What Is the Way Out of Here?

Author: David Gibson

“It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, and for Catholics, each day’s headlines this past year have been a ritualistic confirmation of that unsettling judgment.


The annus horribilis began in June 2018 with revelations that Pope Francis had removed the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, from public ministry following a confidential Church investigation that substantiated allegations he had abused a boy in New York City in the 1970s. One month later, Francis forced McCarrick, 88, to resign from the College of Cardinals — an exceedingly rare punishment.


Then, in February, after an expedited Vatican process prompted by new allegations that McCarrick had abused other boys years ago, and revelations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with seminarians, he was expelled from the clergy entirely, completing his precipitous and unprecedented fall. At last word the infirm ex-cardinal was living in a friary in the middle of the Kansas plains.


The shock of the case was hard to overstate: McCarrick had always been a personable and peripatetic figure whose approach to ministry aligned closely with Francis’ call for a pastoral mission of engagement, and his fall from grace was steeper, faster and further than any other prelate’s in memory. It also seemed to precipitate a perfect storm of abuse-related events that would wash over the global Church, but would arguably hit American Catholics hardest. That’s really no surprise: Given our long experience of the abuse scandal — we’ve been hearing about this story since the 1980s, after all — Catholics in the United States have a short fuse for anything that suggests the crisis has not been dealt with.


Yet there it was, back again, and again. McCarrick’s disgrace was followed in August by the release of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report, two years in the making and hundreds of pages long, recounting 1,000-plus cases of child sexual abuse by some 300 priests over seven decades. The report reverberated as powerfully as The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Spotlight” investigation had in 2002, a series that followed a decade of earlier revelations — and years of concomitant episcopal promises that the problem had been resolved, and yes, you can trust us on that.


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The Pennsylvania fallout circled back to Washington and to McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. A trusted adviser to Francis who was set to retire with accolades, Wuerl had been bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 before coming to Washington, and had developed a reputation as an early crusader against clergy abusers. It turned out that wasn’t the whole story. Yes, Wuerl was no Cardinal Bernard Law, the villain of the earlier Boston chapter of this saga. But the grand jury report, for all its exaggerated claims and sweeping generalizations, showed that Wuerl had done as much wrong as he’d done right. He could complain that the goalposts had moved since 2002 and that he’d done no worse at the time than other prelates who kept their jobs. But the rules of the past were no guide to the demands of the present, and future.


Now, no one wanted context, just contrition. Wuerl’s own ham-handed public relations campaign in response to the Pennsylvania report, plus later revelations that he had, at best, dissembled when he claimed he knew nothing of McCarrick’s reputation for “high-jinks” with seminarians (as one McCarrick accuser put it), doomed him to an extended and tortuous descent into an ignominious retirement.


Then came L’Affaire Viganò. Two weeks after the Pennsylvania bombshell, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S., released a scathing 7,000-word letter in the middle of the night calling on Francis to resign the papacy, accusing Francis of complicity in a coverup of McCarrick’s behavior and various senior churchmen of being gay or gay-friendly. The letter claimed, among other lurid charges against his rivals in the hierarchy, that shortly after the pope’s election in 2013 he had warned Francis about McCarrick and that Francis had ignored him. Instead, Viganò further claimed, Francis had dismissed sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had supposedly imposed upon McCarrick, going so far as to make the American one of his key advisers.


The archbishop, both a renowned foe of Francis’ pastoral priorities and a notorious culture warrior, presented little evidence to back up his claims, and his opponents found much reason to doubt Viganò’s word: He too had hailed McCarrick at public events despite knowing the former cardinal’s track record. But Francis refused to address the charges directly, so the allegations metastasized and became part of the wider narrative of scandal, crisis and hypocrisy at the very summit of the Church.


Transparency and accountability are just two critical steps on the path forward. Others include the further revamping of seminary education to produce priests better equipped to deal with a celibate life in the midst of modernity, but also with a Church that increasingly relies on the involvement and leadership of laypeople.


Thus the latter half of 2018 turned into Lent crossed with Groundhog Day: the penance that never ends. Law enforcement officials in at least 14 other states launched their own investigations, and a U.S. Department of Justice official instructed workers in dioceses across the country not to destroy any files or communications related to clergy abuse.


The U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore in November, which they hyped as a make-or-break moment to show they “got it” and would take action, was sidelined at the last minute by a showdown with the Vatican over their proposals, and was further complicated by a painfully awkward public debate revealing a hierarchy divided and confused over what they should be doing. Francis told them to go on a retreat in Chicago in January and sent his personal chaplain to preach to them; then everyone waited to see what would happen in February when Francis summoned hundreds of prelates from around the world for yet another make-or-break moment, a summit designed to get everyone in the hierarchy heading in the same direction. Days before it opened, the longstanding but little-discussed plague of the clerical abuse of nuns burst into the open when Francis publicly acknowledged it — and pledged to do something about it — during an in-flight press conference.


It was all exhausting, and not helped by conservative media outlets that mobilized to exploit the abuse scandal to further undermine Francis, or to push calls to ban gay men from the priesthood and promote greater orthodoxy. In addition to echoing Viganò’s call for Francis to resign over his alleged knowledge of McCarrick’s abuses, these outlets repeatedly broadcast charges that the pope was promoting “heresy” and “confusion” among Catholics. In effect they were creating a sense of chaos that served to ratify their own claims that Francis was creating chaos. As the pope said in closing the February summit, the Church must “rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”


This cycle of revelations and manipulations took a toll. A Gallup poll reported that American Catholics’ views of the honesty and ethics of their clergy fell from 49 percent to 31 percent over the course of the year, and confidence in the Church continuing to erode. Pope Francis’ once sky-high popularity had already taken a hit among conservative Catholics who disliked his insistent appeals on behalf of migrants, the poor and economic justice. But by October 2018 Catholics across the board were losing faith in the pontiff to handle the abuse crisis, with just three in 10 Catholic adults telling the Pew Research Center that Francis was doing an “excellent” or a “good” job addressing the issue, down 24 points since 2015 and 14 points from early 2018. The numbers didn’t look much better in other places like France, Germany, Chile and Honduras where the scandal was breaking into the open, often for the first time.


Indeed, the constant stream of reports and accusations all flowed into a sewer of scandal that seemed so disgusting and overwhelming that Catholics were left with few answers to the questions about what was happening, whether there was any way out of the mess, and why they should even remain Catholic.


Forget optimism, many thought. How about hope?

Two prescriptions

In trying to find a path forward, the first step is to try to understand what the scandal is, and what it is not. Two central principles point the way: accountability and transparency.


One thing that becomes clear on a closer examination of the facts is that this is no longer really a “clergy sex abuse” scandal. Rather, it is a scandal of episcopal accountability — of holding bishops to the same standard of accountability that they demand of priests, and, indeed, of laypeople. Anger at the bishops is the real driver of the current crisis. The abuse of children by priests horrified Catholics; the inaction by too many bishops and the lack of penalties for their failures has infuriated them. Moreover, even in 2002, when the U.S. bishops were establishing their landmark Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People following the Globe’s investigative series, the incidence of abuse by priests was already declining sharply — a downward trend that started in the 1980s, as the extensive 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed.


The Pennsylvania report bolstered that data, as just two of the 300-plus priests identified by the grand jurywere reported for abuse in the last 10 years. Through the foreshortened perspective of our media lens, though, it seemed like everything had happened just yesterday, and could be happening today, tomorrow and on into the future.


Obviously one case of abuse is one too many, and sexual abuse typically haunts victims for the rest of their lives. Yet the reality is that in the past generation abuse by priests has become more of a glitch than a feature of the Catholic clergy, at least in the U.S. It is, however, a glitch that, because of its heinous nature and the abysmal state of Catholic institutional credibility, could bring the Church crashing down if a bishop did not take swift and strong action against the alleged perpetrator. As Peter Steinfels wrote in the January 14 issue of Commonweal, “the Dallas Charter has worked. Not worked perfectly, not without need for regular improvements and constant watchfulness. But worked. Justified alarm and demands for accountability at instances of either deliberate noncompliance or bureaucratic incompetence, should not be wrenched into an ill-founded pretense that, fundamentally, nothing has changed.”


What remains absent is any reputable procedure for investigating bishops who fail to protect children, a system analogous to the charter’s system of review boards and expert analysis for clerics accused of abuse. Yes, Francis has taken a much firmer line against more bishops than his two immediate predecessors. He has fired several bishops for failing to protect children, and he forced the entire Chilean hierarchy to submit their collective resignation over the scandal in that country (though he has accepted only some of those resignations so far). But those tend to be ad hoc actions with little explanation as to why one bishop should be fired and another retained.


The process must be credible and comprehensible, and the result must be clearly explained. In other words, it must be transparent.


It must also extend backward into the past and not just forward into the future. Sure, we can wait for grand juries and prosecutors to issue subpoenas and produce reports. Or bishops and religious orders could be more forthcoming by publishing lists of all credibly accused priests (“credibly accused” being a threshold that also needs calibration to some sort of universal — and universally understood — standard). Some bishops began doing this in the 1990s, but for years they remained outliers. Until the recent outbreak of bad headlines, just 40 out of nearly 200 U.S. dioceses had publicized those names, often as a consequence of lawsuits or pressure from law enforcement.


Now, under the white heat of public opinion and renewed legal pressure, dozens more dioceses and religious orders have been publishing the names of those credibly accused. That information is good, but it must become the rule rather than the exception. All dioceses and orders need to come clean, because it seems to me that is the only way victims will feel that some measure of justice has been done. Almost all of these crimes have passed the statute of limitations, and the only recourse left is to see perpetrators publicly named and to empower other victims to come forward. A historical reckoning is a moral imperative, a matter of confessing sins and doing penance, if any measure of absolution is to be forthcoming.


People, not privilege

Transparency and accountability are just two critical steps on the path forward. Others include the further revamping of seminary education to produce priests better equipped to deal with a celibate life in the midst of modernity, but also with a Church that increasingly relies on the involvement and leadership of laypeople.


The most important reform is the wholesale reorientation of the Church that Francis has called for since his election in March 2013 — a “poor Church for the poor,” a “field hospital” that treats the marginalized where they are suffering, that finds its identity in giving up privilege and prerogative, that learns by accompanying those the powerful would cast down and by listening. In the context of the abuse crisis, it is the victims who represent these marginalized voices, and the perpetrators — and their enablers in the hierarchy — who represent a culture of clericalism that must be vanquished in order to free the Church from its “theological narcissism” and “spiritual worldliness,” as Francis puts it. Nothing is worse than a Church that attends to its own institutional needs first, and in that sense the Church may find in this crisis the opening to what Francis, in a powerful letter sent to the American bishops who gathered for the closed-door January retreat, called a “new ecclesial season.”


“Changes in the Church are always aimed at encouraging a constant state of missionary and pastoral conversion capable of opening up new ecclesial paths [that are] ever more in keeping with the Gospel and, as such, [are] respectful of human dignity,” he wrote to the U.S. churchmen. Without such conversion and respect, he continued, “everything we do risks being tainted by self-referentiality, self-preservation and defensiveness, and thus [being] doomed from the start.”


The Church, he often says, must be like Christ on the cross, emptying itself of pretense so the Spirit may guide and transform it. We must have new wineskins for this new wine.


From humiliation to humility

These reforms, this renewal, this wholesale re-envisioning of Catholicism as a missionary Church finding itself by going into the streets and out to the margins is the right thing to do. It’s the just thing to do. It’s an obedient response to the call of the Second Vatican Council and the imperatives of the Gospel. Accountability and transparency ought to be the inevitable results of such a renewal, as much as a means to that reform — just as protecting children is not a means to rehabilitating the Church’s image but instead expresses the Church’s very identity.


But here’s the sobering reality: Even if, God willing, the Church follows this path with apostolic conviction, it may have no discernible effect in terms of “restoring” American Catholicism to some imagined glorious past, or even to the culturally complacent stasis of recent decades. That Catholic world has been disappearing for a long time, as is the case for all American religious communities. A Gallup poll released just before Christmas found that Americans — not just Catholics — are less likely than ever to say that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems.” In 1957, some 82 percent of Americans believed religion had the answers; today that number has dropped to 49 percent, with an almost equal number — 38 percent — telling pollsters that religion is “largely old-fashioned and out of date.”


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Many Americans — Catholics included — are so alienated from religious practice that the sex-abuse drama seems to be just another of the institutional meltdowns that pop up in their social-media feeds and blend in with the other dysfunctions and hypocrisies of the age.


It’s not surprising, given the anguish many Catholics feel about this recurrence of clergy-abuse stories, and the catnip they provide for headline writers, that we are almost impelled to reach for grand historical comparisons to explain the sense of epic change. A favorite historical analogy is to the Protestant Reformation of five centuries ago, while others point to the Enlightenment of the 18th century that cast the Church down from its privileged position and launched a crusade of secularization that continues to this day. But such analogies fail, at least in the U.S. context, chiefly because religious faith is no longer a given, especially for young people. During past episodes of scandal and schism, believers stuck it out because one’s religion was a default core of one’s identity. No longer. When it comes to organized religion, Americans today can take it or leave it, and increasingly they are leaving it, scandal or no.


Consider the data, which show that since 1980 church weddings have declined by more than half and the annual number of baptisms has fallen by more than 300,000. Adult conversions are dropping, and the second-largest “denomination” in the U.S. — after practicing Roman Catholics — would be the 30 million Catholics who say they have left the Church. Vocations are down, parishes and schools are closing, and while immigrants bolster the Church’s numbers, successive generations of white Catholics from the original European waves of immigration are drifting further from the practice of the faith. Mass attendance dipped more sharply in the 1990s than it did during the turbulent 1970s, and it continues to erode, just as religious observance is doing in other faiths. “The weaknesses in American Catholicism have more to do with overall trends in American religious identification and participation than they do with anything that’s happened in the Catholic church per se,” as religion scholar Mark Silk of Trinity College put it in his column for Religion News Service (RNS).


Moreover, this decline largely happened while St. John Paul II was pope, a pontiff whose popularity was higher and lasted longer than Francis’, but with little effect on these broader trends. “They loved the singer but they didn’t like the song,” as some said of the Polish pope. Similarly, the idea that a “Francis effect” would bring Catholics and converts streaming back into the Church was always a fantastical scenario, and seems even more distant today.


Should we just throw up our hands? Hardly. For one thing, many people still find in the Church a source of life, faith, hope and community. Converts like myself, and even women and gay people, who long before the scandal had good reason to stay away, continue to become Catholic, and by their witness offer the best antidote to cynicism. At the same time, many cradle Catholics give barely a thought to leaving.


This alternate narrative hit home several times last fall, often when I trudged off to Mass at my Brooklyn parish, discouraged and disgusted by some headline or another, only to feel buoyed by my largely immigrant, working-class friends who found joy and support in our congregation, and for whom the scandal was a rumble of distant thunder that was bearing down but would not send them fleeing — yet. In October, I felt the same cognitive dissonance in Rome while covering the General Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment — the “Synod for Youth” — for RNS. Dozens of young people from around the world, together with hundreds of bishops and cardinals and other Church leaders, came together in an unprecedented moment of communion and dialogue. The scandal was part of the backdrop, but hope was the salient feeling, and enthusiasm for a new beginning was the dominant mood.


More important for the Catholic future, as Francis has noted: Humiliation like that which the scandal is visiting on the Church brings us closer to the Christian experience of service and sacrifice and further from our history of moralizing and triumphalism. It brings us closer to the mystery of the Incarnation, the foundational truth of the faith. The Flannery O’Connor quotation I started with is a famous one. But the full passage from her 1955 letter to an anonymous correspondent shows O’Connor trying to explain her own effort, through her stories, to make sense of the almost impossible tension inherent in being a believer in the modern age. Yes, Catholics “suffer as much from the Church as for it.” But, she added, “if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.”


Facing reality without succumbing to bitterness. If the foundational truth of Christianity is the Incarnation, then it is also the central argument for remaining a Christian or joining a church. “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 encyclical, Spe Salvi, Saved in Hope. “The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.”


It surely seems to be for worse right now. But the Church must preach this message more insistently than ever.


Above all, the Church must understand, pinned as it is in the glare of the scandal, that it can effectively and credibly convey this welcome only if it practices the kind of radical humility, transparency and accountability that the crisis demands. The poison root was the hierarchy’s desire to hide abuse out of a misguided — or self-interested — belief that revealing such sins would undermine the faith. The opposite happened; secrecy is what scandalized.


Exposing its own sins is the Church’s most convincing invitation. Addressing those sins offers its best chance of finding an echo in the hearts of contemporary men and women. The faithful have called on bishops to genuinely confess and repent for decades now, and they have been only haltingly and insufficiently heeded. No more excuses. To ignore the cries now is to ignore the call of the Gospel, and to deny our Catholic and Christian identity. To respond to that call points toward the narrow gate to redemption.


David Gibson, an award-winning journalist and co-author of Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery. (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), is director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.