Ethics & Public Policy Center

Don’t Sanitize McCarrick’s Legacy

Published in The Catholic Thing on February 27, 2020


There is a custom, still observed in some places, in which a cardinal’s ceremonial hat – the red galero – is hung from the rafters of his cathedral upon his death. There it dangles, on its ecclesiastical gibbet, until it finally succumbs to the corruption of time and falls. The ultimate disintegration of the galero is taken as a sign – in a pious bit of Catholic humor – that the old man’s soul has finally made its way out of purgatory.

Having been stripped of his rank as cardinal and dismissed from the clerical state, Theodore McCarrick’s galero will never dangle with the others in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Indeed, more than that, a large plaque bearing McCarrick’s episcopal coat of arms has been removed from the cathedral wall, where it once held its place among those of his predecessors and successors.

A visitor to St. Matthew’s Cathedral today would find no trace, no reminder, that Theodore McCarrick was ever the Archbishop of Washington.

There are many reasons one might want McCarrick’s legacy scrubbed from the cathedral altogether. Surely, those who were betrayed by him – his victims, his friends, his priests, his flock – would not relish seeing his name and heraldry displayed publicly, especially, as in this case, in such close proximity to the tabernacle.

So prominent a reminder of McCarrick might make it more difficult for some to move beyond the anger and confusion of recent years and toward healing and restoration of trust. That is the reason, we are told, that the current Archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, personally ordered the removal of McCarrick’s plaque.

With all due respect to Archbishop Gregory, I think this was a mistake.

Removing McCarrick’s name and arms from the cathedral may make things less painful for us in the short run, but I’m not sure they make anything better in the long run: for us, for him, or for the faithful who will come long after all the rest of us are gone.

First, there is the plain fact that Theodore McCarrick was the Archbishop of Washington. He was appointed to that post in 2000 by Pope St. John Paul II and remained the archbishop until his retirement in 2006. Whatever shame he has brought upon that office, whatever damage he has done to the archdiocese, is not going to be undone by sidestepping this reality and the difficult questions it raises.

The scandal of sin is a legitimate concern, and prurient obsession with sin – especially sexual sin – is morally dangerous. Protecting ourselves from the pain and scandal of sin – our own or others’ – too easily becomes an exercise in self-delusion. Too often, prelates have made a bad situation worse by their zeal to protect the faithful from the ugly reality of the sins of clergy.

Can anyone seriously argue that the Catholic Church in this country has, especially in recent decades, been too forthcoming about the failings of her priests and (especially) bishops? An ecclesiastical culture, however well-intentioned, that sought to sanitize the Church’s failings has undoubtedly made the abuse crisis worse. Is there a clearer demonstration of this than the career of Theodore McCarrick, himself?

Some might argue that McCarrick’s name ought to be expunged from the cathedral as a just punishment. Perhaps the pain of seeing his legacy destroyed in this way is some measure of justice, and perhaps it might even do McCarrick some spiritual good. Perhaps.

But there is also value in recognizing the limits of the justice we can mete out. God’s justice comes not only in this life but in the fullness of time. If we forget this, the impulse to squeeze justice into the short span of our own lifetimes and on our own terms becomes unbearable. We deceive ourselves into thinking that all must be – or can be – set right on our schedule. When we allow the pursuit of justice to become a quest for our own satisfaction, we are no longer seeking justice, but vengeance.

This leads to the final reason I’m wary of the decision to scrub McCarrick from the cathedral: Theodore McCarrick, himself.

The old tradition about the galero’s fall being a sign that a prelate’s soul has escaped purgatory has a serious foundation. Our shepherds need our prayers, even in death. We pray for the dead, not because we are certain of their righteousness, but precisely because we are not. Reminders of our sin and weakness – and especially of the sinfulness and weakness of our shepherds – are important because they remind us to pray fervently for the salvation of souls.

Unlike the men whose red hats hang in cathedrals around the world, Theodore McCarrick is still alive. Who are we to say he is beyond hope? And if he is not beyond hope, shouldn’t we pray for him?

As we heard proclaimed just this past Sunday: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That seems like an easy command to obey in the abstract, but I, at least, find it very difficult to do with any conviction when we’re talking about someone like Theodore McCarrick. Pray for his victims? Of course. For his successor? Gladly. For his former flock? No doubt. But for Uncle Ted?

Something tells me the Lord had just such “hard cases” in mind.

Theodore McCarrick remains, whether we like to admit it or not, our brother. We are bound together, through our Baptism, in Christ. Christ’s Body is not made more perfect by ignoring the wounds it bears, nor by forgetting how they got there.

© 2020 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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