The Catholic Crisis as It Stands Now

Pope Francis leads the Italian conference of bishops meeting at the Vatican, May 21, 2018. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
Pope Francis owes the Church some answers.

The Catholic Church is in a novel position. A senior churchman has accused the pope of knowingly rehabilitating a predator cardinal and publicly demanded the pope’s resignation. The accusation itself exposes to the public the political and theological divisions in the episcopacy of the Catholic Church, pitting bishop against bishop — and most dangerous of all — Pope Emeritus Benedict against reigning Pope Francis. The divisions have been a part of Catholic life for decades, but they were litigated openly only by academics, theologians, and the Catholic press. Conflict between bishops happened but in a way that was almost deniable. Attempts to change the fundamental orientation of the Church were disguised as merely legitimate differences of emphasis. Tradition could be in under Benedict. Mercy and renewal, under Francis.

The testimony of Archbishop Cardinal Viganò, demanding the resignation of Francis, with accusations of moral turpitude and doctrinal heterodoxy spreading out to hit a score of senior cardinals, was like a grenade going off between two sleeping camps of inexperienced soldiers. And when an explosion like this happens, each side understandably panicked, reached for their weapons, and awaited orders. It’s worthwhile to look at how things are aligned now.

Earlier this week, the Vatican announced that it would respond to “allegations Pope Francis covered up” sexual abuse by America’s disgraced and now-degraded former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. This was strange in that Pope Francis was not accused of covering up exactly, only that he knew of McCarrick’s serial sexual harassment of seminarians when he lifted some kind of restrictions on his activity that were imposed by Pope Benedict and made McCarrick an adviser in reshaping the American episcopate.

Shortly after this confusing announcement, McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, sent a letter to his priests, saying he would travel to Rome to discuss resignation — his own — with Pope Francis. The heavy implication was that he would allow new leadership to come to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

It is useful to review the turns this story has taken in the weeks since the accusations were made. The Viganò letter contained a long litany of accusations, setting reporters and commentators scrambling in several directions at once.

But Viganò is an uncouth right-winger, part of a vast conspiracy against the Pope. The first line of defense for Pope Francis was that Archbishop Viganò keeps repulsive company, daring to dine with conservatives such as the Italian journalist Marco Tosatti or the American lawyer Tim Busch. The latter has denied consulting with Viganò over his testimony.

Further, commentators speculated that Viganò was motivated by a grudge with Francis over an incident involving Kim Davis. As ambassador, Viganò had arranged for Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex-marriage licenses, to meet Pope Francis during his trip to America. Reports at the time emphasized that Viganò had sprung this on Pope Francis against his wishes. Subsequent reporting confirmed that Viganò followed all the procedures for getting Vatican approval for the meeting but that regret over the subsequent media storm in Francis’s circle led to Viganò’s dismissal from his post.

Despite the attempt by some commentators to describe Viganò’s testimony as part of an “operation” or an organized “putsch” against Francis, the letter’s release has not been followed up by a campaign of new revelations or documents. Its appearance in small, conservative Catholic publications itself was evidence of turning to the first friend on hand, in the absence of real planning.

Did McCarrick even look sanctioned? Not long after Viganò’s letter was published, reporters began to interrogate the public record. Did McCarrick look like a man who had been sanctioned by Benedict as Viganò claimed? The record was mixed, to say the least. Simple searches on YouTube or in newspaper archives turned up appearances of McCarrick at various Masses and social events during the period in question. McCarrick traveled, and he even appeared near Archbishop Viganò and Pope Benedict in public. This certainly did not look like a life retreated into a prayer cell.

On the other hand, reports also confirmed that Cardinal McCarrick did move out of his retirement living quarters at a seminary and into a renovated parish house. He was forced by the nunciature to cancel his appearance at events with seminarians. And after Francis was elected, McCarrick did take on a larger profile. Reporters sympathetic to McCarrick had noted the change, saying that while had been “put out to pasture” by Benedict but was “busier than ever” under Francis.

The nature of Benedict’s discipline is important. Confusing and somewhat contradictory statements coming from anonymous sources near Benedict have confirmed that some action was taken against McCarrick, but the precise details could not be recalled. This might strike most readers as odd in the extreme. How could Benedict remember disciplining a cardinal but not recall the details? Shouldn’t it have made an impression on him?

This has led a number of commentators to surmise that Benedict never formally imposed anything on McCarrick other than a personal request, perhaps not much more authoritative than a wish, that McCarrick lay low and mostly keep himself out of the public eye. The implication being that Benedict, for whatever reason, did not take McCarrick’s behavior so seriously.

But one theory that would reconcile all the above facts is that Benedict imposed a form of discipline short of a canonical sanction after a trial but more authoritative than a mere personal request. Subsequent reporting has indicated that the likeliest form of discipline imposed on McCarrick was not the product of a canonical trial but a “precept,” which, the reporter and canon lawyer Ed Condon explained, “is essentially an authoritative canonical instruction to do or not do something; it often includes direction on where a cleric must live.” The details of such an instruction would be handled by the Congregation of Bishops, the very curial office Viganò says would have the pertinent documentation on McCarrick.

That McCarrick, after the election of Francis, moved back into another seminary is some evidence for Viganò’s claim that a disciplinary measure imposed under Benedict was lifted under Pope Francis. Though it is at least for now conceivable that such measures were simply unknown to new administration in the Vatican.

Would it be so bad? We didn’t know about the kid. Notably, media very close to Pope Francis haven’t quite dared to deny the main charge, that McCarrick was in some way rehabilitated by Francis. They have questioned the severity of the sanctions. Reporters with close access to papal advisers have relayed reports that simply downgrade the severity or question the seriousness of Benedict’s disciplinary methods. This is a strategy of mitigating the charge and qualifying it.

These reports take care to remind readers that once a credible report of abusing a minor reached the Vatican, McCarrick was exposed and his status degraded in public by Francis. After all, it wasn’t until just this summer that McCarrick was alleged to have abused a minor (the first boy he baptized, in fact), and once that report was made, Francis made his sanctions against McCarrick public fact.

We’ll shoot the hostage. McCarrick was exposed under us. If there is a coverup, it implicates your friend. One theme of this story and the spin surrounding it is that Pope Francis’s defenders have pointed at Pope Bendict XVI or the legacy of Saint John Paul II and implied that conservative critics of Francis shouldn’t be so anxious to turn over rocks. There might be collateral damage. “Those who conceived and managed this operation with the intention to force Francis off the throne of Peter did not realize that such an attack would have involved his two predecessors,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Church historian and an active defender of Francis.

In fact, many reporters and commentators recently found themselves on the receiving end of sympathetic private appeals, explaining that what was really going on was that Pope Francis was protecting the reputation of his predecessors. It was hard not to detect the whiff of a threat.

By promising to address accusations of a cover-up, the Vatican seems to be trying to reframe the issue as one of disclosure, rather than rehabilitation. In this, Francis defenders may believe that their best argument that Viganò’s testimony was wrong to say that Pope Francis only recently imposed on McCarrick sanctions similar to ones imposed by his predecessor.

As Andrea Tornielli, the Italian Vaticanist closest to Francis, wrote:

Actually though, the sanctions are not similar. Those of Benedict XVI, according to Viganò himself, were personal and secret. Nobody should have known them. Those of Pope Francis were instead made public immediately, so that everyone knew that the old cardinal had been sanctioned after the emergence of a well-founded allegation of abuse of a minor.

But the question is not whether sanctions are public or private. The question is whether Francis knew about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians and lifted the restrictions on McCarrick’s life because he wanted McCarrick’s counsel in reshaping the American episcopate. And who else knew of them? Did Cardinal Weurl?

If some conservatives have miscalculated the damage that could be done to the legacies of Benedict and John Paul II, some of Francis’s defenders may be underestimating the will to discover how men like McCarrick advance to positions of authority in the Church and the will to reform the Church in response. Further, Team Francis may be underestimating the willingness of those around Benedict to protect him. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who acts partly as a caretaker to the pope emeritus, has in recent days found himself energetically defending Benedict against his critics and, while doing so, not so subtly taking shots at Pope Francis’s advisers.

Silence before reporters, raving at Mass. Pope Francis’s initial reaction was not to deny any part of the grave accusations against him. Instead he told reporters that they could make a judgment on the nature of the accusations themselves and that he might speak on the matter later. For now, though, he told them, “I will not say one word on this.”

However, as in previous public controversies, Francis has taken to using his homilies as an occasion for issuing undisguised commentary on current events. In his homily on September 3, he recommended his own chosen strategy for dealing with those who seek scandal. “With people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family — silence, prayer” are the appropriate answers, he said. He said silence makes us better imitators of Christ.

His homily the following week is worth quoting at some length:

In these times, it seems like the “Great Accuser” has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins so they are visible, in order to scandalize the people. The “Great Accuser,” as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, “roams the earth looking for someone to accuse.”

So in two consecutive weeks, the pope has managed to praise nondisclosure in his homilies. The first time he did so while comparing himself to Jesus Christ, and the next week he did so while comparing Viganò to Satan. The only thing that is astonishing about this in this point of the Francis pontificate is the pretense that the pope is still silent.

What matters. In all the noise, the question that matters is still this: What did Pope Francis and those around him know about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick? How much influence did McCarrick have on the pope and his appointments? Does Pope Francis overlook the moral turpitude of those prelates he sees as allies (Cardinal Daneels, Cardinal McCarrick) in order to advance what his friends describe as his “larger agenda” for the Church?

If the Church is in the middle of a cold civil war between a Benedict faction and a Francis faction, the question all laypeople have is whether that factionalism has now become all-consuming, so that even the punishment of flagrant sexual abuse is subordinated to factional concerns. Pope Francis should dignify us with an answer.


The Latest