During my last three years of high school, I drove past the Archbishop of Boston’s residence every day. In 2002, I saw the news trucks outside and the words “Bernie the pimp” spray-painted on concrete in honor of Cardinal Law. But I was not a Catholic at the time, and the crisis was not my problem.
When I became a Catholic some years later, it still seemed to me that it was not my problem. The Dallas Charter had done its work, and the predators were in jail. Seminaries were being reformed. There might be shady financial dealings in Rome, but a modest amount of corruption would have to be tolerated. The Church was on the right path. It was a sure and certain source of truth, a school for sanctification, a family in which I could take joy.
And so, like many Catholics, I alternated between rage and despair as the accusations against Theodore McCarrick broke—and then the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and then the letters of Archbishop Viganò. I drafted a letter from young Catholics that called for a thorough, independent investigation into McCarrick’s crimes and exactly who in the hierarchy knew about them, especially since “everybody knew.” “This is the least that would be expected of any secular organization,” I wrote. “It should not be more than we can expect from the Church.”
That tension between the Church’s human and supernatural characters has come to the fore in many of the responses to the newest installment of the clerical sex-abuse crisis. In no other institution would this be tolerated, some argue, pointing to human means of investigation and organizational reform as the logical path to pursue. But, others reply, the Church is no other organization.
Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah: Spiritual Solutions
The latter emphasis comes out in the letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the abuse crisis and its roots. The letter was a teaching document and diagnosis of how present problems came about, and it proposed no concrete solutions. No doubt that is largely due to the Emeritus in Benedict’s title. But even during his pontificate, teaching was always his strength, and his own qualms about his ability to govern—especially to root out the corruption he saw—helped lead to his abdication. Thus, the theoretical nature of this letter is not surprising.
The crisis is primarily spiritual, Benedict writes, and its solutions must be spiritual. We must avoid the temptation to see the Church “as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. . . . [A] self-made Church cannot constitute hope.”
We hear something similar in The Day Is Now Far Spent (whose English translation is forthcoming), by Robert Cardinal Sarah of Guinea, the most vocal proponent of Benedict’s vision of the Church. Sarah writes that Catholics are living the mystery of Judas, who betrayed Christ because he wanted to make the Kingdom of God come on earth right away. Those who seek to root out corruption and the betrayal of Christ must be wary of Judas’s illusion that they can do so by human means and according to their personal plans.
Sarah also believes that we may be on the edge of a great reform of the Church, something akin to the Gregorian reform in the eleventh century or the Council of Trent in the sixteenth. Historians see such events as structural changes, but Sarah argues that saints, like Gregory VII and Charles Borromeo, are the ones who change things and advance history. Structures follow and only perpetuate the action of the saints. His message for the laity is to be, and to pray for, saints. If you think your priests and bishops are not saints, fast, perform penance, and show them what sanctity looks like. This is how we bear one another’s burdens.
This is true, up to a point. The Church certainly needs men and women of heroic virtue. It is God’s project, not ours. We certainly need bishops heroic not only in their teaching but in their governance. But the Church is also human. It is riddled with structural problems and crimes, which require structural solutions and criminal prosecution. These cannot be prayed and fasted away. Grace builds on nature, but nature is ordinarily mended through natural means. Someone with kidney failure or crippling depression should pray for relief, but he should also see a doctor. As the author of James reminds us, we must not just wish the poor well and pray for them; we must also give them the sustenance they require. Catholics are prone to saying that we are “the hands of God” at work in the world when it comes to feeding the hungry and strengthening the suffering. This is also true for the prosecution of criminals, the protection of children, and the reform of the Church’s structures.
Bishop Robert Barron: Letter to a Suffering Church
Bishop Robert Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church understands this. An auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, Barron is widely and rightly praised as one of the most effective teachers in the American Catholic Church. His new book, released today, provides a necessary mixture of teaching and empathetic rage.
Barron understands the gravity of the problem. Priests uniquely embody Christ and God. When they abuse others, they inflict a kind of “metaphysical” suffering that can make a person feel “violated by God.” Barron is equally frank about the crimes of Theodore McCarrick, the gravity of his repeated assault of seminarians, and the scandal of his success: “The average Catholic in America could certainly be forgiven for thinking that something like a conspiracy of silence and a deep corruption obtain within the institutional life of the Church.” I expect the ambiguity in that phrasing is intentional, but Barron is correct: a conspiracy of silence and deep corruption does exist within the Church’s institutional life, now laid bare for all to see.
Barron goes on to recount the Bible’s stories of grave sexual sin, such as the men of Sodom, Lot’s incestuous daughters, and David and Bathsheba. He also sees echoes of the clerical abuse scandal in the story of Eli, the high priest whose family is destroyed because, “though he knew his sons were blaspheming God [by their sexual immorality], he did not reprove them” (I Sam 3:13). Never has Barron spoken more plainly about God’s punishment of the wicked. He then offers an account of similar wickedness in the history of the Church, including famously wicked popes like John XII and Alexander VI, as an immunization against despair. Against them he holds up St. Peter Damian, who condemned “acts of sexual predation by older clergy of young boys and the lax attitudes of those religious superiors who knew about such outrages yet did nothing to stop them”—especially those bishops who preyed on young priests and seminarians. These crimes have plagued the Church before, and the Church has survived. The solution is not to abandon ship, but to fight in the spirit of Peter Damian.
Barron concludes by noting the real progress that the Church has made in combating sex abuse. He reminds readers that the American bishops are instituting lay-led review boards to receive and investigate accusations against bishops, which he calls “an enormously helpful step in the right direction.” How those boards will work with the new mechanisms for reporting abuse released by the Vatican last week remains to be seen. Stephen Bainbridge has praised such boards here at Public Discourse, and he has critiqued the plan the Vatican ultimately adopted. Barron also calls for a formal investigation on both sides of the Atlantic into McCarrick’s career, which will prove difficult, given how deep the rot goes.
What Does It Mean to Stay and Fight?
Like Benedict and Sarah, Barron thinks that holiness is the most important part of reforming the Church. But he explicitly calls on the laity to stay and fight: “Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; fight by reporting offenders; fight by pursuing the guilty until they are punished; fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses.”
What does it look like to stay and fight, to help good bishops uncover that conspiracy of silence and corruption? A good example of what Barron has in mind might be found in Matthew O’Brien’s investigation into the Papal Foundation. In two articles, O’Brien lays out the case that then-Cardinal McCarrick committed fraud under Pensylvania’s laws governing non-profit foundations, and that Cardinal Wuerl provided false and misleading information to the Foundation’s board to secure a grant for a scandal-plagued hospital in Rome.
Thus far, the Catholic media have not further pursued the story. We should not be surprised if the FBI and state attorneys are a little more interested.
Indeed, we should hope that they are. The civil authority’s job is to maintain a just society. It must protect children, punish their abusers, and root out financial corruption. In doing its duty, the state may yet work for the reform of the Church. And yet we must be wary. Those mechanisms of the state do not have the Church’s good in mind. Peter Steinfels shows this in his recent critique of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which clarifies where it exaggerates and misleads. Many politicians and prosecutors will be driven by careerism or by hostility to Catholicism. Catholics will need to protest when the state’s hostility overreaches, making sure that anti-Catholicism has consequences at the ballot box.
As Benedict, Sarah, and Barron remind us, the Catholic Church is like no other institution. But precisely because of that, lay Catholics should refuse to accept corruption and inaction any longer. Structural problems will require structural solutions that accord with canon law and sound corporate governance. Bishop Barron is right: we should refuse to be mollified by pathetic excuses and baseless claims that everything is fixed. The Song of Songs speaks of catching “the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” The Church fathers took the foxes to signify heretics, but the metaphor works for the corrupt, too.
Yes, we need to pray and pursue holiness, to safeguard those parts of the vineyard that are in blossom. But we also need to root out the vermin and destroy their lairs.