The Church Must Not Be Afraid
“A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.”
— St. John Vianney (The Curé of Ars)
In the most profound way possible, the ordination of a man to the priesthood creates a new man. If living out his vocation faithfully and with integrity, he can echo the words of St. Paul, It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20). The priest is changed not because of what he can do, but because of what he has become.
Despite what the media and secular culture want us to believe, the majority of those serving the Church, past and present, as priests and bishops, are faithful to their vocation and its duties and obligations. However, not all have been true to their vocation. Sadly, some have caused their flock significant harm; some have been wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The topic of today’s column is painful, and the words I have to say blunt. But these words are informed by an ardent belief in the dignity of the priestly vocation and the grave responsibilities that accompany that vocation. “If [the priest] realized what he is, he would die,” said the Curé of Ars. We must not allow our righteous anger with the betrayals of certain clergy and prelates to blind us to the sacrifices of good priests and bishops, who in these difficult times need our prayers and support more than ever.
Theodore McCarrick’s Defrocking, and Our Lady’s Work
It was announced this past week that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been defrocked – that is, removed from the clerical state. The decision was announced by the Vatican days before the commencement of a Vatican summit on how to respond to the abuse crisis.
Despite the antiseptic legal language of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) statement explaining the rationale for defrocking the cardinal, the statement is chilling for what it exposes. The cardinal, said the CDF, was found guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
We know from the personal testimony of one of Theodore McCarrick’s victims, James Grein, that those “sins against the Sixth Commandment” included 20 years of sexual abuse – the nature of which is too disgusting to describe here – starting when Grein was just 11 years old. But, we now also know, the abuse Grein suffered was merely the tip of the iceberg: decades of grooming and abuse of seminarians, including the degradation of the holy sacrament of penance (confession) into a sleazy pick-up bar, during which time Catholic dioceses negotiated multiple settlements and McCarrick continued to climb the ranks of the Church hierarchy.
Immediately after news that McCarrick had been defrocked broke, Grein issued a heartbreaking statement. “Nothing can give me back my childhood,” he said. “McCarrick has haunted the church for the last 50 years. A church which has been cut off from Jesus. Run by men who have chosen to worship money, power, greed. The exact opposite of God’s Holy Teaching.”
However, despite Grein’s dire language about the present state of the Church, his statement also included a truly extraordinary statement of faith: “It’s time for us to cleanse the church. Our Lady’s work is in process.”
Troubling Red Flags
I hate addressing this topic. Not only does it necessitate writing about unfathomably sordid crimes perpetrated against the innocent, but it also exposes the “filth” – Pope Benedict’s own word – that has embedded itself within Holy Mother Church Herself, the Bride of Christ, the Mother whom I vowed to serve with my life as a priest. And yet, as I continue writing and you reading this column, I hope that we can keep in mind Grein’s statement of hope: for Our Lady’s work is indeed in progress, no matter how dark things may seem.
However, I must confess that while some have expressed hope that McCarrick’s defrocking marks a major step forward in this cleansing process, I am not so optimistic. Defrocking McCarrick was the barest minimum possible. Furthermore, it came decades late, and only after intense pressure from the laity. Only if I thought that defrocking McCarrick was the beginning of a systematic process of cleansing, reparation and reform, without regard to the rank or status of the perpetrator, would I be satisfied that true renewal was under way. But there are troubling signs that this is not what is happening.
Consider the talks at last week’s summit. A cursory glance at the titles shows how they failed to convey the gravity and urgency of the subject matter: “Collegiality: sent together,” “Synodality: joint responsibility,” “Communio: to work together,” “Openness: sent out into the world,” “Transparency in a community of believers,” “Communication: to all people.”
These are soft, weak, and ultimately meaningless words. Sent for what reason? Responsible for what? Working together for what end? Sent into the world for what purpose? Communicating what message to all people?
The English writer G.K. Chesterton passionately opposed the way writers of his day used long words to – as he said – save themselves “the toil of reasoning.” “There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word ‘damn’ than in the word ‘degeneration’,” he wrote. Few people – including many theologians – have any clear idea what “synodality” and “collegiality” mean, let alone what they have to do with the grooming, rape, and exploitation of children, adolescents, and seminarians, and the systematic coverup of these same crimes. One worries that their ambiguity is precisely the point: that they are being employed by comfortable clerics to save themselves not just the toil of reasoning, but the much harder toil of reform.
“The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard,” said Chesterton. In this battle against the perversion that has sunk its teeth into Holy Mother Church, what we need are hard words. Words like repentance, reparation, punishment, and reform. The laity who are daily dismayed by the steady flow of the sordid and vicious behaviors from the rectories, chanceries, and curial offices of the Church do not want to know that their bishops will – as one of the talk titles says – take on the “smell of the sheep.”
The title of that same talk continues: “Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd’s task.” However, the “heart” of a shepherd’s task is not to “know” the pain of the sheep, but rather to prevent wolves from inflicting wounds on the sheep in the first place. What would we think of a shepherd who sat down to sympathize with his sheep’s pain, while the wolves continued to ravage his flock? What the laity want to know most of all right now is, do the members of the Church hierarchy have what it takes to remove the wolves, even when the wolves may be dressed in the guise of shepherds?
Unfortunately, there are many red flags suggesting that many of the reform efforts amount to window-dressing. If it were not so, for example, the Vatican would already have eagerly released any and all documents it had about Theodore McCarrick – including information about when the allegations against McCarrick were first known, who knew, and what they did or (more importantly) did not do about it. If this necessitates further resignations and defrockings, then so much the better.
The Need to Talk About Homosexuality
Equally as important, if the reform efforts underway were deadly-serious, they would be predicated upon an unflinchingly accurate understanding of precisely what the abuse crisis is about and caused by. Back in the early 2000s, the common understanding was that the abuse crisis was about predatory pedophilia. Policies and procedures were put in place that did, in fact, seem to have an effect on preventing such crimes.
However, we now know that the problem is wider, deeper, and more complex than this original understanding. The data clearly shows that an overwhelming majority of victims are post-pubescent males. The Vatican’s own lead investigator on abuse, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, admitted in an interview earlier this month: “There has been a constant since 2001 regarding the sexual abuse of minors committed by Catholic clergy: 80% of the victims are male and over 14 years old.” Furthermore, the revelations about McCarrick for the first time suggested another, unconsidered front in the battle against sex abuse: the grooming and abuse of adult male seminarians. This may not be a legal crime, but it unquestionably involves a perverse kind of spiritual abuse that destroys lives and souls.
Last week, an openly homosexual journalist released a book purporting to uncover the fact that an enormous number of clerics working at the Vatican are practicing homosexuals. The author, Frédéric Martel, has an obvious agenda to overturn Church teaching against homosexuality, and according to reviews the work is marred by scurrilous gossip-mongering. But even if Martel is almost certainly exaggerating his findings for effect, what ought to give us pause is that very [few] are disputing one of Martel’s main theses: that there exist embedded, organized networks of actively homosexual clerics in the Vatican.
Given the vast wealth of information pointing to the fact that most of the abuse afflicting the Church is homosexual in nature, and that the subsequent coverups are partially explained by the fact that compromised clerics look out for one another, one would think that reform efforts would directly address this question. Unfortunately, at a Vatican press conference last week before the abuse summit, the Vatican representatives present dodged and downplayed the role homosexuality plays in the abuse crisis despite multiple questions from journalists directly addressing the topic.
Some members of the laity aren’t standing for this. “If this Synod limits itself to discussing only the problem of the abuse of minors, saying nothing about the plague of homosexuality which infests the Church, this Synod will betray its mission,” the International Coalition of Laity stated in a press release last week. In an open letter Cardinals Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller urged their fellow bishops to speak up. “The plague of the homosexual agenda has been spread within the Church, promoted by organized networks and protected by a climate of complicity and a conspiracy of silence,” they alleged. Last week Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia also wrote that “predatory homosexuality played a major role in most of the abuse cases we know about, and laypeople are well aware of it.” He added, “Ignoring or downplaying that reality only undermines the efforts of the Church to purify her work.”
Archbishop Chaput also added, however, “In my experience, most American bishops are genuinely good men who have been, and are, committed to protecting their people and purifying their own hearts of any tolerance or complacency toward the abuse crisis.” This is my experience as well. Nevertheless, I am also finding that the patience of many of the Catholics in the pews, around the world, has been stretched thin. The time for responses to the crisis that have even the whiff of the bureaucratic is over. What Catholics are craving is individual pastoral leadership, leadership that does not await press statements from national conferences or Vatican congregations for carefully curated talking points.
As Phil Lawler – one of the Catholic journalists who has most deeply investigated the abuse crisis and its origins – wrote recently: “If angry protests from the laity forced the Vatican finally to act in the McCarrick case, maybe – just maybe – a continued swelling chorus of outrage will force further action to eliminate the broader corruption that has been exposed by this scandal. Let’s bear that in mind, if last week’s ‘summit’ produces no substantial results. We, the loyal laity, have a role to play in the reform of our Church. If our bishops have defaulted on their obligations to lead and to govern, we have our own duty to reproach them. Yes, I’m talking about a call to repentance.”
Let me, however, end on this note of hope: As I travel the world, I meet many thousands of lay Catholics, priests, bishops, and religious men and women. Despite the current dark night through which Holy Mother Church is passing, I see daily, on the ground, the great hope that the Church and Her members nourish: a hope that transforms individual hearts, families, communities, and countries. The sins of some of the Church’s shepherds – clergy and prelates – has deeply wounded the Church and has brought great scandal. But the Church still remains the crucible in which are forged the saints that live out Christ’s great commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you!” Christ and His Mother will never abandon the Church, and neither must we. Even as we are filled with righteous anger, we must never for a moment lose sight of the truth that the Church is the Bride of Christ, the vessel of salvation.
James Grein is right: “Our Lady’s work is in process.” Let us join in this process, both through concrete action to bring about change, and through the prayers, fasting and other sacrifices by which our hearts may be softened to become more Christ-like. If the spirit of the anti-Christ is prowling the world and has entered even into the walls of the Church, our response must be to counter by becoming an alter Christus – a Christian so consumed by love of God that we can say with St. Paul, It is no longer I that live, but Christ Who lives in me.