Cardinal Theodore McCarrick visited my class at Sacred Heart Elementary in Bloomfield, N.J., once. The teachers reminded us before he arrived that by virtue of his office he was a successor to the Apostles. I remember mentally taking guesses as to which of the original twelve his office descended from. Thinking back on it, I’m relieved that he never got to know me, or know that I was the child of a single mother.
About a decade ago, my wife and I sat in the office of a young Catholic priest. He was a good priest, and gradually, as the conversation went on, both he and we dropped enough key phrases into the chat to signal that we were like-minded about what we saw as Catholicism’s moral, spiritual, and liturgical crisis. Everyone relaxed considerably. I ventured my low opinion of his bishop, a revered cardinal. He didn’t contradict me. I then offered that it was young priests like him who would restore the Church. He was part of a heroic generation that had entered the priesthood at the nadir of the priest-abuse crisis, inspired by John Paul II. He had a different mindset than those in the generations immediately before him, who were formed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and believed that they had to implement the more experimental, accommodating spirit of Vatican II. “Once they die off . . .” I started. And the young priest chimed in. “Exactly. They will be gone.”
What we were talking about had a name in Catholic circles. It was called “the biological solution.” Roughly speaking, it meant that priests attached to the reforming visions and the theological fads of mid 20th century would, by the simple process of aging and dying, be replaced by the younger, more tradition-minded, and less morally lax generation. The heavy implication was that the problem of moral cronyism in the Church, in which sexually compromised priests cover and cover-up for one another, would mostly solve itself over time.
The biological solution has long since stopped being a kind of secret handshake among young traditionalists. It has become a cause of division and crisis within religious orders. And it is obviously on the mind of Pope Francis, who seems never to be short of anecdotes about “rigid” young priests and wise old liberals.
But the past decade has taught me something: We were wrong. There is no biological solution to a moral, spiritual, and liturgical crisis.
It is an excuse for good men to be silent, to get along, and do nothing risky with their vocations. It is the way in which would-be reformers are turned into merely ‘collegial’ men who protect the institution.
First, we underestimated the damage that can be inflicted by a dying generation on its way out. If your plan is to gain territory because the other side will cede it naturally, you are vulnerable to stunning reversals when that side decides to fight back. Not long after Pope Francis was elected, the type of appointments made in America began to change. The traditional-leaning and “relatively young” Cardinal Raymond Burke was cast off the powerful Congregation of Bishops in Rome. While he had been there, Burke had likely seen to the elevation of tradition-minded men to replace old progressives, men like Bishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco, Jose Gomez in Los Angeles, Timothy Dolan in New York, and Charles Chaput in Philadelphia. When Burke was removed, he was replaced by the icy Cardinal Wuerl, the successor to Cardinal McCarrick in Washington. And suddenly Cardinal McCarrick’s personal lobbying became instrumental in the ascension of progressives to the College of Cardinals, men like Blase Cupich in Chicago, Kevin Farrell sent to a Roman office, and Joseph Tobin in Newark. (Tobin, you may remember, recently tweeted what he intended to send as a direct message, “Nighty Nighty, baby. I love you.”) The careers of Burke’s men stalled out. No red hat for Chaput, nor for Cordileone, nor, shockingly, for Gomez, the leader of one of the largest archdioceses on the planet. In fact, Gomez has been gelded. His scandal-ridden predecessor, Cardinal Mahony, roams the diocese against his wishes, and beyond his control.
Secondly, the idea of a biological solution has corrupted men’s morals and judgment along the way. It cultivates in priests a desire “not to know” about their superiors or colleagues, which is driven by the certain fear that to know may bring about the obligation to act, to do something risky. Instead of boldly confronting the system they want to change, the younger orthodox priests desire to preserve the corrupt system, intending to reform it only after the inheritance is passed onto them safely.
And so you see decent men reacting to the scandal in utterly warped ways. Here’s Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, tweeting last week after the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick:
Tobin’s reaction would be appropriate if it had just come to light that an archbishop had been a scofflaw on his parking tickets. It is utterly perverse when applied to the revelation that his nation’s leading Catholic official — the public face of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis — turns out to have been a pederast well-known within the Church as a serial sexual harasser and groomer of seminarians. Bishops should not be fearing and tamping down the feeling of scandal and anger among the laity; they should be promising to boldly and angrily confront the injustice, immorality, and crime in their own ranks. Tobin’s tweets read as the shrug of a man who long since gave up on the idea of actually protecting the flock from the wolves, and has taken to telling the surviving sheep not to be too disheartened that their friends and children continue to be devoured by his colleagues.
The lack of courage is everywhere corrupting. Even in the defense of orthodoxy, I’ve heard of Catholic bishops encouraging the more obstreperous journalists like myself to continue the fight, while excusing themselves from more dramatic or risky maneuvers by saying, “I’m just a simple country bishop. All I can do is pray.” Actually, successors to the Apostles can and ought to act as well as pray. The Church calls its priests to be celibates, not eunuchs.
So the notion that sitting back and waiting for inertia to do its work would solve the crisis has always been a lie. It is an excuse for good men to be silent, to get along, and do nothing risky with their vocations. It is the way in which would-be reformers are turned into merely “collegial” men who protect the institution. It is the way in which good priests absolve themselves from the difficult work of destroying the culture of abuse and impunity within the Church. We need more saints, and very few saints until recently were praised for merely “getting on.” As for the careerists, frankly they can go to Hell. They have taught us that St. Thomas Aquinas was wise, not cruel, while arguing that the blessed in heaven enjoy the torments of the damned.
The holiest priest I know has a career in shambles. He was talented and smart and went to the right schools in Rome. But he wanted to offer the traditional Latin Mass and give those entrusted to his spiritual care the undiluted Faith. For this he has suffered mightily. For years, he was stripped of his faculties by a certain Cardinal who happily promoted and transferred known pederasts, a Cardinal whom “everyone knows” about but who hasn’t been exposed in public. This holy priest — a truly great confessor — was later restored, but he’s still kept in obscurity. His suffering for the faith within the Church, and his suffering in his personal life is bringing him to the point where a sensitive soul’s knees would buckle if he entered the room. And it is suffering like his that brings grace to a Church starving for it.
There is no biological solution to a moral, spiritual, and liturgical crisis. The only solution is the very thing Catholics used to pray for after Mass. We didn’t pray for generational turnover. We didn’t pray for “orthodox” priests. We prayed for many holy priests.