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.
A good gauge of spiritual health is to write down
the three things you most want.
If they in any way differ,
you are in trouble.
—Daniel Ladinsky, inspired by Rumi 
.. If we are really convinced that we have the Big Truth, then we should also be able to trust that others will see it from their different angles—or it is not the Big Truth.
.. “We begin to discover that our Buddhist and Jewish and Islamic and Hindu friends are not competitors. Religion is not a survival of the fittest. There is a deep understanding that we all swim together or we sink together. Each religious tradition reveals a color of the heart of God that is precious.”  As the old saying goes, do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?
.. Or, as Aquinas was fond of saying, quoting Ambrose (another Doctor of the Church), “If it’s true, it is always from the one Holy Spirit.”  The important question is not, “Who said it?” but, “Is it true?”
.. while all the world’s religions cannot and must not be reduced to one truth, their core teachings are unifying; they are all calling us to the truth of our essential oneness. This unity in diversity is a cause for celebration.
At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths , and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. Bourgeault writes:
The Catholic Church needs an inquest into what the pederast cardinal’s colleagues knew, and when... The first written accusation (that we know of) was filed by one of his priests in 1994, addressed to McCarrick’s successor as the Bishop of Metuchen; the priest who complained was transferred to another diocese while his abuser’s rise continued.
By the end of that decade, McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior (if perhaps not its full scope) was known by enough people that a group of American laypeople went to Rome to petition against his appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and at least one New York priest, Father Boniface Ramsey, sent a letter to the Vatican offering a similar warning.
.. 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.
.. Then in 2005 and again in 2007, two New Jersey dioceses settled privately with two men alleging abuse or harassment at McCarrick’s hands. This presumably expanded substantially the number of people who knew about his crimes. Yet nothing was said publicly by the church about these settlements; McCarrick retired with his reputation intact, and was even permitted to live at a seminary.
.. When Pope Francis was elected, he became an eminence grise, whose lobbying helped elevate several of the new pope’s choices for high office in the American church — including the new cardinal archbishop of Newark, Joseph Tobin, and the head of the Vatican dicastery for family life, Kevin Farrell, both of whom considered McCarrick a mentor.
.. In other words, two decades after McCarrick should have been removed from his offices, defrocked and handed over to the civil authorities, he was instead wielding remarkable influence in the church … right up until the moment when a lifetime’s worth of crimes were finally dragged into the light.
.. which probably requires an investigator with a mandate from the pope himself.
.. they can do only so much if the necessary witnesses still feel that the institutional church will not protect them, if they fear their superiors will punish them for telling all the truth.
.. the Catholic bishops are now somewhat protected from media scrutiny by virtue of their increasing unimportance.
.. There are a few American bishops still with media platforms, a few with intellectual chops. But many of the notional leaders of the church are important only within the bureaucracies they manage and as invisible to the average churchgoer as a Target regional vice president would be to the average weekend shopper at the superstore.
.. the kind of crimes once covered up because of the power and influence of bishops might now be swept under quickly because of the episcopacy’s obscurity and irrelevance.
.. whether they are happy with this settlement — happy to be ignored so long as they can also evade accountability for what’s still rotten in the church, happy to serve out their time as stewards of a declining institution rather than demanding the heads of the men whose culpable ignorance made the decline much steeper than it should have been.
his critics see his approach as that of a stealthy revolutionary or a reckless agent of disruption. In fact, Francis’s exercise of the papal role reflects the Jesuit practice of discernment, which involves waiting, listening, letting competing options for action emerge, and choosing one after prayer and internal deliberation.
.. The group of advisory cardinals is significant because it belies the supposed solitary autonomy of papal decision-making and incorporates cardinals from places long thought remote from power: Santiago, Chile, and Mumbai, India, as well as Munich and Boston.
.. The 2015 synod on marriage and the family, judged a debacle by many, is better understood as an instance of soft power in action. By calling the synod, Francis signaled that the issues surrounding Catholic teaching on marriage are not closed to further Vatican discussion — in sharp contrast to the “Rome has spoken” approach of his predecessors. Then Francis set out to point the synod discussions in a progressive direction on the issue of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics in certain countries may receive communion at Mass. Traditionalists accused Francis of flirting with heresy.
.. But discussions were had, and cardinals who opposed Francis were heard — because Francis let them be heard. He gave a closing speech thick with exasperation, replaced some resistant curial officials and demoted the hostile American Cardinal Raymond Burke — but he set aside the most far-reaching proposals about marriage and family for a future time, meanwhile keeping the discussion open.
.. Francis has acted on his conviction that Catholic faith is less about the use of power to shape the social order — the stuff of present strongmen and past popes — than about straightforward efforts of kindness and generosity.
.. Symbolically, the papacy is meant to be a “contrast structure” to worldly forms of authority. Too often, it has been such a structure in the wrong ways: crabbed, self-protecting, aloof and denunciatory. Five years into his pontificate, Francis is no small-d democrat, no faultless leader — and no perfect pope. And yet in this pope, our upside-down age has a leader whose approach and example stand as reminders of what the sensitive exercise of power can look like.