As the year 2020 opens, the Church appears to have entered into the slogging phase of its leadership crisis. Part of that is due to what one might call “scandal fatigue” – the sense that no wickedness, incompetence or rot has the power to surprise once discovered. It is also partly due to the nature of protracted crises, which periodically flare up or explode in scandal and then fall into a gruesome routine.
Here are three things likely to happen in 2020, followed by three that could happen – by “could” I mean something in between “possible” and “likely as not”.
Things that are likely to happen in 2020:
1) The Vatican will release its report on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It will be brief. Rumours put it at about 250 pages, which is light for a dossier supposed to be an exhaustive treatment of the Vatican’s engagement with a churchman who had a 60-year career, especially when the report is produced by an organisation that writes everything down and never throws anything away.
The report is likely to make things worse for the Vatican, at least in the short term.
It will answer some questions, keep the commentariat talking and give reporters solid leads. But it will not add to the picture of the last six decades as much as (or in the ways) people expect.
2) There will be more bad news on both the financial and abuse cover-up fronts.
This one is pretty much a no-brainer. There is little hope that the higher-ups in the Vatican will either experience a change of heart or learn good crisis communications practice, so expect news of this sort to come piecemeal. Some things that are very big deals will make very little noise (given our crisis fatigue), and others of relatively minor scale will generate a good deal of noise, especially if they contain all three elements of the scandal trifecta: sex, money and power.
3) Francis will promulgate the new apostolic constitution reforming the Roman Curia. It probably won’t be in the first quarter of the year. There’s another meeting of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, which drafted the document, provisionally titled Praedicate Evangelium, scheduled for February.
But when it is released, there will be great fanfare – and very little actual movement. Bureaucracies resist change – it’s their job as institutions to resist change – and the bureaucrats will be the ones with the task of implementing the ordered changes.
Things that could happen in 2020:
1) A senior churchman with a major see – perhaps a cardinal – could face criminal charges. This has already happened in France, and could occur elsewhere. If it does, expect the very delicate balancing act Pope Francis has attempted in cases like that of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the former primate of France, to be sorely tested.
On the macro-level, we are witnessing the slow realisation that the forced retreat of the Church from direct entanglement in political regimes did not, in fact, free the Church from the fetters of the state. Nor did the end of throne-and-altar arrangements conclude the Church’s involvement with worldly powers.
We are a long way from any sort of new settlement, and whether the Church will survive in her current institutional articulation is very much an open question. History: it’s happening. Right now.
2) Dioceses will file for bankruptcy. Several of them. The cost of fighting the new round of claims – especially those coming through civil “look-back” windows in several US jurisdictions – will be prohibitive, and the cost of paying for settlements will be crippling. This will not all happen in 2020, but in the course of the year the outcome will become inevitable.
3) There could be a conclave. This is the big one. Francis has brought Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, a long-standing favourite, to Rome, strongly suggesting that he is thinking about the succession, even if there has not yet been too much open talk of it.
With the promulgation of Praedicate Evangelium, Francis will have a pretext for claiming that the reform work the College of Cardinals called him to do is done. He could then declare victory and abdicate (or more properly, “renounce”) his see, though he might not quite be able to go home.
This is not the place for prognostication regarding his successor. Suffice to say the next conclave will be a contentious affair.
At the end of 2018, I wrote that the year had been brutal for the Church and that the question in 2019 would be whether the Church at the highest levels of governance would recognise the gravity and scope of the leadership crisis she is embroiled in, and see the urgent need for major reform.
At the opening of 2020, the question is not so much whether Church leadership will awaken to the crisis, as when they might cease to avoid it, and if they will be in time to stave off disaster.