Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ask and You Shall Receive?

Published in The Catholic Thing on September 27, 2018


Two weeks ago, members of the USCCB executive committee traveled to Rome to ask for the Holy Father’s help in addressing the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church in the United States. They came back empty-handed.

The primary goal was to convince the Holy Father to appoint an Apostolic Visitator to investigate the rot and corruption that enabled Theodore McCarrick to flourish – an investigation that the American bishops themselves have neither the capacity nor, frankly, the credibility to undertake on their own. The pope “nixed” that idea, according to CruxFrancis suggested the bishops go on retreat, instead of holding their annual November meeting in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, 70-million exasperated American Catholics wait for some response from Rome that might indicate that the nature and scope of the current crisis have finally, been understood.

Undoubtedly, the Viganò affair – and the American episcopate’s refusal to dismiss the allegations out of hand – has left a very sour taste in the pontifical mouth. But one wonders if the Holy Father understands how his silence – and his daily touting of it in his homilies – gives ordinary Catholics the painful impression that Rome is more concerned with making an example of its enemies than in meeting the needs of the suffering flock.

And while Pope Francis’ condemnation of the sexual abuse of children has been unequivocal (one would expect no less), it’s still not entirely clear that he grasps just how dire is the crisis of confidence in the bishops themselves.

While the Holy Father has been silent – even the papal press corps is growing frustrated – some of his closest associates are talking.

Cardinal Cupich was publicly blasted for telling an interviewer that “the pope has a bigger agenda” than dealing with the allegations of Archbishop Viganò and that, “We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.” The most charitable interpretation of his remarks might acquit the Cardinal of insouciance, but his eagerness to downplay and move beyond the Viganò allegations also tends to obscure the fact that the crisis of confidence in the American Church was brought about, not by the intemperate missive of Archbishop Viganò, but by the manifest failures of bishops – including many bishops we have right now.

Another papal confidant, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., ventured to defend the Pope’s response to these matters: “The Pope draws energy from the conflict,” Fr. Spadaro wrote on Facebook, “and sees it as a sign that his action riles. The driving force of the pontificate of #PapaFrancesco manifests itself precisely in the paroxysm of the backlash that generates and that are thrown at him.”

It’s not news that the Holy Father has a certain fondness for creative destruction in spiritual and ecclesiastical life – ¡Hagan Lío! Make a mess! – but sometimes a mess is just a mess. When conflict and division are presumed to be the hallmarks of wise governance and sound judgment, things begin to take on a conspiratorial tone. Everything is great; it proves we must be doing something right! Look at this colossal mess; it proves we must be doing something right!

That self-fulfilling quality of this pope’s relationship with the Church in the United States has a certain tragicomic tone. Ponder, for example, the following absurdity: The Holy Father seems to have learned much of what he knows about the American Church – i.e., that the American episcopate is full of right-wing ideologues – from the mendacious Theodore McCarrick. And yet the Holy Father also appears to have interpreted the events surrounding McCarrick’s disgrace as confirmation of the veracity of McCarrick’s account of the American episcopate.

Rome seems to have little sense of how demoralizing it is for Catholics who, already twice-betrayed by their own bishops, are told that growing impatience with the pope’s silence is taken by Rome to be further evidence of ideological agitation against the Holy Father. The whole thing has more than a whiff of paranoia about it.

Meanwhile, the hits keep coming for the American flock. As of this writing, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, though the lamest of ducks, is still Archbishop of Washington. Bishop Richard Malone in Buffalo is facing increasing pressure to resign in light of reports that he buried allegations of abuse against his priests; Bishop Michael Hoeppner in Minnesota is accused of strong-arming an abuse victim into silence.

Forthcoming government investigations in Illinois, Missouri, and New York all but guarantee the drum-beat of bad news will continue for the foreseeable future. The American bishops, absent the help needed from Rome to police their own ranks, are left dangling in the wind. Rome seems willing to leave them there, at least for now.

If Rome won’t assist the American bishops, they’ll have to make do with the resources they have at the conference level. Last week’s letter from USCCB president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, indicates what that might look like. The USCCB can’t remove bishops from ministry – nor force them to resign – but what they can do is worth doing. Plans include the establishment of a third-party reporting system for complaints against bishops and a full-as-can-be-under-the-circumstances investigation, with meaningful lay involvement, into the McCarrick affair.

Again, without the backing of Rome, these efforts will lack the teeth they might otherwise have, but the fact that our American bishops are moving on these issues now, rather than waiting on Rome, is a good sign.

Americans are accustomed to making demands, a trait that does not always endear us to Rome, or anyone else. Still, the hope is that the American bishops’ reform efforts will ultimately find backing from the Vatican. And that may yet happen if American churlishness and Roman intransigence don’t prevent it.

Asked why the help sought for from Rome hasn’t been forthcoming, Cardinal Dolan spoke for millions of American Catholics: “I tend to get as impatient as you obviously are, so I don’t know the answer to that.”

For now, our bishops aren’t waiting on Peter.

© 2018 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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