It’s been a helluva week for the American Church. The hideous scabs ripped off the Churches in Pennsylvania are terrible beyond description. And we all know that there is more to come, not only across America, but across the globe. Sure, the crimes are old ones for the most part. The reforms in the Mid-00s did make real progress, which is why we no longer seeing abusers being shuffled around, but given the boot after the institution of those reforms. The stories in the Pennsylvania Report predate the reforms, as far as I can see.
But the stories still rightly appall us both because most of the abusers will never face justice and, most of all, because many of the bishops and clergy who protected them are still in positions of honor and power at this hour. Here, for instance, is the still-mysteriously-employed Cardinal Wuerl, behaving in a manner we have gotten all too accustomed to seeing:
When an abusive priest who had been shuffled out of his diocese reports back to Wuerl’s office that he has information on other abusive priests operating in the Pittsburgh diocese and will inform on them if his stipend is increased, Wuerl advises the priest to write a letter in which he disavows any knowledge of the aforementioned illegal sexual activity. In exchange his stipend is increased. Wuerl did not implement a zero-tolerance policy against clerical sexual misbehavior; what he instituted was a zero-liability policy for the diocese and a zero-responsibility policy for himself. Wuerl outlined exactly what he did not want to know, and rewarded the man who kept him in ignorance. Wuerl, who in a recent interview suggested that there was no real crisis in the Church, greeted the release of the grand-jury report with the launch of a website designed by a crisis-public-relations firm, touting his good reputation.
So the situation, in a nutshell, seems to be this: The bishops, reeling in the mid-00s from the rage and fury rightly directed at them for their shuffling and coverups of abusive priests, instituted a reform that held their subordinates responsible for crimes of abuse and booted them from the priesthood. That was good as far as it went and has been pretty effective since it was implemented.
What they refused to do, however, was hold themselves accountable for their epic failures and what they continued to do (earning themselves the title of Cosa Nostra from Governor Frank Keating of the National Review Board when he resigned in disgust) was protect themselves from accountability for their crimes. The living incarnation of this is, of course, McCarrick, who headed the whole damn thing and used his power to shield himself from the consequences of his crimes–with the knowledge of God knows how many others in the heirarchy. Ignoring the warning of God that “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Lk 12:2–3) they went blithely on in their perks and power, betting they would never have to pay the piper.
Now the bills are coming due. Victims and lawyers and prosecutors and attorneys general, many of them Catholic laity and all of them servants of a God-appointed Caesar who could not not care less about the perks and power of clerics are banging at the door brandishing handcuffs and jail keys and the fury of God who comes to cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lift up the lowly. And not one damn moment too soon. Rome, which uttered some pleasant nostrums yesterday but which did not say, “Here are the heads we demand on platters immediately” is moving at its customary easy-going Mediterranean pace as the American bishops now turn to Rome and ask them to undertake an investigation since they have proven themselves incapable, as ever, of governing themselves. We’ll see if Rome figures out that many of Americans are getting ready to storm the ecclesial Bastille. My money is on a lot of American law enforcement not waiting around for Rome to mosey on over and take a leisurely look-see. And I doubt many laity are willing to be patient for that either.
And yet, I am hopeful. In fact, I’m more hopeful than I have been for quite some time.
You ask, “What is wrong with you?”
I have the hope of the patient who has had an unaccountable pain for quite some time and who has, driven by that pain, finally acquiesced to see the doctor, get the x-ray and face the large tumor that has been silently growing in his gut. The evil has been exposed. Now we are closer to treating it than we have been in years. It’s bad news, but also good. That’s how the Good News works. It starts with Bad News: “You are dying of sin” but it ends with “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Salvation presupposes that there is something we need saving from. The Church is admitting that it needs saving.
I had an odd epiphany this week that I found weirdly consoling. Bear with me, because it’s a bit hard to explain.
Some friends were agonizing about the monstrous news from Pennsylvania. One of them, like me, is a convert. Another was a cradle Catholic. The convert was, like me and like so many people, expressing anguish over the horrors of the Pennsylvania Report when the cradle Catholic said something to the effect of “What makes you think we are so special?”
Folks were taken aback by that question, but he went on to basically explain that he did not understand why we thought we should be surprised that Catholic social groupings should have any significantly different abuse statistics (or institutional coverup rates) than any other human social groups whether they be schools, Boy Scouts, or day cares.
Understand: he was not doing the usual whataboutist schtick popular with Catholic apologists. You know, the one where the apologist tries to distract from the horrors committed by the priests and sandbagging bishops by pointing at horrors committed by others and shouting “Those Guys Over There are Worse!” On the contrary, he was saying, in essence, “Why do you think priests, or Catholic school teachers, or bishops, or anybody else with the label “Catholic” on their forehead are magically better than any other human sociological group? Why do you think that bishops are going to be magically better than the managerial professionals of any other human institution in their responses?”
It took me a while to wrap my mind around the question. And that, in itself is telling. Because it revealed to me that, yes, I did superstitiously believe that Catholics are better than other human social groups. And I did accordingly believe that bishops should therefore be assumed to be better still. After all, “we believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church” right?
Ay, there’s the rub. For the holiness of the Church is not and never has been due to the holiness of its members, but to the presence of the Spirit as its soul, working to save those often deeply unworthy members.The conviction that the Church is supposed to be holy has fostered a sort of prideful despair, because we have forgotten that we members of the Church are here because we are sinners, not because we are freaking awesome. Nobody expects Hollywood or Trump to be holy, so when they act like predatory swine, there is not the crushing disappointment we feel when the Church behaves according to the same dynamics that any other human society obeys. “We’re better. We’re special” (we say to ourselves) “so our failure is all the worse.”
There’s something to that, of course. Jesus has dire warnings for the servant who knows his master’s will and does not do it. We are, in fact, called to be saints.
But there remains, I think, a certain sinful pride at work here that needs to be confronted. We are not, in fact, taught that the Church is like us in all things except sin. Only Jesus is that. So perhaps the first movement of repentance is to abandon the prideful belief that merely because Jesus has called us to be holy, it ipso facto follows that we are better than everybody else and face the fact that, judging by our fruits, we are manifestly no better than any other human society. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but there you are. And (contary to what the spirit of despair will immediately say in response to that fact) it does not mean Jesus has failed. It means that we have failed and Jesus is making that fact clear to us so that he can meet us in Reality and not in the fantasy where we have long tried to live.
I’m working on a book on the Creed right now. One of the odd facts about the early Church is that almost no heretic had a problem with the divinity of Jesus. Rather, virtually every Christological heresy rang the changes on some denial of God the Son’s full humanity. Docetists denied him a human body, Monophysites, a human soul, Monothelites, a human will, Nestorians, a real union with his human nature, Apollinarians, a human mind.
The thing is, something analogous seems to obtain with the Church. It is an institution that is likewise both divine and human. But most people (friend and foe alike, oddly) tend to emphasize its divinity and downplay its humanity. Catholic Triumphalists tend to indulge in this sort of thing.
(Boy, those were the days, weren’t they? 2001 AD. JPII was on his throne, Sean Hannity was the face of triumphant Republican Rite Catholicism, the Russians were down for the count, a family values American Church was untouched by scandal and all was right with the world! Come and drink of our wisdom, all you devotees of Brand X religion. We, the One True Church, will show you the Way.)
Here’s the thing: This semi-Monophysite picture of the Church, exalting her divine power and glory, cannot bear to face the fact that she is also a fully human institution. So when the Church–which is pointedly not protected from sin as the Son of God is–demonstrates her human capacity to sin and sin spectacularly, this is a really shattering moment, not because the Church is vastly worse than other human institutions, but because she is just the same as other human institutions.
The Church is a fully human and fully divine institution. Only she is not guaranteed to be without sin. That’s why she requires a savior. When I listen to the tenor of Catholic apologetics (including my own) over the past twenty years, it strikes me as Monophysite: emphasizing the divinity of the Church (especially over those other Brand X religions) and downplaying her humanity.
This Kairos Moment is making me rethink all that. My cradle Catholic friend’s question about what makes us think we are so special is, I think, a cogent one. All the facts on the ground make it clear that we are not special–at least not in our response to sin. We behave like any merely human institution. And our pride is offended and shocked to realize that.
We’ve shown we can reform (to a degree). But the bishops have also shown that they cannot reform themselves. So now we need to take the next step and reform our episcopacy. My cradle Catholic friend remarks, “What is the importance of cessation of pretending this is something special? Solutions can be sought from organizations already committed to change. Thinking this is a special problem only for the Catholic Church means we have to be stuck with a smaller set of solutions that may have already been tried and found unsuccessful.” In other words, Pride makes us stupid. When you are prideful, you can get in the way of your own repentance by arrogantly declaring that your sin is so unique, so exalted, so unforgivable that mere mortals and simple folk cannot grasp the greatness of our tragedy and God himself cannot forgive such great sinners as we. The reality is that we can institute policies to hold our leaders accountable just as other other human social groupings prone to abuse have done. If Hollywood can bring down Weinstein, Catholics can devise ways to make bishops as well as their subordinates accountable for criminal acts. As I said before, we laity staff all the cops, own all the guns, pay all the tithes, run all the courts, and hold the keys to all the jails. We have options.
Since the episcopacy has shown it cannot reform itself, prudence declares that it will be up to a holy laity (and a secular Caesar whom Paul calls “God’s minister”) to apply the pain and pressure necessary to make that happen.
You don’t trust Caesar, you say? Tough. We are punished by, not for, our sin. The sins of the Church’s ministers are of such a nature that she will no longer have any choice in the matter, due to the Providence of God. Holy Mother Church will take her medicine from the rod of the Assyrian because she did not listen to the gentle word of God when she had a chance.
And yet, this remains a graced moment. Last Sunday, at Mass, Paul told us that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Co 15:25–26).
One of the things that has haunted many people about the spectacular failure of the Church in the US has simply been the sensation that It’s All Gone Off the Rails. In this too, I think I have been blinded by my own pride. Jesus remains in control. His reign is, among other things, a long, slow process of bringing to light what is hidden in preparation for conquest and redemption. This Kairos Moment no more took him by surprise than the crucifixion did. It is ordained by God to expose these powers and principalities and their hidden and unspoken structures of sin to the light. Judgment begins with the house of God. This filth is being brought to light to destroy it. And not just the filth of the abuse: the filth of my pride as well, which blinds me and keeps me in chains.
It’s a godawful day for the Church. But God permits Kairos moments for mercy, not damnation. Let’s roll.