Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
The month of August is normally the quietest of all in Rome. In past years, I have walked through backstreets of the city in the middle of a workday and not encountered a single person. When it comes to general livability and a sense of order, Rome functions much better when Romans are at the beach or in the mountains. Perhaps a month’s vacation is not long enough.
Pope Francis, however, does not take vacations and August 2018 may turn out to be one of the most consequential of his pontificate. It started on August 2 with the pope’s change to the Catechism on the death penalty. Pope John Paul II had already began this transition in 1992 and 1995, dropping retributive punishment as one of its justifications and promoting “bloodless means” in order to protect society and rehabilitate the criminal.
Some scholars opposed the pope’s alteration, saying it went much further than a “development of doctrine” which should recognize the legitimate right of States to execute those proven guilty of the most heinous crimes. If the Church is to promote universally binding, timeless standards of right and wrong (a.k.a. natural law), what was once allowed cannot be declared inadmissible today.
Initially I did not completely agree with these critics. The Church’s teachings on usury, slavery, and religious liberty have similarly changed over time, adopting some sort of synthesis between Christianity and liberalism in the name of human freedom and dignity. While there have been some holdouts, the synthesis has been generally accepted by most Catholics and Christians. Moreover, as matters of prudential judgment, social issues are not central to the faith, so giving up the death penalty seemed to be a small price to pay for eternal life. Mercy trumps justice after all.
Meanwhile the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington DC, was unfolding. Pope Francis removed McCarrick from public ministry on June 20 and took away his red hat on July 27 after an investigation by Archdiocese of New York uncovered credible accusations of sexual abuse against McCarrick going back some 40 years. Francis ordered the 88-year-old McCarrick to “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion,” pending a canonical trail, which, given his advanced age, is unlikely to ever take place. Once again, although some critics wanted to see McCarrick more harshly punished, this seemed to be the merciful thing to do.
In Rome, cardinals over the age of 80 are relative non-factors, as they cannot vote in the next conclave, and are usually quickly forgotten, but not so with McCarrick. I’d met him a few times when I worked for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, where he’d been a member. He was also involved with the Papal Foundation, Catholic Relief Services and many other Catholic organizations. Many years ago, some of his current and former seminarians in Newark and Washington told me rumors of “Uncle Ted’s beach house.” Some of the priests I met at Acton University in June warned me that this story was far from over and that several other prominent American bishops would be implicated.
Then came the horrifying Pennsylvania grand jury report on August 14 and the August 25 bombshell of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony on the cover-up of the sexual abuse perpetrated by McCarrick. Prominent American bishops were named, as well as powerful Vatican cardinals (including my former boss, Cardinal Renato Martino; I stand fully behind the statement of Benjamin Harnwell, president of the Digniatis Humanae Institute.) and even Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and most importantly Francis himself, whom Viganò said must resign over his mishandling of the case. The pope has refused to address the accusations, telling journalists to investigate it themselves, which is certain to only extend and intensify the drama.
Since Romans are just returning from their vacations, it is difficult to register the local shock of Viganò’s letter. Italian and American journalists defending the pope are falling into line, attributing bad motives to Viganò without seeming to care if his claims are true. At some point, Italians will likely express amazement at the American vacillation between libertinism and puritanism when it comes to sexual mores. It would all be very entertaining if it weren’t such a serious and important matter for the Church and society.
Other commentators have addressed the problem of homosexuality in the priesthood and the apparent lack of belief in Christian teachings. These are clearly fundamental to understanding how the McCarrick scandal took place. While there are modernist and post-modernist aspects to the scandal, the Vatican’s feudal governing structure also make it less responsive in dealing with such problems. Diocesan and curial bishops manage what amount to fiefdoms under an absolute ruler who is not supposed to act like one. There are no institutional checks on papal power.
A Wall Street Journal editorial made the following interesting observation: “Among the ironies here is that, in the capitalist system Pope Francis so often attacks, no corporate executive publicly accused of covering up abuses like this could escape accountability. The Catholic Church is not a profit-making corporation, and the Pope is no CEO.” This is because modern government and capitalism encourage the multiplicity of interests under executive management rather than kingly rule. As a result, Catholic critics on the right and the left often find fault with democratic capitalism for its neglect of a single authority responsible for the common good.
These modern systems of governance exist as a reaction to absolute rule, the theological-political problem of having one man or office speak for God on earth with the attending abuses of power and hypocrisy. The Protestant Reformation was one such reaction, modern liberalism another, often combined with a critique of the Catholic natural law tradition. Which makes what is strangely lacking in the Vatican’s responses to this and other scandals all the more evident: the central political question of justice. (Michael Pakaluk was the first to make this connection in the current context.)
Despite the clamor for “social justice” on the left, compassion and empathy have replaced justice as the most important virtue of our age. No surprise, then, that Cardinal Blaise Cupich emphasizes the environment, immigration and, presumably, the death penalty over the sexual abuse crisis in the clergy. The reform of social structures is more important than reform of the soul. Humanitarian concerns have replaced religious and political ones, even for the most prominent leaders of the Church. See C.S. Lewis’s essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment for how we have arrived to this point.
Coming on the heels of the Chilean, Honduran, and other scandals, the McCarrick case has already done great harm to Pope Francis’s credibility as a reformer of any sort. Catholics are required to pray for the Holy Father in his leadership of the Church, and we must do so even more fervently.
We can also offer our considered, respectful words of advice. He can start with addressing the charges made by Viganò without further delay; he certainly knows more about them than journalists ever will. He and his successors will have to move the Church away from governing methods that encourage corruption and secrecy and towards greater transparency and accountability while maintaining the necessary protections for the Sacrament of Confession. The Church as a whole needs to work towards the recovery of human nature as the standard for political right and sexual ethics.
None of this will be easy for the Church hierarchy or faithful. Our faith is in Jesus Christ, not in princes – not even princes of the Church. Perhaps God is chastising us for our faithlessness, allowing such scandals to remind us that He will not allow the gates of hell to prevail against the Church and that without Him, we can do nothing.