Beyond 'administrative' affairs: Do bishops realize that anger in pews puts them in crosshairs?

In many ways, recent remarks by Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga at the Spanish-language website Religion Digital are the perfect summary of where we are, right now, in the various scandals linked to the life and times of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.

Not that you would know that, the first time you read the most important quotation in that report. This was one of those cases in which you had to read the quote three or four times — focusing on a few strategic turns of phrase — to understand what was going on.

It also helps to remember that Cardinal Maradiaga is the chair of the inner ring of cardinals who advise Pope Francis. This isn’t a quote from the Throne of St. Peter, but it’s very close.

Ready? Read carefully.

"It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many," said Cardinal Maradiaga, in a Religion Digital interview. "I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions."

Now, what does the word “something” mean? This appears to have been a comment about the McCarrick case, as opposed to the wider world of clergy child-abuse scandals.

Apparently, this Francis insider believes that this case is “administrative” and “of the private order” and, thus, not something for public inquiry and headlines (or published testimonies by former papal nuncios to the United States). In my national “On Religion” column this week, I also noted this quote from Maradiaga:

On another "private order," "administrative" issue in church affairs, he said the "notion of a gay lobby in the Vatican is out of proportion. It is something that exists much more in the ink of the newspapers than in reality."

All of this, and much more, came up for discussion in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Think of it as our latest attempt to answer the question people keep asking: What is this Catholic mess really about?

For those who have been paying attention, lots of people on the Catholic right continue to shout that the interlocking scandals are about gay priests, gay bishops, gay cardinals, etc. On the Catholic left, most people say that the scandals are about pedophilia — period — and that the church has made great progress in the past decade or so when it comes to handling cases involving the abuse of minors (which is true).

As for me, I still think the McCarrick case is the perfect combinations of the various scandals that are in play right now. But the key for me — as concisely stated in the “Spotlight” movie (see clip at the top of this post) — is a larger system based on secrecy and the protection of the players at the top of the ecclesiastical depth card. I keep asking:

Who promoted McCarrick?

Who protected McCarrick?

Who were the leaders in positions in which they would have known about his abuse of young boys, financial settlements those who were abused and his decades of #MeToo harassment, and worse, of seminarians whose careers McCarrick controlled?

Who depended on McCarrick for strategic support to get where they are today and, thus, owe him more than gratitude?

Journalists who answer those questions will be nearing the heart of the “system.”


Meanwhile, many bishops and cardinals seem to saying, “Don’t look at me! Look over there!”

Yes, that makes me think of the archetypal “Far Side” cartoon with the bear in the crosshairs.

Of course, there have been allegations about bishops linked to the child-abuse scandals, both as abusers and as administrators who hid priests who were guilty of abuse. That story has received lots of ink.

However, bishops and cardinals are also linked to the side of the McCarrick scandal that is getting less attention in the mainstream press (unless reporters are working behind the scenes). I am referring to allegations about sexual abuse and harassment in seminaries and claims that some seminaries promote a “lavender mafia” in the church.

Bishops are linked to all of these stories, since they are the men in charge at the local level.

Do bishops realize that many people in many pews are furious about the protection of priests who molest children and teen-agers, but they are also angry about these other issues? Do the bishops understand that, for many active Catholics, they are well on their way to becoming the living symbols of the broken “system”?

In a recent address at Gonzaga University, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput — a man I have known since the mid-1980s — wove several of these themes into one dramatic question: Is the Catholic church about to experience an earthquake of historic proportions?

At the center of this question is the church’s bishops.

… I’ve always found talk of schisms in the Church or a “new Reformation” to be alarmist. I still do. The world is too different from half a millennium ago for easy parallels to apply. But I do think we’ve reached a tipping point or pivotal moment in the modern West, where even at the popular level, Christianity can be shed like dead skin.

Transformations like the one sparked by Martin Luther start with simple anger and modest goals. They end by changing more than anyone intended. The issues of how we organize society, how we build a healthy culture, and how we understand the meaning and dignity of the human person, are all very much in play today. Our country and the world need a pure voice speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a response. And this is what makes the current sex abuse crisis in the Church so damaging and dangerous, like a lit match in a roomful of kindling. The leaders tasked with witnessing Christian truth to the world as bishops and religious superiors are exactly the men who have too often failed their people, failed in their ministry, and even actively betrayed their vocation. We bishops and the Vatican itself are now seen as the problem. We need to face that fact honestly, and work to change it by our actions.

In my column this week, I focused on remarks — in an address on Sept. 11, no less — by another Catholic leader who holds two highly symbolic posts in the Vatican. This archbishop from Germany is both the personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the "prefect of the papal household," for Francis — a major gatekeeper for the pope.

What are the stakes right now? Here is the conclusion of my column:

Drawing on themes from the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Archbishop Georg Ganswein said Catholicism is facing -- with the McCarrick scandal and a searing Pennsylvania grand-jury report on abuse by 300-plus priests -- a crisis of the highest order, one he described as a kind of spiritual 9/11. …

"I am neither comparing the victims nor the numbers of abuse cases in the Catholic Church with those 2,996 innocent people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon," he said. Archbishop Ganswein spoke as part of a forum in Rome marking the release of the Italian edition of "The Benedict Option," the controversial bestseller by American journalist Rod Dreher.

"No one has -- to this date -- attacked the Church of Christ by passenger plane. St. Peter's is still standing, as are the cathedrals of France, Germany or Italy," he said. "And yet, the recent news from America, where so many souls have been permanently and mortally injured by priests of the Catholic church, is worse than any news could be of Pennsylvania's churches suddenly collapsing, along with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C."

Catholic leaders will not be able to hide from this crisis, he said, which has been gathering like a storm for quite some time. Consider the warning that was issued in 2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who became Pope Benedict XVI.

This was one of several times when Benedict tried to warn bishops and other church leaders about what was ahead, noted Ganswein.

"How much filth there is in the church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency," said Ratzinger, in a Good Friday sermon. "His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer -- it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison -- Lord, save us."

A new Reformation? A spiritual 9/11? Another journalism challenge the size of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Spotlight” project, or even bigger and global in scope?

Will bishops and cardinals be able to say: “No, don’t shoot at me! Look over there!”

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