2018 in review: the Church’s annus horribilis

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This was the year that the abuse crisis engulfed the Church, and those in power failed to live up to the challenge

2018 has been annus horribilis for the Catholic Church. There’s no point mincing our words. The mere rehearsal of the major disasters would run the length of a volume. An exhaustive list of the missteps and failures starting or ending at the Vatican would require a hefty tome. From the explosion of the abuse-and-coverup crisis — in Pope Francis’s face, at the end of January — the worldwide body of the faithful has been treated to a relentless succession of half-measures, publicity stunts, and increasingly incredible promises of earnest coming from the Pope and the Vatican. None has been minimally sufficient, let alone satisfactory.

The talk from the Pope and the Vatican regarding the abuse-and-coverup crisis has been equally relentless. It is boring, by now, and that is a problem on its own. The talk, however, is not the worst thing about the past year. The worst thing about the past year has been the double-talk.

Whether it concerns parsing of the difference between “proof” and “evidence” — a subtle distinction, to be sure — or the cavilling of “pardon” — if Francis has not pardoned anyone guilty of abuse, he has previously reduced the sentences imposed and even restored men to the clerical state, who had been penally laicized — he has been artful, rather than frank and direct.

Meanwhile, questions that arose when the generational crisis became a current scandal touching Pope Francis, remain unanswered.

There is the fate of the letter Juan Carlos Cruz wrote, supposedly hand-delivered to Pope Francis in 2015 by his hand-picked President of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM. Francis publicly stated in 2018 that no witnesses had ever come forward to bring him evidence of Bishop Juan Barros’s misdeeds in relation to his mentor, Fernando Karadima. An adequate explanation for the apparent discrepancy remains wanting.

There is the question of Francis’s knowledge of the character and proclivities of the disgraced Archbishop McCarrick, and the date Francis became aware of them. Legitimate questions remain outstanding as to the extent of papal and curial involvement in promoting and protecting McCarrick and other churchmen.

Francis has repeatedly promised to be transparent, and consistently failed to be forthright.

However, Pope Francis has taken several bold steps in other areas, the most significant of which is his rapprochement with China. He took a beating in the press over the agreement with the Chinese government, the precise terms of which have yet to be disclosed officially, but apparently involve significant involvement of Chinese authorities in the choice of bishops. Whether the arrangement will prove workable in the long run obviously remains to be seen, but the short-term cost has already been high.

The end of the year also saw major news on the diplomatic front: Pope Francis will be the first reigning pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula — and celebrate a public Mass — when he goes to the United Arab Emirates in January. He is well-regarded in the country, the population of which is overwhelmingly composed of foreign guest-workers, nearly a million of whom are Catholic. Whatever comes of the visit, the fact it is happening at all is a significant diplomatic achievement.

Pope Francis’s calls for responsible care for creation have continued to be clarion, and his support of migrants’ rights constant. The force of his advocacy in these and other regards, however, has been diminished by public perception of his ability and sometimes commitment to the cause of ridding the Church of clerical abusers and reforming the leadership culture that fed and fostered the crisis.

Several year-end analysis pieces have appeared, questioning whether Pope Francis’s apparent inability to get his head around the nature and scope of the crisis — and get out of his own way when it comes to it — might not have permanently scarred his legacy already. “[D]amage to his moral authority on the issue has been done,” wrote Nicole Winfield for the Associated Press. “Before his eyes were opened, Francis showed that he was a product of the very clerical culture he so often denounces, ever ready to take the word of the clerical class over victims.”

If Francis is no longer willing to take the word of a cleric over that of an alleged victim, it remains to be seen whether he shall have the force of will to demand and direct real institutional and moral reform.

As we head into 2019, the eyes of the world will continue to be on Pope Francis. The question is whether the Church at the highest levels of governance will finally recognise what Church-watchers across the spectrum of theological and political opinion have understood for some time: that this crisis of leadership is the worst to hit the Church since the days of Martin Luther; that major reform is necessary and indeed long overdue; that not only Pope Francis’s personal legacy is at stake, but the power of the papacy to be a moral voice in the world.