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Is the Pope a Catholic?

Francis himself is accused of participating in the cover-up of abuse by priests.

No one can have much to add to NRO’s coverage of the crisis in the Catholic Church. Michael Brendan Dougherty, Kathryn Lopez, and other colleagues have covered all the shocking events fully and with a kind of angry or hurt conscientiousness: the nature and extent of the sexual abuse; the quiet shuttling of pedophile priests from one parish to another; the legalistic bullying and manipulation of victims and their families; the placing of the Church’s political and financial interests above justice and charity; the fact that bishops showed greater concern, even tenderness, towards clerical abusers than towards those they abused; and the repeated assurances that these abuses were being corrected when in fact they were being concealed and smoothed over. These revelations have been deeply disturbing, and anyone predicting them a few years ago would have been dismissed — as indeed some critics of the bishops were dismissed — as dealing in fantasies of sexual perversion and blasphemy.

Despite the sensational nature of the revelations, however, we all had the eerie sense that there might be worse to come. And it came last weekend in the form of the statement by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, on the Vatican’s handling of sexual misconduct by priests that implicated Pope Francis and other senior churchmen in the concealment of such abuses. Archbishop Viganò’s allegations are, for the moment, allegations. But they are extremely serious ones — either a malicious character assassination of the pope and other senior churchmen or a deeply shocking revelation of corruption and wickedness at the highest levels of Catholicism. They are also sufficiently detailed as to be open to either refutation or confirmation by the bishops and Vatican officials accused or exonerated in them. Unusually for criticisms of the Church, especially such grave ones, they have received some support from leading clerics in America, Rome, and elsewhere.

The pope himself was “ambushed” by questions from the media as he returned from his visit to Ireland. His response, leaving it to the journalists to judge the archbishop’s charges for themselves, was ambiguous. He may have felt that the charges were self-evidently false and malicious and that it was beneath his dignity to respond to them. But he cannot leave it there. There is no way that the Church can avoid dealing with them promptly, openly, and candidly.

After all, Archbishop Viganò is a distinguished churchman. He is at the end of his career. He can have no this-worldly ambition. So what is he doing and why? Others more knowledgeable may offer better explanations, but I can suggest only four: Viganò is lying; he is sincere but mentally ill; he is an innocent manipulated by others; he is telling the truth in whole or in part.

The faithful need to know which explanation is correct. Given what we already know from the McCarrick case and the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, the fourth must be granted a real possibility. If so, it may still be that Viganò’s motives are corrupt — i.e., he wants to topple a liberal Pope. But if his charges are true, they are such a serious matter that his motives are of interest mainly to God. His statement must therefore lead to serious investigations, which, since the allegations involve crimes as well as sins, will inevitably be conducted by secular authorities as well as church ones. In the next few years, therefore, we seem likely to learn a great deal more about evil in the garb of priestly virtue and episcopal authority. And that raises a question that has not yet been given the same attention as sexual abuse and its cover-up above.

In his New York Times column on the McCarrick case — a month and an age ago — Ross Douthat said of the former cardinal that after the clerical-abuse scandal in Boston broke, “the Washington archbishop became the avuncular, reassuring media point person for his fellow bishops, issuing statements of concern and condemnation that if he really feared the punishments of hell would have turned to ashes in his mouth.” Those words were striking, indeed piercing. What did McCarrick believe? What does he believe? Did the punishments of hell feature in his mind at all? What did bishops and other senior clerics think they were doing when they either passed predator priests on to other parishes after a brief psychological counseling or turned a blind eye to sex parties in the seminaries? Are they really Catholics? Or Christians of some other kind? Or men who had lost their faith almost without realizing the fact? Or men who had adapted Catholicism to other philosophies, which had promptly digested it? Or something worse?

I imagine that most church officials believed in the orthodox doctrines of Catholic Christianity and either knew little of what was going on in their dioceses or misread its real character. They would be skeptical of the allegations brought to them, especially since many of those making them were afraid to go on the record, and accepted other explanations. They will now be horrified by their own credulity and anxious to make amends. Maybe their own faith is even at risk as a result. After all, the metastasizing scandal is leading Catholics in the pews to doubt their faith and even, in a spirit of bitterness at what now seems false self-sacrifice, to reject it angrily. Faithful bishops and priests will not be completely immune to this overwhelming disillusionment.

So what did the bishops and priests who failed either at chastity or at justice or at both believe? Let me suggest three possible answers.

The first answer is: nothing much. They gradually lost their faith as they went through life and woke up one day to find that they were agnostics who had a decent living in the Church and no prospect in middle age of getting a job of equal worth and satisfaction. It’s an easy thing to do in a post-Christian society. No doubt their loss of faith was a problem for them, but in a very human way they managed to keep postponing a decision on what to do about it. Maybe they even enjoyed their job, which they defined as a special kind of social worker helping others or, at a more senior level, a special kind of bureaucrat who could use the Church to advance good causes of a secular kind. Of course, agnostics in clerical garb would find it hard to keep the rules on chastity as age and loneliness wore them down. And if they no longer took the priesthood’s disciplines (or the authority sustaining them) seriously, even if they remained personally chaste, they would find it hard to impose those rules on others. Their loyalty would gradually shift from the Christian faith to the Church as an institution, and their first response to scandal would be to conceal the vice to protect the institution.

The second sort of belief is, one trusts, a very niche one. Technically speaking, it may not even be a belief. But something deeper and darker than casual agnosticism is indicated by the behavior of the five Pennsylvania priests who took part in the sacrilegious rape/seduction of a young seminarian in a form that mocked the Crucifixion, and in McCarrick’s seduction of seminarians, sustained over many years through his iron determination to keep the privileges and protections of a Prince of the Church. Sexual obsessions are powerful forces, and most of us have felt their power and even given in to them at times. (They also lead us into absurd humiliations, which are the stuff of comedy — we must hope that God’s sense of humor is working overtime on Judgment Day.) But these cases went further than most. They mixed the betrayal of innocence with a kind of playing with sacrilege that hints at a more radical evil than surrender to sexual temptation. This may turn out to be exaggerated. I hope so. But some elements in the scandal are a reminder that sin is rejecting God, and the worst sin is consciously and defiantly doing so.

The third belief, humanitarianism, is the most subtle substitute for lost faith because it passes itself off as Christian belief in much the same way that Communism in the 1940s passed itself off as “liberalism in a hurry.” It does indeed contain Christian themes — compassion, notably — but as Daniel Mahoney argues in a forthcoming book, it separates these virtues from the Christian realism about human nature that makes them effective and uplifting. It tends to deny evil and to elevate comfort, including psychological comfort, as the highest good. Instead of persuading people to confront their vices and change their lives, therefore, it offers therapy, welfare dependency, and bureaucratic control as the solutions to social evils. The solutions look like Christian concern, but they produce such results as an underclass, crime, family breakdown, and the spread of abortion and euthanasia.

In the early stages of the sex-abuse scandal in Boston, bishops and priests showed a naïve faith in Freud rather than God and thought that deeply rooted pedophilia could be massaged away with a few courses of psychiatric counseling. Some of the cases in Pennsylvania show bishops expressing more concern for a predator priest than for his victim. We shouldn’t dismiss either reaction entirely; psychiatry has a role in getting people to recognize and conquer their vices, and a religious superior has a duty to care for the souls of his pastors who have fallen into grave sins. But those considerations should come a long way after getting sexual offenders, especially priestly ones, to recognize the grave harm they have done to others and helping their victims to overcome that spiritual and psychological harm.

Even after all that’s happened, some bishops don’t seem to grasp such simple points. Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago sounded like a SNL parody of a secular humanitarian politician when he said: “The pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.” This is an unbelievably trivial response to the Church’s moral crisis. Suppose that Viganò’s charges are false, where is the righteous anger of those unjustly accused that should animate Cupich’s words? Suppose the charges are true, on the other hand, where is the bitter shame and determination to cleanse the Augean stables? Instead the archbishop blandly elevates a few contemporary political causes — one of which he describes with inadvertent candor as “talking about the environment” — above the grave sins plausibly committed by churchmen against the innocent, the public, and the Church. It’s all very tepid, nothing much to repent here, move along now. Apart from a few references to the instruction to McCarrick that he now live a life of prayer and penance — the first such instruction having lapsed — there has been very little sign of anguish, shame, repentance, and restitution on the part of those who have been credibly accused of protecting sins and sinners from justice.

If we are going to see a proper accounting of these things, it looks as if it will have to be delivered through the criminal-justice system. That has already happened in some of the cases revealed in the Pennsylvania report. Three hundred priests have been accused, with some convicted; a few still face trial, and many are dead. But the case that now really counts is that of McCarrick. It is unlikely that he will face prosecution for his seduction of seminarians. As one Italian religious journalist has observed indulgently, the seminarians were above the age of consent and suffered no actual violence even if they experienced pressure and distress. That’s a very worldly standard for a bishop to rely on for protection on a sex charge, even in post-Christian Italy and America, and it would play very badly with public opinion, but it’s probably enough to keep him out of court. Nor will he face human justice in the case of the minor child of family friends whom he both baptized and seduced. The statute of limitations has run out.

That is something he may now regret. It would be an opportunity of a kind, after all. If he were to plead not guilty and hire a ruthlessly brilliant lawyer to mount a scorched-earth defense on his behalf, he would be doing what any other white-collar criminal does in similar circumstances. A guilty plea, on the other hand, would be evidence of penitence, shame, and desire to make amends — far more so than retreating into a monastery for prayer and penance. And because child abusers face a hard time in prison, it would require real courage in addition to the humiliations that he would inevitably suffer. It would also tell us that McCarrick fears the punishments of the next world far more than the pains and humiliations of prison in this one.