The most overlooked story of 2018 might become the most important story of 2019 and many years beyond.
The central question that emerged with great clarity in 2018 as the scandal stories rolled in from Chile to Honduras to America to Ireland and India is this: what kind of ecclesial culture permitted this rot to take root? The frequent diagnosis of “clericalism” is another way of asking the same question. To decry clericalism means to identify the specific ways of priestly thinking, the patterns of priestly behaviour and the kind of clerical culture which allowed this to happen.
On that front, the most important news of the year came from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, in his blistering response to the “testimonies” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Perhaps as a fellow Canadian I pay rather more attention to Cardinal Ouellet than most; in any case, I have long admired him as a theologian and he strikes me as the sort of pastor who is far from the intrigues and corruptions that Pope Francis regularly denounces in his Roman collaborators.
In coming to the defence of Pope Francis in relation to McCarrick, Cardinal Ouellet wrote the following:
Since I became Prefect of this Congregation on 30 June 2010, I never brought up the McCarrick case in an audience with Pope Benedict XVI or Pope Francis until these last days, after his removal from the College of Cardinals. The former Cardinal, who had retired in May 2006, had been strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke additional rumors in his regard. It is false to present the measures taken in his regard as “sanctions” decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis.
Ouellet’s open letter clarified a few points. Some time after his retirement in 2006, McCarrick had been told not to appear in public. That might not be a “sanction”, but it is certainly something significant, and it was communicated by Ouellet, and his predecessor, in letters to the nuncio in Washington, “urging a discreet style of life, of prayer and penance for [McCarrick’s] own good and that of the Church”.
This was certainly the most overlooked news of 2018, that a culture of “overlooking” had reached the highest levels of the Church, the pinnacle of the clerical world of pope and prefect.
Cardinal Ouellet – again, an estimable man – was writing letters to advise “prayer and penance”, the usual penalty for elderly clerics guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, for a most prominent cardinal, and he never once raised the matter with either Benedict XVI or Francis. Not even when the McCarrick news first broke; only after he resigned a month later.
How could that be? Surely there was a moment here or there – perhaps when McCarrick arrived in Rome for the annual trip of the Papal Foundation, or when he made news upon alighting in Beijing or Havana or Jerusalem – when, even in passing, it may have come up that McCarrick was not quite observing that “prayer and penance”?
But it is entirely believable, and Cardinal Ouellet did a service by pointing out that popes and prefects – like bishops and priests – are very good at simply overlooking difficult subjects. Some subjects cannot be overlooked; sexual abuse of a minor is now one of them. But so much else can be overlooked. That is the ecclesial culture that needs serious reform.
Whether on the liturgy, or administration, or finances, or the school or the choir or the food pantry – if something seems a little off, especially if it might require some unpleasant action to correct it, even a country pastor like me knows how to avoid a conflict by overlooking the matter. And priests who get good at overlooking things sometimes get made bishops, or to use the apt Greek word, overseers.
This is not about Cardinal Ouellet, let alone Pope Francis or Benedict XVI. Archbishop Viganò himself appears not to have “brought up” the matter with McCarrick as he observed him defying the “urgings” from Rome. It is about a culture that sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil.
Eventually, we may find out who did what regarding McCarrick. But that is the past. The key issue for the future is the change necessary so that it is no longer normal – between parish priest and parishioner, between pope and prefect – to overlook and understate matters in such a way that no significant action is taken and followed through.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
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