Pope Francis has succeeded in making a mess for his Church, especially in his understanding of its core teachings.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a Law and Liberty Symposium on the crisis in the Catholic Church.
To begin with the obvious is a good place to start. In this case it is also quite dramatic. Archbishop Viganò’s recent J’accuse of the Pope and many high-up church men is not just another salvo in the ongoing civil war in the Catholic church, it changes the battlefield in a dramatic way. Its impact was immediately felt, while its full impact and significance remain to be seen, as responses and reactions unfold. Such is the nature of history with human agency involved. Since it is a battlefield with armed camps and live-fire, there will be casualties, including reputations and, to some extent, truth, and smoke aplenty. In the fog of battle, it helps to have some understanding of the state of the Church and who the combatants are.
Recently, Ross Douthat laid out the parties and battle lines. Like American politics, there are theological liberals and progressives and theological conservatives and traditionalists in the Church. Moreover, as in American society, they largely exist in bubbles. Or at least there is very little actual discussion and debate between them over fundamental issues. Conservatives in fact charge that many of their opponents dissemble about their agenda to overturn settled church teaching, while many progressives employ the slurs their counterparts in the secular world employ against their opponents: homophobic; rigid; divisive; reactionary; authoritarian, while adding some drawn from biblical sources, e.g., Pharisees and hypocrites. Outsiders may be forgiven for thinking: much smoke, a good deal of heat, but little light. The issues and stakes between them, however, are of the first order, both for Catholics and those who think the Church has a significant role to play in the contemporary world.
Douthat identifies two sorts or levels of disagreement between the two. The first involves matters of sexual ethics, ranging from the nature of marriage to the legitimacy of homosexual acts, and the place of active homosexuals and divorced-and-remarried couples in the life of the church. Liberals speak a language of compassion and inclusion and progressives. They discern a need to change the Church’s core sexual teachings, and under Pope Francis they see their opportunity to do so. This is to be advanced by way of changes in pastoral practice and a new moral lexicon that tacitly replaces old understandings and strictures. Fr. James Martin, S. J., is a past master at this discourse. Conservatives hew to long-standing, now countercultural, teachings regarding human sexuality, sin, and participation in the life of the Church. Of course, they have their fair share of sinners and even hypocrites, but the moral order by which they (would) judge themselves is traditional.
As for the deepest issue, it has to do with the very nature of Catholicism. In many ways, the aforementioned issues implicate the Church’s defining relationship: its fidelity to her founder and lord. As Douthat pointed out, Jesus was stricter than the Pharisees when it came to divorce, and St. Paul would never allow a remarried divorcée to receive communion. More generally, there are two understandings of Christianity at work, one that is progressive with a capital P, where new understandings abrogate earlier ones and the Spirit is constantly revealing the meaning of the Gospel in greater depth, and another which allows for doctrinal development—but not departure—from an original deposit of faith. One could say that Hegel is the patron saint of the former, and John Henry Newman, of the latter.
All this was well underway, with the portside emboldened by Francis and appearing to have the upper hand, when two seismic events occurred. Almost simultaneously, we had the revelations and disgrace of Cardinal McCarrick and the release of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report about sexual abuse and misconduct by priests, as well as episcopal cover-ups, in four of Pennsylvania’s six dioceses. These shifted the focus to the episcopacy as agents and abettors of immoral and even criminal acts, cover-ups, and connivance. They also brought back into the discussion the vexed issue of homosexuals and homosexuality in all this. One was treated (if that is the right word) to dissertations on the distinctions between situational, natural, and abuse-induced homosexuality, pederasty, pedophilia, and ephebophilia, not to mention individuals, networks, and intergenerational chains.
As one could have predicted, reactions and aetiologies differed between the camps. To be sure, both were aghast at the sexual abuse of minors and the egregious nature of McCarrick’s misdeeds and the open-secret of his career. But they differed in framing and accounting for the facts. One side spoke of a “lavender mafia,” the other of “clericalism.” One side invoked the John Jay Report produced after the 2002 scandal, while the other pointed out that the Report deliberately limited its conclusions, avoiding the elephant in the room: the predominance of homosexual perpetrators. And so it went.
Then came Archbishop Viganò’s bombshell, his eleven-page “Testimony.” Until recently (2016), he was a very high-ranking prelate whose positions (including as Papal Nuncio to the United States from 2011 to 2016) put him in a position to know all sorts of dirt about cardinals and archbishops and bishops. He is regularly called “a conservative” in the press, but the secular media and liberal opponents have little credibility when it comes to characterizing those of a more orthodox faith. If one is conserving the deposit of faith, then “conservative” is a badge of honor. The same is true of the slur “homophobe,” it tells us more of the slurrer’s biases than the views of the slurred. No Catholic should be cowed or distracted by it.
Viganò added three things to the ongoing civil war. First, his rank and the positions of high office he held gave him credibility. He was in a position to know. Secondly, he connected McCarrick with a wider group of high-up enablers and protégés. He named names, many names in fact, some of the highest in the Church. In so doing, he indicated who, and the connections that, should be investigated. This was another iteration of a longstanding charge of a pro-homosexual network at the highest levels of the Church, but this time it was detailed and bore the signature of someone who could say, “I know these men, I worked with them.”
Third, and most explosively, he included the Pope himself in his indictment. Pope Francis, he said, knew McCarrick’s immoral past and predilections no later than 2013, as well as the fact that the previous Pope had ordered him to cease from public ministry, and yet Francis ignored both and employed him as an ambassador, as well as seeking out his counsel for ways to put his stamp on the United States church. In so doing, Francis would have shown that his commitment to the standards he himself has enunciated with respect to clerical sexual misconduct, of zero tolerance and systematic reform, is a façade, or secondary to other agendas. Viganò concluded by saying that the Pope, based on his own standards, should resign.
In a recent column, Douthat reminded us that there is an earlier instance when Francis ignored documented evidence of a prelate covering-up sexual abuse and, to the contrary, reinstated him in gratitude for services rendered, as well as his ongoing utility for his agenda. The rehabilitation of Cardinal Danneels, however, while known to those who pay attention to these things, did not attract widespread public attention.
With his accusation, however, Viganò has decisively moved the public focus from Francis’s liberalizing agenda to his conduct, and to an area that has become, quite rightly, neuralgic. And more than neuralgic: I would say, sovereign. By that I mean that even the Pope is subject to the universal abhorrence of sexual abuse and ignoring or covering up for it. True, his defenders have blamed the messenger, and will continue to do so. But the questions he posed remain and they must be answered, because the moral consensus of the day demands it. What did Francis know about McCarrick? When did he know? What did he do with that knowledge? And here, the standards of judgment are shared by all camps.