Can Pope Francis impose a moratorium on the use of “mystery” in Catholic discourse? Can he ban it from official and semi-official Catholic journalism and the chatter of priests and prelates until further notice? It would be a salutary move, because these days the term has lost its precise theological meaning and morphed into a sort of ecclesial fog machine, used to bury difficult topics under a thick haze of pseudo-religious bosh.
Take a recent interview with Fr John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, with the website Crux. Commenting on the Theodore McCarrick affair, Fr Jenkins urged readers not to see Uncle Ted and other clerical abusers as “monsters”. The ex-cardinal’s double life of predation and service to the Church, he said, was rather an example of “the mystery of human freedom and human failure”.
OK, what does that mean?
The old “penny” catechism, with its elegant simplicity, defines a mystery as a “truth which is above reason but revealed by God”. We can’t reason our way through the mystery of the Trinity, but we assent to the truth of the Triune God on the authority of He who revealed it. Evil is another example, better suited to the case at hand. We can never fully explain evil, but the catechism tells us that God “illuminates” this mystery at the Cross, where sin and evil are vanquished for good.
It’s unclear whether Fr Jenkins had these things in mind when he spoke of the McCarrick case as a mystery. Is human freedom a mystery? Is “human failure” the same thing as sin? Fr Jenkins’s students may have benefited from a deep theological examination of these issues in some seminar. As it is, the Notre Dame president came across as another leading American churchman who can’t address Uncle Ted’s depredations with the prophetic anger they demand.
Fr Jenkins has elsewhere denounced clerical abuse in strong terms, to be sure. When the Pennsylvania grand jury report appeared in August, he lamented how the revelations had “soaked in filth” the commitment of good and holy priests.
So why all this mystical dancing around McCarrick? Could it be because, as Crux noted, McCarrick “was a force for good in the university which awarded him an honorary degree”? Notre Dame has refused to rescind the honour, insisting that McCarrick is entitled to his day in canonical court. That would be a colourable argument if not for the diocesan settlements arising from other accusations against him. Nor has McCarrick appealed against the Holy Father’s decision to force him from the cardinalate and confine him to a life of penance and prayer. These aren’t the actions of an innocent man.
Fr Jenkins knows all this. He knows, too, that the Church isn’t dealing with a theological mystery – or, at least, that the theological questions can wait while he and his brethren deal with the more sordid and worldly mysteries of the case. Like how it was that “everyone knew” about McCarrick’s peccadillos but he rose to become a prince of the Church anyway.
It doesn’t help Fr Jenkins that McCarrick was, in Crux’s words, especially “good” to the Notre Dame boss. McCarrick had been a prominent presence on campus for much of Fr Jenkins’s tenure, and he notably didn’t join the 83 prelates who objected to Fr Jenkins’s decision in 2009 to honour newly elected President Obama, a champion of the culture of death.
Since then, Fr Jenkins has proved himself an ally of those who would have Catholic education bend to secularism’s dictates. In 2016, he bestowed American Catholicism’s highest honour, the Laetare Medal, on then vice president Joe Biden, another abortion supporter. And earlier this year, Notre Dame agreed to provide contraceptives through its health insurance programme. This, even though the Trump administration had offered institutions like Notre Dame a religious exemption from ObamaCare rules.
McCarrick exemplified the same go-along, get-along mentality, which is why he was a darling of the liberal media establishment. The real question is when the likes of Fr Jenkins will find the courage to leave that whole pliant mentality behind and proclaim Catholic truth in bold, plain words befitting disciples of the Nazarene.
Now that is a proper mystery.
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the forthcoming memoir From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)
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