In the year 1137, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the reign of King Stephen descended into such bloody chaos that “men said openly that Christ and his saints slept”.
It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that a similar thought occurred to many Catholics in 2018 – at least, those who have followed the international media’s lazy and inadequate coverage of the crisis in the Church.
We hope our readers will forgive us if we point out yet again the gravity of that crisis. References to the sexual scandals and episcopal backstabbing of 2018 do not make for spiritually uplifting reading. But they will at least prepare Catholics for the inevitable misery of 2019, as American dioceses – which are a major source of Vatican income – topple into bankruptcy.
These scandals – mostly but not exclusively relating to sexual assault by American bishops and priests, and its concealment by their colleagues – are the reason the Herald has decided not to nominate any individual as Catholic of the Year. Too many Church leaders are compromised. Their critics, meanwhile, have been drawn into an ecclesiastical civil war in which certain voices can plausibly be accused of playing politics with sex abuse.
Last month, the Catholic Herald launched its US edition. The experience of setting up offices in Washington, recruiting columnists and meeting so many remarkable American Catholics has brought home to us the despair that the faithful are now battling every day.
Something of that despair is creeping into Britain, too. There have been no comparable headlines, but the shadow of abuse in Catholic public schools has yet to pass – and, like Catholics in the United States, British Mass-goers are troubled by the absence of promised sweeping reforms from Rome.
And yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, the faithful Mass-goer bears witness to the truth. He or she not only celebrates the feasts and observes the penances of the liturgical year but complements them with countless acts of charity.
This, then, is our Catholic of the Year. There was a time when we might casually have talked about “the ordinary Catholic”. But increasingly there is no such thing. There is, sadly, an ever-increasing number of baptised members of the Church for whom Catholic identity amounts to little more than an entry on the census form. In contrast, there are Catholics who practise their faith as cheerfully as they can manage, guided by uncorrupted priests, in the face of an unprecedented betrayal by the hierarchy.
The faithfulness of these Mass-goers can be measured by the weight of the burdens placed on them in 2018. Of these, the heaviest has been the emergence of a monstrous figurehead for crimes against young people. Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington and formerly one of the most prominent cardinals in the United States, was exposed this summer by the New York Times as a vicious predator. His assaults on young men continued for decades. His reputation was well known to some of his fellow bishops when – incredibly – they entrusted him with the task of drawing up the US bishops’ sex abuse guidelines in 2002.
That was the year after St John Paul II elevated McCarrick to the see of the nation’s capital, despite the fact that some Vatican officials had been informed of his behaviour.
In July, Pope Francis stripped McCarrick of the title of cardinal. But the applause for this gesture quickly died down when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a respected former nuncio to the United States, claimed that he had personally informed the Pope of McCarrick’s evil acts in 2013, at the very beginning of this pontificate. Despite this, said Viganò, the new Pope lifted the punishment imposed on McCarrick by Benedict XVI, who had tried to force the cardinal into internal exile following the latter’s retirement.
Was Archbishop Viganò telling the precise truth? We do not know, because the one man in a position to tell us – Pope Francis – has refused to say anything. Meanwhile, American cardinals who were close friends or protégés of McCarrick have insisted that they knew nothing of his crimes. Most Catholics find this hard to believe. Indeed, McCarrick’s successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was forced to resign his see in October because – as the distinguished Vatican commentator Fr Raymond de Souza wrote bluntly in the National Catholic Register – his own priests “thought that he was lying” when he claimed to know nothing about McCarrick’s wickedness.
There is no space here to list the avalanche of lawsuits descending on the American Church as state and federal agencies begin investigating the complicity of other bishops in clerical sex abuse. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has already filed for bankruptcy. Others will certainly follow, and not just in the United States. Many experts believe that the situation is even more squalid in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia. The consequences of such worldwide contagion do not bear thinking about.
So let us think about something else: the heroic witness to Christ by faith-filled priests and lay people in every diocese in the world. We must not forget that 2018 was the year of rosaries on the coast and the Eucharistic congress in Liverpool; a year in which prophetic American Catholics intensified their defence of the unborn and, just last week, the impeccably orthodox Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco celebrated a new “Mass of the Americas” that seeks to heal wounds by renewing the liturgy.
And, every day, two great Catholic charities, Aid to the Church in Need and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, brought blessed relief to persecuted Christians abroad and lonely, pain-wracked Christians at home. Their self-sacrificing heroism is far more typical of hundreds of thousands of Catholics than the moral cowardice of ecclesiastical bureaucrats – and reminds us that, despite the nauseating sins of unscrupulous bishops, Christ and his saints do not sleep.
Annus horribilis: A year of bad news
January 2018 On a pastoral visit to Chile, Pope Francis accuses victims of the nation’s most notorious clerical abuser, Fernando Karadima, of “calumny”. The victims claimed that Bishop Juan Barros, who was appointed Bishop of Osorno in 2015, had been aware of Karadima’s actions – an allegation he denied.
February A senior Vatican judge is convicted of possessing 80 pornographic images involving children. Mgr Pietro Amenta pleaded guilty and was given a 14-month suspended sentence.
March Mgr Dario Viganò, the man appointed to reform the Holy See’s communications, resigns following a row over a letter from Benedict XVI. The prefect of the Secretariat for Communications came under fire after his department quoted selectively from the letter.
April An Australian court rules that Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, must stand trial on historical sexual assault charges. The cardinal will plead not guilty.
May The whole of the Chilean episcopate (minus retired bishops) submit their resignations to the Pope following a meeting at the Vatican to discuss the country’s abuse crisis. Those resigning include Bishop Barros, whose resignation is formally accepted the following month.
June The US Church announces that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, DC, will no longer exercise any public ministry after allegations that he had abused a teenager 47 years ago were deemed “credible and substantiated”.
July The New York Times interviews a man, identified only as “James”, who says that Cardinal McCarrick sexually abused him for almost two decades, beginning in 1969 when he was aged 11. Pope Francis accepts McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals. He asks the former Washington archbishop to observe “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion”.
August A grand jury report concludes that more than 300 priests abused children over seven decades in the state of Pennsylvania, prompting uproar in the US Church. In the middle of a torrid papal visit to Ireland, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò issues a letter claiming that he had personally warned Francis about McCarrick but that the Pope had ignored sanctions against him imposed by Benedict XVI. The ex-nuncio to the US urges Francis to resign. The Pope tells reporters he “will not say a single word” about Archbishop Viganò’s accusations.
September Pope Francis declines a request by leaders of the US bishops’ conference to authorise an apostolic visitation into the McCarrick affair. Archbishop Viganò issues a second letter, challenging the Vatican to disprove his allegations. “Neither the Pope nor any of the cardinals in Rome have denied the facts I asserted in my testimony,” he writes. The Pope dismisses Fernando Karadima from the clerical state.
October Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, publishes a vitriolic open letter to Archbishop Viganò, accusing the Italian of being part of
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