Vatican greater canonical authority over bishops that cover up sexual abuse or who have engaged in sexual abuse themselves, there is no guidance in the document with regard to what to do when it is that very same Vatican doing the covering up, as it seems in the case of Fr. Rupnik.
The cynicism engendered among the faithful by these ongoing ecclesial deflections has already reached a crisis level of intensity since the latest examples of episcopal doublespeak come on the heels of several decades of a slow-rolling nightmare of malfeasance. This is a nightmare whose torturous intensity is only magnified by the fact that the hits just keep on coming even after our so-called “policies” for dealing with the crisis have been put in place. When the Vatican itself can no longer be trusted with these matters, the response of the faithful is to view those policies as a monstrous deception and a lie which are a fig leaf covering for the hierarchy to hide behind.
And the cynicism is troublesome on many levels since it is not confined to the Vatican’s handling of a few sex abuse cases, but spills over into a generalized rejection of anything the Church has to say on moral matters, especially matters relating to sexuality, resulting in a far-reaching crisis of authority to which the Vatican in particular appears clueless.
This cluelessness is itself a self-cultivated ignorance and is born out of a deeply condescending clericalism that treats the laity in infantilizing ways as fools whose attention span is deemed to be short. But our attention span is not short and we have seen enough to make our adjudications. For example, in 1982 I was a seminarian at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and I knew several seminarians from the diocese of Metuchen, where Uncle Ted McCarrick was bishop, who were quite open about the well-known fact that you should never accept an invitation from McCarrick to go to his beach house. It was just common knowledge that the place was his personal, gay pleasure palace and that you should steer clear of it at all costs.
Imagine my surprise when I saw his career rocket upward. I wondered in my naivete, “How can the bishops not know about him?” But of course some of them knew, and our cynicism over the entire affair grew exponentially as we witnessed bishop after bishop, and even Cardinals, who had lived in close association with him, lying through their teeth about how ignorant they were of his shenanigans. And these bishops, who are, I think, clearly guilty of having covered up for their friend and benefactor, are now themselves promoted to high office in the Church.
Twenty years ago, back in 2002, I was a regular guest on a Fox News show as a theological commentator on the then exploding sex abuse crisis. After one segment in the New York studio, the host asked me off camera if I knew of anyone they should be investigating. I did not hesitate and told him, “Yes, look into Cardinal McCarrick.” The host leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “Yes, we have heard the same from many, many people, and we are looking into it, but we cannot get anyone to go on the record.”
People knew about Uncle Ted and, apparently, a lot of people in the Vatican knew about Fr. Rupnik. It is the same story, just a different chapter. But all the chapters are starting to read the same. And in that pattern is the point. Therefore, Rupnik’s case is now only shocking in the fact that it no longer shocks. Even with the added layer of an apparent Jesuit favoritism toward Fr. Rupnik from our Jesuit Pope, it no longer shocks. The cynicism of the faithful that this lack of shock expresses will not long linger, but will soon issue forth in an increased apathy for the faith in general – a faith that is already strained by the forces of secularism, indifferentism, and the realization by many, after the post-COVID lockdowns, that maybe Mass attendance is not that big of a deal after all.
Perhaps the Vatican should issue a new document on the issue of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal cover up. They could call it “De Vomitus et Regurgitatis” and direct its gaze at this Laodicean Vatican whose lukewarm mediocrity, duplicitous hypocrisy, and media deflections induce nothing but nausea among the faithful, both lay and clerical. I feel in my soul the anguish that many good priests must feel right now. I hear from many of them. How disheartening and vocation-killing it must be to have your own bishop say “no” to a simple request for something like permission to do one Mass a week ad orientem, only to find out that apparently so long as you are a Jesuit and a mediocre artist you can commit excommunicational sins of confession abuse, be reinstated after a cursory “I am sorry”, and then be invited to give a series of “reflections” at the Vatican. It does not take long for faithful priests to realize that apparently, “Who am I to judge?” is just code for “No serious sins to the Left of me, but woe unto you ‘backwardists’.”
They think that we do not notice, or that if we do notice we will soon forget about it. But we do notice, and we will not forget. And the “Oops, sorry, the cat’s just eaten it” responses will no longer suffice. We want transparency and answers. But this papacy, alas, is not known for either.
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