National Catholic Register, Michael Sean Winters: If the year 2018 in politics was dominated by Donald Trump, the life of the Catholic Church in this country in 2018 was marked by two major stories, one a reprise and the other just beginning, and one story that did not happen, the ecclesial dog that did not bark.
In the event, Pope Francis addressed both major stories in his address to the Roman Curia just before Christmas: the clergy sex abuse crisis and the newfangled simony afflicting the church. I shall consider those comments in their proper place.
When I ventured my predictions for the year last January, I did not predict that the clergy sex abuse crisis would return, and return with a vengeance, but it did. Beginning with the removal from ministry of, and subsequent resignation of his cardinalate by, Theodore McCarrick, followed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report, on through the November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the issue sucked all the air out of the sanctuary…
The leaders of the church still seem incapable of discussing their collective responsibility for the horrible crimes committed by clergy, still less of recognizing how hypocritical they look, as a body, having spent millions of dollars fighting the horrors of contraception insurance when they have not addressed the sickness of the clerical culture that not only permitted the crimes but covered them up and, in some instances, continue that cover-up even up to the present time…
What the 2018 iteration of the crisis did unequivocally expose is the degree to which the clerical culture is unconverted and remains sick.
Francis — who relied on bad information about the situation in Chile at the beginning of the year, leading to one of his worst moments as pope, corrected himself after sending Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate — clearly grasps that it is this clerical culture that needs reform. In his Letter to the People of God in August he stated, “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” He gets it.
In his Dec. 21 address to the Roman Curia, the pope dove even deeper into his diagnosis of the problem. Consider this remarkable passage:
“…Even if it were to involve a single case of abuse (something itself monstrous), the church asks that people not be silent but bring it objectively to light, since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth.”
…It is that last sentence and its mention of “the greater scandal” that commands attention. When you pore through the documents of bishops who did cover up the crimes, time and again you find mention of the need to “avoid scandal.” That was the theological principle used to justify self-serving behavior.
…For the moment, I shall only note that here, in this idea of how the theology of scandal was misused, the bishops in union with the pope can build the theology that will lead them from proposals that only clean the outside of the cup to a conversion that cleans the inside. As I noted at the time, the core problem with the proposals laid before the U.S. bishops at their November plenary was that they only addressed the outside of the cup. Jesus had harsh words for such an approach in the Gospel of Matthew 23:25.
The pope’s Curia address also mentioned the other major problem that continued to afflict the Catholic Church in the United States in 2018, the degree to which it has been put up for sale. The pope, speaking about those who used the crisis to achieve partisan advantage, added, “Behind these sowers of weeds, we always find the 30 pieces of silver.”
In October, I raised the question, “Can the Catholic Church be bought?” citing news reports from both Tom Roberts and Heidi Schlumpf. If it can’t at least in America, it is not for want of effort. No less than George Weigel noted that in his latest visit to Rome, he was astonished at the degree to which the authorities in the Vatican believed the church in the United States was overly beholden to wealthy interests with ideological agendas. But if Francis originally acted on bad information in Chile, he and those around him have grasped the heart of the problem as it regards the church in the U.S…
“Revelations over the past year confirming that the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its institutional cover-up are a global phenomenon and not limited to just a few regions have further neutralized Evangelii gaudium’s impact,” [Robert Mickens] writes. Yet, in that document, Francis invited and urged the church to the kind of conversion that would address the clericalism that allowed the crime of clergy sex abuse, and other instances of pastoral abuse and dysfunction, to metastasize…
The Roman Church now presents a fair front to the world, covering with apologies her record of horrible cruelties. She has clothed herself in Christlike garments; but she is unchanged. Every principle of the papacy that existed in past ages exists today. The doctrines devised in the darkest ages are still held. Let none deceive themselves. The papacy that Protestants are now so ready to honor is the same that ruled the world in the days of the Reformation, when men of God stood up, at the peril of their lives, to expose her iniquity. She possesses the same pride and arrogant assumption that lorded it over kings and princes, and claimed the prerogatives of God. Her spirit is no less cruel and despotic now than when she crushed out human liberty and slew the saints of the Most High.” The Great Controversy, page 571.