Pope Francis, the bishops and the road to real conversion after the McCarrick scandal

Pope Francis delivers his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia in Clementine Hall at the Vatican on Dec. 22, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Pope Francis delivers his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia in Clementine Hall at the Vatican on Dec. 22, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Amid the escalating cascade of conflict within the Catholic Church, trying to track what is going on is like trying to find your way in a hurricane. That seems to be part of the strategy of those attacking Pope Francis. The chaos unleashed by their shocking accusations of cover-up involving three popes and a host of others—accusations that of course must be investigated, but are already starting to wither under scrutiny—is not only an attempt to undermine Francis’ papacy; it is also drawing our attention away from the astonishing revelations of abuse out of places like Pennsylvania and involving figures like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

One disclosure that seems like the canary in the coal mine for U.S. bishops was the admission by the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Séan P. O’Malley, that his private secretary had been informed of allegations about then-Cardinal McCarrick in 2015 but had not passed that information to the cardinal because “individual cases such as he proposed for review fell outside the mandate of the Commission”—referring to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Cardinal O’Malley has presided over since 2013.

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Cardinal O’Malley has long been lauded for his pastoral and judicious approach in handling abuse claims. Yet his private secretary did not think allegations against Archbishop McCarrick warranted his attention. That is how broken the culture within the U.S. church would seem to be; even with the right person in place, one who has demonstrated a commitment to the truth and pastoral care, the system still prioritized self-preservation and secrecy.

Even with the right man in place, the system still prioritized self-preservation and secrecy.

The revelations of cover-up and deception out of Pennsylvania and Washington only re-emphasize this conclusion. Episcopal leadership may have changed its policies and procedures, but they have yet to fully face the dark side of their culture. Like the proverbial “dry drunk,” they have altered actions but still cling to the fears and desires that are the heart of the problem. Neither faced nor redeemed, those feelings continue to wreak havoc.

Even as some in the church are trying to turn these horrors of abuse and cover-up into an opportunity for regime change, Francis is the pope they and we desperately need right now. He has gone through that desperate bottoming-out moment church leaders are now in, and he came out the other side. From his first public interview in 2013, he has alluded to the failure that arrogance and self-righteousness brought him as provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina. “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative,” he said. His leadership so divided the province that he was effectively exiled to Córdoba, far away from the Jesuit national headquarters in Buenos Aires. Father Guillermo Marco, who would later serve the pope in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, described Córdoba to author Paul Vallely as “a place of humility and humiliation” for Francis. The pope himself has called the period “a time of great interior crisis.”

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church.]

“His main public spiritual engagement,” writes Vallely in The Atlantic, “was hearing confessions. He spent a lot of time looking out the window and walking the streets from the Jesuit residence to the church along a road that passed through many different areas of the city. People from all walks of life—academics, students, lawyers, and ordinary folk—visited the church for the penitential sacrament. He found his interactions with the poor particularly moving.”

The pope we have today—open to conflict, insistent on consultation, condemning clericalism and calling for mercy and attention to the marginalized—emerged from the furnace of that difficult period. Self-examination brought first humility, then wisdom.

The pope has long alluded to his own bottoming-out experience. As provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina, he did not listen well.

The pope has spent the last five years trying to share that wisdom. He used his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church, in 2014 to enumerate 15 “curial diseases.” The first among them? A lack of self-examination: “A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body.” Other “diseases” included vainglory, indifference, “excessive busy-ness” and “the disease of closed circles, where belonging to a clique becomes more powerful than belonging to the Body and, in some circumstances, to Christ himself.”

Comments like these made toward bishops and priests have stunned many with their bluntness and seeming severity. Yet today they seem not only prescient but borne of a heartfelt personal understanding. The self-insulation of clerics into cliques “always begins with good intentions,” Francis noted in his greeting to the Curia. “But with the passing of time it enslaves its members and becomes a cancer which threatens the harmony of the Body and causes immense evil—scandals—especially to our weaker brothers and sisters.

“Healing comes about through an awareness of our sickness,” he told the Curia in 2014, “and of a personal and communal decision to be cured by patiently and perseveringly accepting the remedy.”

Today the sickness is ever more obvious, a cancer indeed, one that has blighted so many lives and devastated the world’s faithful. The question is, have we reached a point where our leaders will finally be forced to face the darkest parts of our church’s clericalism and privilege—the fundamental instinct toward self-preservation that has enabled abuse like oxygen enables a flame—and surrender their lives, their fears, their power into the hands of Jesus?

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A Fielder
11 months 3 weeks ago

Fr Jim, thank you for writing this article. I have been wondering recently why Francis seems to be moving very slowing on things like women's involvement in leadership, optional celibacy and eucharistic hospitality. I feel torn inside, do I want more collegiality and collaboration or do I want a strong leader who is able to get things done? Perhaps I and others also could benefit from having to discern and balance the need for patience and persistence. Francis talks about about the need for discernment, I hope that the Pope and the bishops are not the only people on the road to having these important conversations.

Molly Roach
11 months 3 weeks ago

I don't see any evidence whatever that the members of the Curia are willing to engage in critical self-reflection. To say that they have not responded to Pope Francis' invitation to conversion is to say the least. The talking about the problem phase is past---action has to be taken. Catholic episcopal leadership is bleeding out and their credibility is all but gone.

John McCauley
11 months 3 weeks ago

Agree with Molly and appreciate the article — i don’t think the Pope has the right to not answer reasonable questions. Did you know or did you not? Your teaching is less than clear can you clarify? These are not unreasonable — they are genuinely truth seeking. I had thought that was the editorial aspiration of America. To characterize the questioners as “attacking the Pope” sounds like America is not seeking the Truth rather playing politics and defense which has permeated the Clergy and apparently the Society of Jesus.

Am I wrong? If so then share the facts and evidence that these questioners are indeed “attackers” — or clear your bias and strive objectively for Truth and spare us all the excuses.

Jeffrey More
11 months 3 weeks ago

This is truly an extraordinary article. It should be required reading in all Jesuit prep schools (such as Regis, which I attended) and colleges, offered as an exemplar of a (near) perfect exercise in Jesuitical sophistry.
EditReply

Joan Hill
11 months 3 weeks ago

Bless you, Fr. McDermott. The thing that struck me most about Archbishop Vigano's letter, and other recent allegations, was their sheer visciousness. Flunks the "ubi caritas" test hands down. Maybe it's out of fear, and a genuine concern on their part that the church we grew up in is fading. But Francis' love, and understanding and compassion, not to mention mercy, seems to me closer to the God to whom each of us is precious. In all of this, both the discussion about the abuse and the subsequent ideological battle, the children are being ignored. Francis was the only one who focused on them. There is where we need to start -- with using candid language about what was done, so we can feel the horror, and with a focus on their pain and healing. Has anyone thought about a spirituality of / for abuse victims? How do come to feel safe with God, believe you are cherished, when you feel profoundly unsafe and dirty and confused? Could the powers that be focus more on the kids rather than the institution? So far Francis is the only one who has taken that as a starting point. We need him so desperately.

John Chuchman
11 months 3 weeks ago

A corrupt clerical system not at all worth joining.

Henry Brown
11 months 2 weeks ago

After all is said and done the question remains as to why those
who would prey on the young were not sent away from the Seminary
and, if found to have abused the young, not laicised and the information sent to the proper authorities instead of money intended for the Poor being paid out as "Hush Money'" and the scandal covered up
leading to cases where these men continued to prey on the young.

I am tired of the excuses;

Cardinal O'Malley's Secretary needs to resign.
Cardinal O'Malley needs to resign for not being more diligent.
How could Mccarrick's activities gone so un-noticed and un-reported
for so long ?

Every Bishop involved and yes, Pope Francis should resign
as a sign that what occurred on their watch - will not be tolerated
and no excuses will be accepted.

Get out the Bleach and clean out the filthiness
and those who tolerated
it from top to bottom.

The Holy Spirit will provide a new Pope and Bishops.

John Chuchman
11 months 2 weeks ago

These must be changed: Roman Catholic Church Canon law
divides humanity into lay people and clerics (Canon 207),
setting clerics above laity (Canon 223, 247 and others)
actually demanding that lay people revere and obey their pastor
because pastors are the best representation of Christ for lay people (Canon 212).

As a side note,
Canon Law decrees clerical institutions such as seminaries
to be ecclesiastical juridical people (Canon 238).
Yes, yes, seminaries are people too according to Canon Law.
As ecclesiastical people,
they not only are people
but more powerful people than ones of non-clergy flesh and blood variety.

This is all problematic in itself
but then, the hierarchy do two additional insidious things:
1) They say you must receive Jesus via Holy Communion and
2) incarcerate Jesus in the tabernacle and declare
only they can summon Jesus to dwell amongst us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. In simpler terms they in essence say,
you need what I got, or you die and I’m the only provider.
A drug cartel could not wish for a better setup.

But wait, it gets more insidious.
Roman Catholic Church Canon Law
includes 12 Canons which codify obligations to maintain secrecy
(Canons 127, 269, 471, 645, 983, 1131, 1132, 1455, 1457, 1546, 1548 and 1602).
Canon Law reflects the hierarchy’s normalization
of its stunningly unhealthy culture of secrecy and court intrigue.
Transfer a priest from diocese to diocese in secrecy? Canon Law says that’s ok.
Hold in secret things that the brotherhood doesn’t want to divulge?
Canon Law approves of that too.

As Roman Catholic Church Canon Law stands today
a priest molests a child but the child is taught
that this guy is the closest thing to Jesus
the child is going to encounter on Earth
and he’s the guy who will give the child the Eucharist,
without which the child will be damned forever.
If the priest is reported,
the hierarchy can deal with him and his trial in secrecy
and transfer him in secrecy.
Meanwhile, the parents and kid have to worry if they report the guy,
will they be shunned or excommunicated,
cutting themselves off
from what they are taught is their only chance at eternal life.

Canon Law lacks checks and balances on power
and depends instead upon a belief that men of superior moral ilk
occupy positions of ecclesiastical power.
I think 2000+ years of history prove that assumption breathtakingly wrong.

The same men who write into law what gives them absolute power
will not voluntarily change those laws.
Withholding money and subjecting them to legal recourse will have some effect,
but people just need to both openly challenge the hierarchy
and make the hierarchy irrelevant in their lives.

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