As usual, I was preparing to publish a "think piece" post this past weekend. Then all hades broke loose in Catholic cyberspace, again, and that didn't happen.
It didn't require a doctorate in post-Vatican II sociology to see that the blunt letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016, was going to make some headlines in major media, while unleashing tidal waves of emotion online. It isn't everyday that a major Vatican player asks for the pope to resign.
So, before heading to Sunday Divine Liturgy, I pounded out a post: "Nuclear war in Rome: Vatican's former U.S. ambassador claims Francis protected 'Uncle Ted'." The key point for journalists: Vigano was in the perfect place to see and hear what he is claiming to have seen and heard. The issue is whether he has copies of any key documents, or other important voices, to back him up.
All of this is part of the drama of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a topic that has been the subject of a series of must-read posts by our own Julia Duin.
So what if I offer a "think piece" on Monday, instead of Sunday? I say this because the New York Times team published an op-ed page piece on all of this by, believe it or not, Matthew Schmitz of the conservative interfaith journal First Things. The double-decker headline proclaims:
A Catholic Civil War?
Traditionalists want strict adherence to church doctrine. Liberals want the doctrine changed.
It isn't every day (at least not for me), that reading an op-ed in the Times makes me think of the prophet Jeremiah, as in this famous passage:
... Therefore I am full of the wrath of Jehovah; I am weary with holding in. ... I will stretch out my hand upon the inhabitants of the land, saith Jehovah. For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush. ...
So what led me to Go There?
Let's back up a bit. Here is the overture to this must-read essay from Schmitz:
Pope Francis must resign. That conclusion is unavoidable if allegations contained in a letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò are true. Archbishop Viganò, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States from 2011 to 2016, says that Pope Francis knew Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused seminarians, but nonetheless lifted penalties imposed on Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI.
No matter what Francis does now, the Catholic Church has been plunged into all-out civil war. On one side are the traditionalists, who insist that abuse can be prevented only by tighter adherence to church doctrine. On the other side are the liberals, who demand that the church cease condemning homosexual acts and allow gay priests to step out of the closet.
Despite their opposing views, the two sides have important things in common. Both believe that a culture of lies has enabled predators to flourish. And both trace this culture back to the church’s hypocritical practice of claiming that homosexual acts are wrong while quietly tolerating them among the clergy.
So this is one of those cases in which Catholics on the left and right disagree on just about everything -- but not on a crucial One Thing, in this case a reality that prevents candor.
There are a liberal Catholic priests, both gay and straight, who know who the sexually active conservative closet cases are, and won’t out them. There are conservative Catholic priests, both straight and chastely gay, who have no obvious interest in protecting the closet, who nevertheless don’t out liberals who are sexually active. Why is that?
A gay Catholic friend told me that it’s because both sides live under a Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. They will snipe at each other in proxy wars, but when it comes right down to it, they will not turn on each other directly, because once the first missile is fired, there’s no stopping them. Both sides know that such warfare could destroy the institution that they both depend on. So they practice restraint, despite mutual loathing.
Has Vigano fired just such a missile?
I will say it again: It depends, for journalists, on whether or not he has documents.
Back to Schmitz. This essay stresses that, in the end, an acidic secrecy and the potential for mutually assured destruction makes it impossible to deal with some very important problems -- such as the sexual abuse of children and teens (the vast majority of them male) and the sexual harassment and theological rot found in some seminaries. If you listen to candid voices on the Catholic left and right, you end up with this set of three essential Catholic scandal issues (which I have shared several times, in the chaos of the past two weeks):
I: The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders – left and right, gay and straight – have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.
II. Classic pedophiles tend to strike children of both genders. However, in terms of raw statistics, most child-abuse cases linked to Catholic clergy are not true cases of pedophilia, but are examples of ephebophilia – intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens or those on the doorstep of the teen years. The overwhelming majority of these clergy cases are adult males with young males.
III. One of the biggest secrets hiding in the bitter fog from all of these facts is the existence of powerful networks of sexually active gay priests, with many powerful predators -- McCarrick is a classic example -- based at seminaries and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, these men have extraordinary power in shaping the lives of future priests.
Right now, concludes Schmitz, Catholics have no peace and -- when it comes to the practice of the faith, as opposed to words only -- they have no truth. Catholics on left and right have backed away from key truth claims, because talking about truth is dangerous, right now.
What does that look like in news coverage? Check out this dissection of the "Who am I to judge?" soundbite. And in another case:
In 2005 the Vatican attempted to address this problem by instructing seminaries to turn away men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” But several Catholic leaders immediately indicated that they would not abide by this rule. Because Pope Benedict did nothing to enforce the decree, it became yet another symbol of Catholic hypocrisy.
According to Catholic teaching, every act of unchastity leads to damnation. But many bishops would rather save face than prevent the ruin of bodies and souls. If the church really does believe that homosexual acts are always and everywhere wrong, it should begin to live what it teaches. This would most likely mean enforcing the 2005 decree and removing clergy members caught in unchastity. If the church does not believe what it says -- and there are now many reasons to think that it does not -- it should officially reverse its teaching and apologize for centuries of pointless cruelty.
Either way, something must change.
Journalists: At the moment, who is trying to point the media away from the McCarrick story and toward topics that are, strangely enough, somewhat safer? Only in this explosive context would stories about priests abusing children and teens be seen as safer than, oh, frank talk about seminaries, celibacy vows, ecclesiastical bureaucracies and the politics of how men get tiny, temporary, red hats.