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.
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.”
“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?