The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies. The pope is failing that test.
During the Catholic Church’s synod on the family in Rome in 2015, a rough-and-tumble affair in which Pope Francis pushed the assembled bishops to liberalize Catholic teaching on remarriage and divorce, one of the attendees, by the pope’s own invitation, was the retired Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
Danneels was a natural pick in one sense: One of the church’s prominent liberals, he had been part of a circle that supported Jorge Bergoglio in the run-up to his election as Francis, and in a synodal fight with conservative bishops, the pope needed all the allies he could get.
.. In another sense, though, Danneels was a wildly inappropriate choice, because at the conclusion of his career he was caught on tape trying to persuade a young victim of sex abuse not to go public with allegations against the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium.
.. hauling a cover-up artist out of retirement for a synod on the family was a statement that ideological loyalties mattered more to him than personal misconduct: Sex abuse might be bad, but what really mattered was being on the correct side of the Catholic civil war.
.. after years of failed American attempts to get Rome to take action, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, placed the already retired McCarrick under some form of sanctions — moving him out of his residence, restricting contact with seminarians, limiting public appearances. It further claims that despite being told that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Francis removed those sanctions, raised McCarrick’s profile and relied on him for advice about major appointments.
.. noting that McCarrick appeared at many events, including with Benedict himself, in the period when he was supposedly under sanctions.
.. given the distracted and ineffectual way that the last pope ran the church, it’s very easy to imagine a distracted and ineffectual attempt to restrict McCarrick being subverted and ignored by the cardinal and his allies in the hierarchy.
.. In which case it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which Francis didn’t technically “lift” those sanctions so much as acted in ignorance of them, or of their seriousness. He might have been given some knowledge, by Viganò and others, of the allegations against McCarrick but either assumed they couldn’t be that bad (at this point the cardinal mostly stood accused of imposing himself on seminarians, not teenage minors) or else chose to believe a denial from the accused cardinal himself. Why? In part because of perceived self-interest: Francis needed allies, McCarrick was sympathetic to the pope’s planned liberalizing push, and the pope wanted his help reshaping the ranks of American bishops.
.. In this scenario Francis would be guilty of self-deception and incuriosity but not as nakedly culpable as Viganò implies. And if it’s easy to imagine this scenario because of the Danneels example, it’s also easy to imagine because that’s how things have proceeded consistently in the church since the sex abuse scandals broke: If a given predator or enabler is “on side” for either conservatives or liberals, he will find defenders and protectors for as long as events and revelations permit.
- That’s a major reason John Paul II refused to investigate Father Marcel Maciel, the wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — because the Legionaries were conservative, and apparently a great success, and that was all that mattered.
- It’s why many conservative Catholics unwisely defended John Paul II-appointed prelates like Boston’s Bernard Law in the early 2000s.
- It’s why a notorious traditionalist priest, Father Carlos Urrutigoity, could find a welcome from conservative bishops in Pennsylvania and then Paraguay, despite a trail of abuse allegations.
.. Now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years, and all’s fair in the Catholic civil war.
.. But the inevitable, even providential irony is that this sort of team thinking never leads to theological victory, but only to exposure, shame, disaster. Indeed, the lesson of these bitter decades is that any faction hoping to lead Roman Catholicism out of crisis should begin with purges within its own ranks, with intolerance for any hint of corruption.
.. Francis, alas for everyone, did the opposite. Elected by cardinals eager for a cleanup at the Vatican, he wanted to be a theological change agent instead — which led him to tolerate the corrupt Roman old guard (whose names fill Viganò’s letter) and to rehabilitate liberal figures like Danneels, McCarrick and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (a dubious figure with a predator among his underlings and a scandal at his seminary) who deserved the sidelines if not a penitent’s cell.
.. purge the corruption he has tolerated and to supply Catholicism with what it has lacked these many years: a leader willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the “filth” in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war.
the great achievement of Pope Francis’ five years on the papal throne. He leads a church that spent the prior decade embroiled in a grisly sex abuse scandal, occupies an office often regarded as a medieval relic, and operates in a media environment in which traditional religion generally, and Roman Catholicism especially, are often covered with a mix of cluelessness and malice.
And yet in a remarkably short amount of time — from the first days after his election, really — the former Jorge Bergoglio has made his pontificate a vessel for religious hopes that many of his admirers didn’t realize or remember that they had.
.. the theological risks he’s taken in pushing for changes that liberal Westerners tend to assume Catholicism must eventually accept — shifts on sexual morality above all, plus a general liberalization in the hierarchy and the church.
.. But when people say, “He makes me want to believe again,” as a lapsed-Catholic journalist said to me
.. What my friends and acquaintances respond to from this pope, rather, is the iconography of his papacy — the vivid images of humility and Christian love he has created, from the foot-washing of prisoners to the embrace of the disfigured to the children toddling up to him in public events.
.. Like his namesake of Assisi, the present pope has a great gift for gestures that offer a public imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ.
.. And the response from so many otherwise jaded observers is a sign of how much appeal there might yet be in Catholic Christianity, if it found a way to slip the knots that the modern world has tied around its message.
.. we — are always at risk of finding in the mirror the self-righteous elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who resents his father’s liberality, the welcome given to the younger brother coming home at last.
.. The cardinals who chose Jorge Bergoglio envisioned him as the austere outsider.
.. Vatican life is more unsettled than under Benedict XVI, the threat of firings or purges ever present, the power of certain offices reduced, the likelihood of a papal tongue-lashing increased.
.. the blueprints for reorganization have been put off; many ecclesial princes have found more power under Francis; and even the pope’s admirers joke about the “next year, next year …” attitude that informs discussions of reform.
.. Francis just spent a recent visit to Chile vehemently defending a bishop accused of turning a blind eye to sex abuse, while one of his chief advisers, the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, is accused of protecting a bishop charged with abusing seminarians even as the cardinal himself faces accusations of financial chicanery.
.. the idea of this pope as a “great reformer,” to borrow the title of the English journalist Austen Ivereigh’s fine 2014 biography, can’t really be justified by any kind of Roman housekeeping.
.. Instead Francis’ reforming energies have been directed elsewhere, toward two dramatic truces that would radically reshape the church’s relationship with the great powers of the modern world.
.. The first truce this pope seeks is in the culture war
.. the conflict between the church’s moral teachings and the way that we live now, the struggle over whether the sexual ethics of the New Testament need to be revised or abandoned in the face of post-sexual revolution realities.
.. Instead of formally changing the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, euthanasia — changes that are officially impossible, beyond the powers of his office — the Vatican under Francis is making a twofold move.
.. First, a distinction is being drawn between doctrine and pastoral practice that claims that merely pastoral change can leave doctrinal truth untouched. So a remarried Catholic might take communion without having his first union declared null, a Catholic planning assisted suicide might still receive last rites beforehand, and perhaps eventually a gay Catholic can have her same-sex union blessed — and yet supposedly none of this changes the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble and suicide a mortal sin and same-sex wedlock an impossibility, so long as it’s always treated as an exception rather than a rule.
.. At the same time, Francis has allowed a tacit decentralization of doctrinal authority, in which different countries and dioceses can take different approaches
.. In effect he is experimenting with a much more Anglican model for how the Catholic Church might operate — in which the church’s traditional teachings are available for use but not required
.. different countries may gradually develop away from each other theologically and otherwise.
.. seeking a truce not with a culture but with a regime: the Communist government in China
.. Such a reconciliation, if accomplished, would require the church to explicitly cede a share of its authority to appoint bishops to the Politburo — a concession familiar from medieval church-state tangles, but something the modern church has tried to leave behind.
.. A truce with Beijing would differ from the truce with the sexual revolution in that no specific doctrinal issue is at stake, and no one doubts that the pope has authority to conclude a concordat with a heretofore hostile and persecuting regime.
.. the two truces are similar in that both would accelerate Catholicism’s transformation into a confederation of national churches — liberal and semi-Protestantized in northern Europe, conservative in sub-Saharan Africa, Communist-supervised in China.
.. both treat the concerns of many faithful Catholics — conservative believers in the West, underground churchgoers in China — as roadblocks to the pope’s grand strategy.
.. they both risk a great deal — in one case, the consistency of Catholic doctrine and its fidelity to Jesus; in another, the clarity of Catholic witness for human dignity — for the sake of reconciling the church with earthly powers.
.. they take this risk at a time when neither Chinese Communism nor Western liberalism seem exactly like confident, resilient models for the human future — the former sliding back toward totalitarianism, the latter anxious and decadent and beset by populist revolts.
.. the “Francis effect.”
.. If current trends continue, China could have one of the world’s largest Christian populations by this century’s end, and this population is already heavily evangelical
.. Francis will have ceded the moral authority earned by persecuted generations, and ceded the Chinese future to those Christian churches, evangelical especially, that are less eager to flatter and cajole their persecutors.
.. The gamble on an Anglican approach to faith and morals is even more high-risk — as Anglicanism’s own schisms well attest.
.. it will ensure that the church’s factions, already polarized and feuding, grow ever more apart.
.. it implies a rupture (or, if you favor it, a breakthrough) in the church’s understanding of how its teachings can and cannot change
.. Francis’ inner circle is convinced that such a revolution is what the Holy Spirit wants — that the attempts by John Paul II and Benedict to maintain continuity between the church before and after Vatican II ended up choking off renewal.
.. this pope has not just exposed tensions; he has heightened them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and pushing disillusioned conservatives toward traditionalism.
.. here is no sign as yet that Francis’s liberalization is bringing his lapsed-Catholic admirers back to the pews;
.. Whereas accelerating division when your office is charged with maintaining unity and continuity is a serious business