The ongoing scandal has shaken the Church. How can it recover?
Exactly one year after revelations about the sexual abuse of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were made public, the Church in the U.S. remains in a state of serious scandal, and Catholics remain angry and discouraged. But what’s next for the Church – what happens after McCarrick – depends as much on the decisions of ordinary Catholics as it does on the policy decisions of the U.S. bishops.
McCarrick told the Washington Post in 2002 that to address the scourge of clerical sexual abuse uncovered that year, “everybody has to have a plan, everybody has to have a procedure, everybody has to have a policy.”
His fellow bishops needed to begin “really tackling this in a more comprehensive way,” McCarrick told reporters.
In the months that followed those remarks, McCarrick would become an architect, and a tireless promoter, of the U.S. bishops’ plans and policies to address clerical sexual abuse.
“I think we have to somehow make sure that our people know what we’re doing, that the people know that the bishops are taking this seriously.”
People did not, in fact, know what McCarrick had been doing. By 2002, Theodore McCarrick had serially sexually abused at least two minors, and sexually coerced dozens of young priests and seminarians.
Knowing now what he knew then, it seems incredible that McCarrick was celebrated in the Post as a “national leader” on clerical sexual abuse.
But he was.
In April 2002, a scholar from Notre Dame told the Washington Post that McCarrick “understands the depth of the problem and the need to address it transparently…If his style of leadership were emulated, I think the church would be in better shape.”
One year ago, on June 20, 2018, the Church learned far more than about McCarrick’s “style of leadership” than was expected. And the revelations about his decades of sexual abuse and coercion gave the Church a new look at the “depth of the problem.”
Since June 20, 2018, the Church in the U.S. has reeled from the Pennsylvania grand jury report, allegations of startling misconduct, neglect, or outright cover-up from many trusted or influential bishops, from the August letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, international reports concerning Bishops Gustavo Zanchetta, Jose Pineda, and Franco Mulakkal, from revelations concerning large cash gifts proffered by a bishop abuser, and from a USCCB and Vatican response to these disclosures that, in the judgment of many observers and commentators, has been tepid, at best.
It seems likely, even now, that more scandals, especially regarding finances, will be soon to emerge.
One year after McCarrick, what’s next? What will the Church face, and how will she face it?
It should be noted that the U.S. bishops’ conference has, despite multiple serious setbacks, passed some norms and policies intended to respond to this crisis. Those policies, are, in the view of many experts, a good start to policy reform in the Church, though only in the limited spheres they deign to address.
Those reforms have been panned by some critics as insufficient, merely reactionary, and totally inadequate to addressing an apparently complex constellation of problems, which includes immoral sexual activity, some of it coercive, by some priests and bishops, an apparent reluctance to stridently address those matters when they arise, a clerical culture that sometimes includes self-interest and self-protection, financial malfeasance, and a lack of accountability regarding those matters.
McCarrick called for policies in 2002, and in 2019, the bishops now have policies to address McCarrick.
But just as 2002’s policies did not stop the McCarrick or Bransfield scandals, the USCCB’s measures are insufficient to resolutely address the scandal’s cluster of problems.
The bishops would be wise to recognize more publicly and directly the limited impact of policies and procedures, and the importance of personal integrity, virtue, accountability, and personal holiness.
But many Catholics say that while they have heard some bishops articulate that sentiment, they remain skeptical about even the just implementation of the bishops’ own reform policies. And their discouragement over those norms reflects a broader shift.
In fact, the most striking effect of the Church’s year of scandal is the degree to which faithful and practicing Catholics – among them priests, religious, and lay ecclesial staffers – have become discouraged, demoralized, and hesitant to trust.
And it has become clear that the U.S. bishops are unlikely to regain that trust in one fell swoop – through one grand or dramatic gesture of transparency, accountability, contrition, or condemnation. They had an opportunity for such a gesture at their November 2018 meeting, when they considered a resolution calling for the Vatican to release all available material on McCarrick. But that resolution failed.
It is clear that reform, and holding malfeasant bishops to account, will be a long-term project of limited success. Catholics will continue to call for greater accountability, transparency, and for basic answers to basic questions, but it remains to be seen whether their calls will be answered. If they are not, the scandal will be prolonged, and Catholics will likely grow even more demoralized.
In the meantime, the Church will suffer the loss of some Catholics, who have or will become less engaged in the practice of the faith in the wake of this scandal.
Of course, it is not only bishops who are responsible for preserving the bonds of ecclesial communion.
The Church has before faced crises occasioned by the sinfulness of its leaders. In each of those crises, believers have had to decide whether or not to remain in the communion of the Church, and to work themselves for reform and renewal. This case is no different.
No policies or procedures can overcome the reality of fallen humanity. Each Catholic must ask himself, in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, what it is reasonable and just to expect of a Church predicated on the premise that each of its members is a sinner in need of redemption.
This exercise should not make excuses for malfeasance and ineptitude, but it should be an honest assessment of the limits of all human endeavors for reform.
One year after the initial disappointment, and then the compounding disappointments of cover-ups, denials, and missed opportunities, Catholics must begin to ask themselves whether they will still commit to communion with a Church of woeful sinners, and whether they will commit to its mission.
And, in this moment, each Catholic must ask himself whether his righteous indignation has become self-righteous hubris. After the initial shock of the last year has worn off, a protracted hermeneutic of suspicion or reactive anticlericalism is not likely to contribute to a renewal of the Church in the United States. But those things are a temptation.
Also temptations are endless bureaucratic tinkering, empty promises, and covering up cover-ups. Bishops must ask themselves how radically committed they are to their promises of reform.
In short, saints will move the Church forward, and each Catholic must ask himself whether he wishes actually to become a saint.
The project of the new evangelization is that of reproclaming in the Gospel in once Christian cultures. As the influence of the Church wanes – even on the moral and spiritual lives of Catholics – the secularity of American culture is, for many Catholics, laid clearly bare.
The McCarrick scandal could be the moment in which the Church steps back, to ask more fundamental questions about why so few people baptized as Catholics practice the faith into adulthood, and what can be done about it. Some bishops seem to have seriously taken up those questions in recent years, and others have not. Some bishops will see in this scandal the bigger picture, and others will not.
But nothing precludes laity, religious, and clerics aggrieved and angry about scandal to ask that question, and to look for answers that will bear more fruit than perduring fulmination against the failures of bishops.
Answers will be diverse. They should include ongoing and serious efforts for reform, but they should not be limited to those efforts.
Doubtless, some Catholics will say that a renewal of the Church will come from a resurgence of more traditional liturgical forms. Others will make mention of ecclesial movements like the NeoCatechumenal Way or Communion and Liberation. Still others will suggest evangelical initiatives like Focus or Word on Fire. That diversity – a motley flurry of evangelical activity – is likely the key to real renewal in the life of the Church in the U.S.
The history of the Church proves that there is not one methodology or program that has the corner on evangelization – that instead various spiritualities and movements can be fruitful, if they are rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
That focus – which points toward a renewal far beyond hurried policy documents – is the key to a fruitful and living Church after the McCarrick scandal. Some bishops may lead on those fronts, while others disappoint, or seem to miss the mark. Some scandals will be addressed, while others may long go unresolved, and new ones will emerge. The life of the Church will be often messy, often disappointing, often frustrating, and always in need of renewal, reform, and conversion. Catholics, bishops included, will face the choice of working towards those ends, or not.
But a serious commitment to apostolic and evangelic activity- to the proclamation of the Gospel – is also the best prospect for reform. A holier Church, dedicated more zealously to mission, will also be a more just and less corrupt Church.
A great deal has changed in the aftermath of the McCarrick scandal. But sin, corruption, betrayal, and failure are not new to the Church. Nor is Jesus Christ, the source of grace, justice, and renewal, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.