The Catholic Church Is Breaking Apart. Here’s Why.
By Jonathan V. Last
September 14, 2018
|Cardinal Donald Wuerl walks between rows of Catholic clergy as he leaves the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on February 20, 2016.|
|Pope Francis gives Theodore McCarrick a hug following a service in Washington, D.C., in September 2015.|
Photo by Jonathan Newton
|Archbishop of Chicago Blase Cupich|
Photo by Giulio Origlia
Consider what we know, and what has been alleged, about Pope Francis, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
For several decades, Father, Bishop, Archbishop, and eventually Cardinal McCarrick preyed sexually on the priests and seminarians serving under his authority. There are credible allegations he abused boys as young as 11. To the extent that this behavior was a secret within the American church, it was very badly kept. Between 2005 and 2007, three dioceses in New Jersey paid out large cash settlements to keep allegations of abuse by McCarrick quiet. As Bishop Steven Lopes said in a homily first reported by First Things, “I was a seminarian when Theodore McCarrick was named archbishop of Newark. And he would visit the seminary often, and we all knew.”
McCarrick ended his career as cardinal of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese and was succeeded by Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who arrived having just served as bishop of Pittsburgh. Wuerl’s former diocese has been in the news recently after the release of a grand jury report by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office outlining decades of abuse by priests in the state.
As Wuerl arrived in Washington in 2006, McCarrick retired to the Redemptoris Mater seminary and was later ejected and sent to the Institute of the Incarnate Word seminary, both of which lay within Wuerl’s jurisdiction. In or about 2009, Pope Benedict XVI placed McCarrick under some sort of sanction. (The exact nature of the sanction is still unknown, but it seems to have been something like house arrest. It is also unclear when, exactly, Benedict first learned about McCarrick or how much time passed before he acted.) Yet somehow Wuerl insists that he knew nothing about any of this until June 2018, when the McCarrick firestorm exploded into public view.
Wuerl’s defense is that he is not an evil man who looked the other way about the behavior of a known sexual predator, but merely an incompetent dolt. And Wuerl seems to think that being guilty of gross incompetence should entitle him to keep his job. A responsible leader of good character would have walked away in disgrace the moment he learned of these scandals. Wuerl’s first public comment on the McCarrick story was to say, “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” On literally the same day that the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released, Wuerl’s diocese launched a barrage of defensive propaganda in the form of a new website, “The Wuerl Record.” It was quickly taken down when it became clear that it was hurting the cardinal’s reputation rather than helping it. Then Wuerl called for “a season of healing” with special Masses in his archdiocese. The best that can be said of Wuerl is that his crisis PR handling has bolstered the incompetence defense.
It was only after a month of trying to cling to his job that Wuerl said he plans to fly to Rome to discuss his future with Pope Francis. Francis has yet to say or do anything about Wuerl despite the fact that, as do all cardinals over the age of 75, Wuerl had a letter of resignation on file with the Vatican. Francis could have disposed of him in an afternoon without having to do anything more complicated than accept a pre-existing letter.
Those are the facts we know. None of them are in dispute.
Then there are the allegations: On August 25, 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published a letter in which he claimed that he had been party to several attempts to make the Vatican aware of McCarrick’s abuses over the years; that he had personally discussed them with Wuerl; and that Pope Francis—knowing full well all of the above—rescinded the house-arrest order of his predecessor, made McCarrick his “trusted counselor,” and, at McCarrick’s behest, began elevating certain bishops—such as Blase Cupich and Joseph William Tobin—to positions of power in the American church.
If true, this would mean that we have one cardinal who was a sanctioned sexual predator, (at least) one cardinal who turned a blind eye to this man’s crimes as they were happening within his jurisdiction, and a pope who didn’t just look the other way but took affirmative steps to help both the criminal and his enabler.
And if all of that is true, well, then what? The potential answers to this question aren’t very nice. They include: schism, the destruction of the papacy, and a long war for the soul of the Catholic church. Because the story of Theodore McCarrick isn’t just a story about sexual abuse. It’s about institutions and power.
The abuse itself is terrible, of course. We should say that out loud, because while the details are unspeakable they must be spoken of. Without the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, we would know much less about the evil inside the church. (It is also instructive to note that authorities within the church opposed the release of this report.) But individual priest-abusers aren’t catastrophic to the church in any structural way. Predators will always be among us. It is a human pathology from which not even priests are immune. But the remedy for predation is straightforward: Whenever and wherever such men are discovered, they should be rooted out and punished.
The institutional damage is done not by the abusers but by the structures that cover for them, excuse them, and advance them. Viewed in that way, the damage done to the Catholic church by Cardinal Wuerl—and every other bishop who knew about McCarrick and stayed silent—is several orders of magnitude greater than that done by McCarrick himself.
By way of analogy, consider the dirty cop. About once a week we see evidence of police officers behaving in ways that range from the imprudent to the illegal. It has no doubt been this way since Hammurabi deputized the first lawman. But while individuals might be harmed by rogue cops, the system of law enforcement isn’t jeopardized by police misbehavior. The damage to the system comes when the other mechanisms of law enforcement protect, rather than prosecute, bad cops. If that happens often enough, citizens can eventually decide that the system is broken and take to the ballot box to reform it. The laity have no such recourse with the church.
The Catholic church is unlike any other earthly institution. It is strictly hierarchical, with its ultimate power derived from the son of God. The head of the church—the successor of Peter—is elected to a lifetime appointment by his peers, and his authority over them is total. He can allow them to carry on sexual affairs in broad daylight, as Francis did with Father Krzysztof Charamsa, a priest who worked for years in the Vatican curia while living openly with his gay lover. Or he can drive them from the church, as Francis did with Father Charamsa after the priest made his situation public in the Italian media in 2015. He can make either of these choices—or any choice in between—for any reason he likes. Or none at all. Such is the supreme power of the vicar of Christ.
Yet the pope’s immediate subordinates—the cardinals and bishops—function like feudal lords in their own right. The bishop can preach in contravention of the teachings of the church, as Cardinal Walter Kasper does on the subject of marriage and infidelity. He can forbid the offering of both species of the Eucharist, as Bishops John Richard Keating and Paul Loverde once did in Northern Virginia. He can punish and reward priests under his care either because of merit or caprice—because the deacons and priests all swear a vow of obedience to the bishop (or cardinal) himself.
All of which is the long way of saying that there is no mechanism for a man such as Donald Wuerl to be dealt with by his peers. The bishop of Madison can fulminate against Wuerl all he wants to, as Bishop Robert Morlino did in late August. His fellow bishops have no power over him. The only man Wuerl is accountable to is the pope. And the structure of the church has no remedy when a pope is foolish or wicked.
In the weeks after the Viganò letter was published, Francis preached a homily in which he declared, “with people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction” the best response is “silence” and “prayer.” If this sounds like Francis believes the real villains in this mess are Archbishop Viganò and people who want to know what the bishops knew, and when they knew it, well, yes.
In another homily on September 11, Francis went further, saying that not only was Viganò the real villain, but the bishops were the real victims: They were being persecuted by the devil: “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” Francis preached. And Satan “tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.” (The Father of Lies—as he is referred to in the Bible—has not traditionally been regarded as the revealer of sins in Catholic thought, but this pope has never been known for having a supple mind.) Francis then offered counsel for his poor, suffering brother bishops: “The Great Accuser, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse.’ A bishop’s strength against the Great Accuser is prayer.”
Other parts of the church hierarchy also seem to view themselves as victims. In late August, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig decided to try to get to the bottom of the Viganò story by asking McCarrick himself. She went to the church-owned property where the former cardinal now resides and knocked on the door. Whatever representative of the church—God’s vessel for Truth and Light—lives there declined to answer. Instead, he called the Post to complain about her.
So what is to be done if the vicar of Christ is a fool who sides with bishops who enabled or hid abusers? Or is a wicked man who sides with the actual abusers themselves? That’s an excellent question and we’ll get to it.
The more immediate question is: Why would he do that? And the answer is simple: power.
The pontificate of Francis can, perhaps, best be understood as a political project. His election at the conclave in 2013 was—unbeknownst to the world at the time—the result of a campaign planned out in advance by four radical cardinals who saw then-cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the perfect vehicle for the revolution they wanted to launch within the church. (The story of how Cardinals Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Walter Kasper, Godfried Danneels, and Karl Lehmann formed “Team Bergoglio” is detailed in Austen Ivereigh’s worshipful biography of Francis, and even though the cardinals subsequently denied the account, their protestations are supremely unconvincing.) As the Catholic News Agency reported at the time, this politicking wasn’t simply a matter of bad taste: The apostolic constitution, Universi Dominici gregis, expressly prohibits cardinals from forming pacts, agreements, promises, or commitments of any kind. Oh well.
During his time on Peter’s throne, Francis has worked to dismantle many orthodox positions in an attempt to radically reorient the church toward—by total coincidence—the long-held preferences of those four radical cardinals. For instance: He has criticized Catholics for being “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. He has derided Catholic women for having too many children and behaving “like rabbits.” He sent a papal blessing to the lesbian author of the Italian version of Heather Has Two Mommies—a tract for children extolling the virtues of same-sex parenting.
All of this is in addition to his bizarre insistence that “never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake” and that the benefits of free-market growth have “never been confirmed by the facts.” (In case people didn’t get the message, Francis posed for pictures with a crucifix made of a hammer and a sickle.) Yet as bad as free market capitalism is, the pope insists “the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” Which is a . . . curious view of our fallen world.
The most outré of the pope’s initiatives, however, have been his efforts to dismantle the restrictions on admittance of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. For this, Francis convened a synod, attempted to ram through a change to Catholic teaching, and, when that failed, proclaimed via an apostolic exhortation that priests were free to use their discretion on the matter.
To non-Catholics, this may not sound like a big deal, but it is: Communion for the divorced and remarried is the first theological step to doing away with the concept of adultery. If such a change is accomplished, the Catholic church would eventually be forced to change all of its teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family: Divorce, pre-, and -extra-marital sex would all then be sanctioned by the church.
And so would—crucially—homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Now maybe you like these things and maybe you don’t. Some Christian denominations embrace them. But the Catholic church has never sanctioned any of them and the entire revolutionary project of changing the church’s teaching on family and sexuality necessarily begins with communion for the divorced and remarried.
This project and the pope’s apostolic exhortation were serious enough that several cardinals sent the Holy Father a formal document, known as a dubia, asking if he truly intended to change Catholic teaching in a heretical manner, or if he had just made an honest mistake. Francis simply ignored them.
Which is his way. In his only conversation with reporters about the Viganò testimony, Francis declined to address the charge that he had known about McCarrick. Viganò’s letter, Francis said, “speaks for itself.” When it wasn’t clear what the Holy Father meant by this—Was Viganò’s account true? Was Viganò a mountebank?—Francis continued, saying, “It’s an act of trust. I won’t say a word about it.”
The pope’s favorite American cardinal is Blase Cupich, who heads the archdiocese of Chicago and has been the most persistent cheerleader for the Francis project in America. He has said quite a few words. Asked about the Vigano letter by a reporter, Cupich said it was a “rabbit hole” and “[T]he pope has a bigger agenda. . . . he’s got to get on with other things” such as “talking about the environment and protecting migrants.”
This was not a gaffe. A few days later, Cupich met with a group of seminarians who very much wanted to talk about the priest-abuse problem, the Holy Father, and this dark night of the church. Cupich told the group, “I feel very much at peace at this moment. I am sleeping okay.” Then came this, per the account in the Chicago Sun-Times:
The source said Cupich also told the group that, while the church’s “agenda” certainly involves protecting kids from harm, “we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this,” including helping the homeless and sick.
Which brings us, finally, to the question of what this “agenda” actually is.
It is difficult to disentangle the hundreds of cases of abuse in the church from the subject of homosexuality. No one wants to say, or even to insinuate, that homosexuality and abusiveness are one and the same, or that all, or most, or even a large proportion of gay men are abusers. Those statements are objectively false.
At the same time, the math is pitiless: According to our best data, a mammoth CDC study done in 2013, 1.6 percent of Americans identify as gay. Yet 80 percent of the abuse cases involve priests abusing other males. You can include all the caveats you like—maybe there’s selection bias, maybe the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood is many times higher than 1.6 percent, maybe not all male-on-male abuse is perpetrated by men who would identify as gay. But the correlation is still high enough that it is impossible to ignore.
And despite the fact that everyone wants to insist that abuse by priests has nothing to do with homosexuality, it’s strange that the people who most want to open the church sacramentally to homosexuality are the ones strenuously ignoring the abuse. Priests such as Cardinal Cupich are certainly acting like they think there’s a linkage and that if the church were to crack down on abuse and the bishops who enabled it, it would somehow endanger their project.
And it’s not confined to the United States. In Chile, too, Catholic bishops have presided over a sickening culture of abuse and coverup. Confronted with charges of abuse, Francis stood by the Chilean bishop Juan Barros Madrid, saying of the allegations, “The day someone brings me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. But there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?” This, despite the fact that Francis had been warned about Barros and there was a mountain of evidence against him. Barros was on Team Francis, which is what counted most.
In July, a group of 50 seminarians in Honduras presented Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga with a letter and corroborating evidence alleging a ring of homosexual abuse at the country’s largest seminary. Maradiaga’s response, per the reporting of Edward Pentin, was to accuse the seminarians of being “gossipers.” You can think of Maradiaga as the Donald Wuerl of Tegucigalpa. He is also one of Francis’s closest advisers.
Whether or not it’s coincidence, the American bishops in the most jeopardy now—McCarrick, Wuerl, Cupich, Tobin—are also the ones closest to Francis and most supportive of his desire to revolutionize the church.
There was a general sense among Catholics following the pontificate of John Paul II that the church had been jolted by an influx of orthodox young priests. In time, the thinking went, these men would climb and, eventually, they would stock the positions of power throughout the church. Thus the church would remain, at least for the medium-term, an orthodox institution.
But the election of Francis changed all of that. Even though the radical elements within the church were a small and aging minority, the progressives realized that the only person who really matters is the pope. That’s why they organized to get Francis elected. Since then they have understood that if Francis and his faction can find just a few score of like-minded priests to elevate, they can ensure that the current pope’s successor will share his ideological preferences.
The College of Cardinals is supposed to have 120 voting members; currently there are 124 members eligible to participate in the next conclave. That’s more than the cap should allow. Why? Because 75 of them—including Cupich and Tobin—have been appointed by Francis. Unlike his predecessor, Francis understands power. And because there are so few high-level progressives in the church, Francis understands that losing any of these men could endanger his succession, which could endanger his larger project. His confederates, in turn, understand that losing Francis himself at this moment could sink it entirely.
The chances of the church’s losing Francis, however, are slim. You cannot impeach a pope. And barring an unexpected return to our Heavenly Father, Francis will remain pope for the foreseeable future. Which leaves four possible pathways, none of which is attractive.
Some conservative Catholics, such as Princeton’s Robert P. George, have suggested that Francis ought to resign—especially if the Viganò letter is corroborated. This is an attractive idea and would align with the cause of justice. Anyone in the church hierarchy who knew, or should have known, about specific abusers in their midst should, at the least, be removed from any position of responsibility. They simply cannot be trusted. If you were to extend this view all the way to the bishop of Rome, there is a certain cleanliness to its logic—a sense that maybe the church could make a clean break and begin to make things right anew.
But it might be a cure worse than the disease.
In the last 600 years, only one pope has abdicated: Benedict XVI, the man who immediately preceded Francis. Two abdications in a millennium are an aberration. But two abdications in a row would have the practical effect of breaking the modern papacy. From here forward, all popes would be expected to resign their office rather than die in harness.
This expectation of resignation would, in turn, create incentives for the pope’s theological adversaries to fight and wound him, in the not-unreasonable hope that if they could make him unpopular, he could be shuffled out of the palace and they could try their luck with a new pontiff. Before you know it, you’d have polling data and opposition research and the papacy would become an expressly political office. No Catholic should yearn for this outcome.
The second option is capitulation. Catholics could shrug and give up. They could let Cardinal Wuerl live his best life and then slink off to a graceful retirement; they could make peace with Cardinal Cupich’s view that the church exists, first and foremost, to deal with global warming, or the minimum wage, or whatever else is trending on Vox.com. They could toe the dirt and accept sacramental same-sex marriages, even if it destroys the theology of the body. After all, times change. Religions change. And if you really trust in the Lord, then no change could come to His church without its being the will of the Father.
The third option is schism. There has been loose talk about schism since the early days of Francis’s pontificate. The conversation became less whimsical at the time of the synod and the dubia. It will become deadly serious if Viganò’s accusations are corroborated and Francis shelters in place. Even so, it remains one of those low-probability, extinction-level events that every Catholic should pray does not come to pass.
The fourth option is resistance. We are only at the current moment because the forces that conspired to elevate Francis refused, for decades, to leave the church, even though their desires were at odds with its teachings.
Despite the fact that the Catholic church rejected their preferences as false, the South American liberation theologists, the German cardinals who wanted to redefine marriage, and the American progressives who never met a social justice cause they didn’t like all hung on. Eventually they organized. And after a generation of orthodox papacy, during which time most American Catholics forgot that there even was a radical side of the faith, they worked together to elect Francis. Organization works, if you’re willing to play the long game and play for keeps.
So Catholics could starve bishops such as Wuerl, Cupich, and Tobin of funds. Not a dime for any church in any diocese headed by a bishop who refuses to root out abusers and their enablers.
The bishops who do care about these things could start organizing for the next conclave now, identifying potential candidates and laying the groundwork for the election of the next pope.
Then, when the pendulum eventually swings back—be it next year or 40 years from now—orthodox Catholics could take from these years a very sobering lesson about power. And with neither malice nor mercy drive men such as Cupich, Tobin, and Wuerl into the sea and purge the church of anyone who believes that climate change is a more pressing matter than the abuse of Catholics by the clergy.
None of these pathways is attractive; each leads to a church that is at best impoverished and at worst crippled.
Then again, the church survived Caligula, the bubonic plague, the Third Reich, the Gather hymnal, and the autoharp. It will survive McCarrick, Wuerl, and Francis, too.
But crucibles are rarely pleasant experiences for those inside them and a great many souls may be lost in the transition.
Those men will have much to answer for.
Correction, September 14, 2018, 3:05 p.m.: The article originally stated that a bishop "can forbid the offering of both species of the Eucharist, as Bishop Michael Burbidge does in Northern Virginia." Bishop Burbidge does allow both species of the Eucharist, it was his predecessors, Bishops John Richard Keating and Paul Loverde, who forbid the offering of both species of the Eucharist. According to a statement from the Arlington Diocese: "Reverend Thomas Ferguson, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia with the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, [says that] Bishop Paul Loverde changed the policy to allow both species of the Eucharist to be allowed at Mass. The policy changed sometime between 1999 and 2004."
Also, the article originally stated that Bishop Steven Lopes said “I was a seminarian when Theodore McCarrick was named archbishop of Newark. And he would visit the seminary often, and we all knew." in the an interview with First Things. He made those remarks in a homily that was first reported by First Things.