LONDON, ONTARIO – Another round of predominantly gay clerical sex abuse scandals is roiling away in the Catholic universe. Three major detonations have set off this latest fusillade of clerical creepiness. All of them happen to be based in the United States but could have happened (and I fear will be happening) anywhere and everywhere in the world. The first was the suspension of the now-geriatric Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from any form of public ministry following allegations of decades of sexual abuse of minors and adult seminarians. As the former Archbishop of Washington, the formidably well-connected McCarrick was one of Pope Francis’ most trusted advisors and emissaries and an absolutely crackerjack fundraiser.
Next came the release of a 1,400-page Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report delineating 1,000 cases of purported sexual abuse over 70 years at the hands of more than 300 priests in that state alone. The states of New York, New Mexico, Florida, Missouri, Michigan, Nebraska and Illinois have subsequently announced their intention to undertake similar reports and many other states are certain to do likewise. Much of the material outlined in the Pennsylvania report was hardly fresh news. Indeed, the majority of predatory clergy identified in those pages, convicted and otherwise, are safely beyond the reach of judicial retribution by dint of being dead. What makes the proliferation of many more such reports likely is a mood of exasperation gripping Catholics and non-Catholics alike that this kind of abuse is still going on.
Didn’t the American Church supposedly clean up this situation earlier this century in the wake of the 2002 scandal that was centred in the Boston Diocese then being mismanaged by Cardinal Bernard Law? (That whole debacle and its exposure was ably chronicled in the Oscar-winning best picture of 2016, Spotlight.) Well, they said they did; most formally in a new set of guidelines called The Dallas Charter which was issued in 2002 by the U.S. Council of Bishops and was primarily authored by no one other than . . . ahem . . . a certain Cardinal McCarrick. While the incidence of priests abusing minors has fallen sharply in the U.S. over the last decade and a half, not included in the Dallas Charter’s instructions for preventing priestly abuse was any kind of advice for curtailing the abuse of young seminarians by their superiors.
And then came an 11-page letter from former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, alleging that not only were McCarrick’s crimes known and covered over by Church authorities in the U.S. and at the Vatican, he had been sanctioned by Pope Benedict XVI (restricting his travel and forbidding him to say Mass) and Pope Francis threw over those sanctions shortly after becoming Pope and elevated McCarrick further up the hierarchal chain.
So far Pope Francis’ calculated non-responses to the crisis – commending silence as the most appropriate reaction (“I will not say a single word about this,” was his first response to a press query about the Vigano letter), likening those who make accusations against the Church hierarchy unto Satan (“In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops”) and calling for an emergency conclave of cardinals to address the issue in February of 2019 (Don’t rupture yourself in your haste there, Your Holiness) – suggest that we should add an ostrich with its head in the sand to his papal coat of arms, plunking it down between the Marian star and the spikenard flower that is traditionally associated with St. Joseph. However a few days after refusing to answer charges of corruption at the very highest levels of the Vatican, he did speak out on the peril posed to all the world by the proliferation of plastic straws. So at least we know that on Francis’ watch there will be no ecological hanky-panky going on in the Papal cafeteria.
You could be forgiven – indeed you might be in line for some Papal-approved absolution – if you were unaware that there’s any sort of crisis rocking the Catholic Church at all right now. When the Francis-boosting mainstream press covers this story at all, their usual tack is to quietly condemn the reactionary old fuddy-duds who are poking their sticks into the wheels of Francis’ marvelous progressivism. Mark Hemingway in The Weekly Standard does a commendable job of summarizing the bind the press finds itself in:
“While the mainline Protestant churches in America were long ago taken over by left-leaning or socially progressive clergy, the orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics has remained largely conservative. Francis is perceived as liberalizing the Church and tolerant of gay priests, so he must be defended. Put more bluntly: To attack McCarrick, whose crimes involve homosexual abuse, is to put oneself on the side of those who oppose gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay men, and the media’s truth-seekers would rather play dumb and feign surprise at conservative reactions than categorize themselves as anti-gay. That scores of young men were abused is just too bad.”
By coming into the Church in 1984, I was the beneficiary of almost three full decades of inspiring, articulate and soundly orthodox papal leadership. Challenges, criticism and an occasional eruption of scandal certainly assailed the Church during those 29 years but I never feared that any such problems ran intractably deep or seriously threatened the unique integrity or essential coherence of the Body of Christ. Perhaps this was naïve.
John Paul II’s long, debilitating illness unquestionably sapped the vigour and attentiveness that had so distinguished his first two decades on St. Peter’s throne. And as his control slackened, proponents of radical liberalization in the hierarchy’s ranks were emboldened. While John Paul’s successor, the scholarly and meticulous Benedict XVI’s gifts for marshalling ideas and prose were as strong as ever during his eight years as Pope, this man who had earned the nickname, ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ when working as John Paul’s right hand man, came to recognize that he was steadily losing control over the rebellious prelates under his ostensible command.
Isolated in a way that the more gregarious John Paul never had been, I suspect Benedict also missed the mutual encouragement that comes from standing shoulder to shoulder with a true compatriot who sees a situation as you do. Aware that his own stamina was flagging while the corruption and cowardice in the episcopate was only escalating, Benedict made the shocking and, as it turned out, disastrous, decision to step down. We know that part of his thinking in retiring was that the Church had just been through a lengthy deathwatch with John Paul and that it would not be helpful to put the Body of Christ through another such gloomy furlough so soon; not when problems needed to be so urgently addressed. One hesitates to contradict a man as wise as Benedict but it seems to me that many of the Church’s most salvific moments have transpired in the vicinity of death beds and tombs.
But whatever their weaknesses, missteps or blind spots as administrators, I never had cause during John Paul or Benedict’s pontificates to ask, “Who is this guy really working for?” Whereas the gracelessness of Francis had my scept-o-metre pinging into the red from his very first day on the job. His showy eschewing of the pomp and formality of the papacy quickly got the press fawning over his marvelous humility but to me it smacked of disrespect for the high office he held and callow virtue signalling. It was uncanny how quickly and often I was asked in gleeful tones by people who’d never shown a smidgen of respect or regard for the Church, “How do you like this terrific new Pope?”
And then there began his tiresome parade of ill-considered comments tossed off to the press; criticising the faithful for being “obsessed” with abortion; mocking Catholic mothers for breeding “like rabbits”; answering a question about the flagrant behaviour of actively homosexual clergy with a gormless question of his own: “Who am I to judge?”
Well, for one, you’re the Vicar of Christ. And for two, you’re the supreme head of a 2,000 year-old Church whose Catechism states that homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
But then Francis has repeatedly shown scant regard for the Catechism which John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger laboured for years to compile as a “sure norm for teaching the faith”. This was a task they took on so as to clear any confusion by setting what John Paul called “the graces and spiritual fruits of Vatican II” into the larger and historic compendium of “Catholic doctrine, attested to and illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium.”
So far, like a monkey with a brush trying to fix up a canvas by Rembrandt, Francis has imperiously imposed two not very well thought-out amendments to the Catechism; forbidding capital punishment in every situation and circumstance and telling priests to use their own discretion on whether or not to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. At least we think that’s what he’s done. He hasn’t had the courtesy to respond to a group of cardinals who formally submitted a dubia to Francis asking if he was deliberately promulgating heresy or did he just make a mistake in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, when he said he was cool with dispensing the Eucharist to divorcees.
Non-Catholics and the mainstream press simply don’t appreciate why Francis’ reckless deviation from tradition is such a big deal. As Father Jonathan Robinson of Toronto’s Church of the Holy Family and the Oratory of St. Phillip Neri told me almost 20 years ago, “The Roman Catholic Church was old when there were tigers in the amphitheatre in Rome or before Saxons set foot in Britain . . . The Church carries a message from Christ that we could not find anywhere else.” The whole point of having this miraculous continuity going all the way back to Christ’s time on Earth, is you don’t mess with the faith as it’s been handed down to you.
In the opening sentence of his 1907 encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, (On The Doctrines of the Modernists), Pope Pius X graciously restated what popes down through the ages have always seen as their prime duty: “The office divinely committed to us of feeding the Lord's flock has especially this duty assigned to it by Christ, namely, to guard with the greatest vigilance the deposit of the faith delivered to the saints, rejecting the profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called.”
In contrast to that duty of sacred vigilance and preservation, get a load of this blurb promoting Francis’ latest book, Open to God, Open to the World, which is published this month by Bloomsbury press:
“Pope Francis here presents his hopes and aspirations for the Church in the future. Over the course of 16 conversations with Father Antonio Spadaro from 2013 to 2017, Pope Francis engages in a valuable dialogue. His impact on the modern world is extraordinary. He has turned the Catholic Church upside-down, flung open the windows of the Vatican and purged the Augean stables of corruption, simony, nepotism and financial skulduggery. But above all he is engaged with the poor, the starving and the marginalized. Unlike his predecessor, he does not sit down in a room in the Vatican and write learned books. He is in constant dialogue with the outside world and with the universal Catholic Church. He likes being asked questions and finds it easy to respond. In this new book are some of his most valuable engagements in dialogue form with people of all sorts and kinds . . . The Franciscan revolution is under way and in spite of his vehement critics the revolution will roll on and new horizons will be opened for the one and a half billion Catholics in the world today.”
It is to weep.
I’ve been wandering around in a shattered daze for a couple of months now, and spending way more time than anybody who wants to remain functional ought to, imbibing all the bad news from a couple dozen Catholic sites on the internet. Persecution from outside would just be business as usual and can even encourage a stiffening of resolve. What makes these latest scandals so perniciously disheartening and paralyzing is that they’re all coming from within.
I’ve also been working on this essay for at least a month – not flat-out; I’m not claiming that – and repeatedly been thrown off whatever point I thought I was trying to make by the arrival of yet another squalid and complicating news bulletin of papal or clerical idiocy (at best) or malfeasance (at worst). Most of all, I have been struggling with the tone. I love the Roman Catholic Church and long to do whatever I can to help it. And simultaneously, I am furious and repelled by all the acts of desecration and degradation that the Church is committing against herself.
On the day the Vigano letter was released, it so happened that the gospel reading in the Catholic Missal was taken from the end of John, Chapter 6, where Christ teaches his disciples for the first time about the Eucharist. They receive his lesson as a ‘hard saying’ that is so bizarre that it’s difficult to grasp:
“After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
That pretty well chimed with my own feelings on the matter. I would not go away either but I have worried about the spirit in which I would stay; that my allegiance might become half-hearted, that I would be so distracted by all this depressing news that my faith would become tepid. And then this week at Sunday Mass, the dazed standoff I’ve been experiencing of late suddenly broke wide open.
I was in the queue to receive the Eucharist and reflected that in all the years of my membership at this church, I’ve only ever received communion in the hand. A few times when I’ve been away from home and found myself in the company of serious Catholic keeners – on a three-day Lenten retreat in Belfountain, Ontario, at London England’s Brompton Oratory, at a Mass in the Madonna House chapel – I’ve taken my cue from those around me and received the host on my tongue. Catholics are told that either mode of reception is fine and acceptable but (allowing it may be different for others) in my own heart of hearts I’ve always construed my reluctance in this matter to be an instance of holding back, of keeping to myself a plausibility of refutation lest I be seen to utterly commit to something that might fail or embarrass me.
I wasn’t sure I had the nerve – or is it the faith? – to try that here but I also knew I was heartbroken by the chasm that had opened up between myself and the Body of Christ and was ready to try any desperate thing to close it. When I finally stood before my priest, I did not hold out my hands in an overlapping throne to receive my Lord but instead opened my mouth. And in a moment of almost shocking intimacy that made my eyes smart with tears, he set the host upon my tongue. And that was how I came to understand that not only am I not going away; I’m going further in.
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