A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Traitors during Christian persecution
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
The Donatist schism
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
What can be learned today
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.
Pope Francis started the new year criticizing some Catholic bishops for their role in the church’s sexual abuse crisis. In a letter to bishops gathered at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat, the pope said that the “disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim” had greatly undermined the Catholic Church. This followed the pope’s earlier remarks asking clergy guilty of sexual assault to turn themselves over to law enforcement.
Stories of clergy sex abuse have continued to increase. Among the more recent revelations, a Catholic diocese recently released the names of Jesuit priests who face “credible or established” accusations of abuse of minors. Church members learned that many priests accused of sexual abuse on Indian reservations were retired on the Gonzaga University campus in Spokane. And another external investigation has revealed that the Catholic Church failed to disclose abuse accusations against 500 priests and clergy.
Church attendance has been on the decline for some time, with the steepest fall of an average 45 percent, between 2005 to 2008. And with these latest scandals, as a theologian recently wrote, the Catholic Church is in the midst of its “biggest crisis since the Reformation.”
But what many do not realize is that staying in the church does not mean agreeing with its policies. In the past, Catholics have challenged the church through multiple forms of resistance – at times discreet and at other times quite dramatic.
I had already begun my training as a scholar of religion and society when I learned that the priest from whom I took my first communion was a known predator in the Boston Archdiocese. I have since then researched and written about the Catholic clergy abuse cover-up.
Back in the 1960s, some radical American Catholics were at the forefront of challenging U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Perhaps the most famous among them were the Berrigan brothers. Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the older brother, was an American Jesuit priest, who, along with with other religious leaders, expressed public concern over the war.
In New York, Daniel Berrigan joined hands with a group called the Catholic Workers, in order to build a “decent non-violent society” – what they called “a society of conscience.” Among their protests was a public burning of draft cards in Union Square in 1965.
Months earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation that made mutilation of draft registration a felony. A powerful commentary by the editors of the Catholic “Commonweal” magazine described the event as a “liturgical ceremony” backed by a willingness to risk five years of freedom.
But some in the Catholic leadership were concerned that Daniel Berrigan’s peace activism was going too far. Soon after another Catholic protester set himself on fire in front of the United Nations in an act of protest, Berrigan disappeared from New York. He’d been sent to Latin America on an “assignment” by his superiors.
The word among Catholics was that Cardinal Francis Spellman had Berrigan expelled from the U.S. The accuracy of the decision is selectively disputed. However, the narrative had great power. The public outcry among Catholics was immense. University students took to the streets.
The New York Times carried a vehement objection that was signed by more than a thousand Catholic practitioners and theological leaders. The repression of free speech, they said, was “intolerable in the Roman Catholic Church.”
Catholic symbols of protest
In May 1967, Berrigan returned to the United States, only to renew his protest against the draft. Joined by his brother Philip, they broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured vials of their own blood on paper records.
In pouring vials of their own blood on draft records, they were extending the use of Christ’s blood of sacrifice, to promote peace, as part of Catholic teachings.
The next year they joined by seven other Catholic protesters in a protest action in Catonsville, Maryland. The group used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of a draft board. Daniel Berrigan was put on the FBI’s most wanted list. Both brothers later served time in federal prisons.
After the Vietnam war, their protests continued under a group called Plowshares. The name came from the commandment in the book of Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares.” The Berrigan brothers put their energy into anti-nuclear protests around the country. At a nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, they hammered on nuclear warheads and once again poured their own blood upon them, bridging Catholic symbols with religious protest.
Church leadership, they said, was too cozy with a heavily militarized America.
Protests inside the church
Around the same time, another group of Roman Catholics was challenging the leadership of the church using different tactics. In 1969, a group of Chicano Catholic student activists that called itself Católicos Por La Raza, objected to the money that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was spending on building a new cathedral called St. Basil’s. They believed that money could be better spent on improving the social and economic conditions of Catholic Mexican-Americans.
Católicos Por La Raza posed a list of demands for the Catholic Church that included the use of church facilities for community work, providing housing and educational assistance, and developing health care programs.
On Christmas Eve, 300 people marched to protest at St. Basil’s. Outside, they chanted “Que viva la raza” and “Catholics for the people.” Some members also planned to bring the protest across the threshold of the cathedral and into the Christmas Eve Mass.
The church locked its front doors. The marchers were met at side doors by undercover county sheriffs.
Later, the protesters publicly burned their baptismal certificates. Catholic teaching maintains that, once baptized, Catholic identity cannot be divested. By burning these symbols of Roman Catholic belonging, members of Católicos Por La Raza were making a powerful statement of their renunciation of the religion that they perceived could not be reformed.
Back in New York, a generation later, Catholics also organized confrontations with Church leadership. At the height of the AIDS crisis, in 1989, the American Catholic Bishops drafted an explicit condemnation of the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus. “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles,” said Cardinal John O’Connor. “These are lies … good morality is good medicine.”
In response, AIDS activists organized an action called “Stop the Church” to protest against the “murderous AIDS policy” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Thousands of people gathered to protest. Outside, activists distributed condoms and safer-sex information to passers-by. Inside, some protesters staged a die-in.
On Sundays Catholics came out to protest in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where the cardinal said Mass. They shouted and held up signs calling for his resignation. Other Catholics were creating pressure to have the cardinal removed by cutting off lay financial support for the Archdiocese.
They encouraged continuing giving to the poor or to the local parish. But until the cardinal was held accountable, those in the pews were encouraged to abstain from institutional giving. Before the next New Year, enough financial and legal pressure forced Cardinal Law to be removed from the Archdiocese.
February 2019 will bring a crucial meeting between the pope and the cardinals. Catholics today could well ask what is their way of showing resistance. After all, there is a rich Catholic heritage that shows that members of the church who put their bodies on the line can make a difference.
This past summer’s credible allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have fundamentally altered the way Catholics are talking about the abuse crisis. In the wake of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé (memorialized in the important and painful film, Spotlight), the conversation revolved around the most shocking tales of abuse – namely, of priests sexually molesting children. And indeed, it’s the allegation that “Uncle Ted” sexually assaulted a minor that finally brought his story into its own recent spotlight.
However, the allegations against McCarrick also include repeated sexual transgressions with adult seminarians. While lacking the initial shock-value of child-molestation, this pattern of behavior has become a new focal point in conversations about the crisis. Part of this shift can be attributed to a religious extension of #MeToo, sometimes called #ChurchToo.
The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the way that power dynamics contribute to sexual predation. Harvey Weinstein is perhaps the most famous case but, again and again, powerful figures in the workplace have used their influence to sexually prey upon their subordinates. A similar power dynamic can be seen in the seminary. In this setting, where vows of celibacy and chastity are ostensibly operative, powerful figures such as McCarrick have groomed future priests by offering enticing political-ecclesiastical connections – and have manipulated those offers to satisfy their own sexual appetites.
And so in recent months it has become commonplace to hear Catholics insist that the abuse crisis is not just about children, but about young adults, too – especially seminarians. It’s a refrain echoed on Catholic news and websites, on social media and at a recent panel discussion which I attended at a local parish in Salt Lake City. Attention to this pervasive and long-overlooked problem is a good thing in itself.
At the same time, it is frequently paired with a disturbing follow-up, namely, the suggestion that blame for this pattern of behavior falls squarely at the feet of “homosexuality.” According to this rationale, because the preponderance of abuse cases in the church involve male priests and adolescent or young adult men, the problem must be the disproportionate number of gay men in the priesthood. And so to stop the exploitation of seminarians and other young men, the proposed solution is to purge the priesthood’s ranks of its gay clerics. This diagnosis is not new, but especially since it was advanced in Abp. Viganò’s explosive August letter, it has risen to a new level in the popular imagination of many U.S. Catholics. Its spread has been facilitated by traditionalist leaders in the Catholic hierarchy as well.
However, the cause of the #ChurchToo phenomenon can in no fair way be traced to the orientation of gay clerics. Perhaps the easiest way to call this connection into question is to compare it with the wider #MeToo movement. In the case of Weinstein, nobody judged his pattern of preying upon women to stand as an indictment of heterosexuality. (Nor was such a judgment made after similar allegations surfaced against other public figures like Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, or Matt Lauer.) Likewise, calls to ban gay actors were not made after Kevin Spacy was accused of sexually molesting several teenage boys. In yet another case, feminist New York University professor Avital Ronell, a lesbian, was accused by her former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, of sexual harassment; Reitman is a gay man.
Even in just this handful of cases, any attempt to trace the cause of abuse to the root of sexual orientation leaves one’s mind spinning. There’s no pattern to indicate that the sexual exploitation decried by #MeToo is a function of the predator’s sexual preference; indeed, cases can be found in just about any permutation of perpetrators and victims, whether they be gay, straight, male, female, or otherwise. However, one pattern clearly does emerge: People in positions of power take sexual advantage of their vulnerable subordinates.
Catholics looking for answers in our own #ChurchToo crisis can learn from this comparison. Given the way that sexual predation works in the larger culture, how should we diagnose the problem when it occurs in a seminary? Should we suppose that, in this particular case, it’s suddenly a problem that stems from being gay? Or is it more likely that this widespread cultural phenomenon, which rises from unchecked power and lack of accountability at the top, also occurs in an all-male setting like the seminary?
Catholics today are right to widen their lenses in order to see both adult and child victims in the church’s ongoing abuse crisis. However, in turning our attention to seminarians, we cannot address the issue by blaming gay men and calling for their expulsion from the priesthood. Doing so unfairly stigmatizes the church’s many faithful gay priests, it erases the stories of girls and women who have survived clerical abuse, it focuses our much-needed efforts on a wild-goose chase that fails to address the true problems, and finally, it is almost impossible to implement. It may even exacerbate the problem.
As my hometown priest explained, it’s easy enough to lie about one’s orientation upon entering the seminary; in his own case, he was actually instructed to do so. As James Alison (himself an openly gay priest) has recently noted, there’s a larger problem at the root of the crisis: not a “gay” culture, but a culture of secrecy and lying. Vows of celibacy and chastity are routinely disregarded, and when the professed beliefs and actions of so many clerics diametrically oppose one another, a culture of “looking the other way” (from sexual misconduct, whether homo- or heterosexual) tends to emerge. Not all of this misconduct is exploitative in character, but it is precisely in such a secretive environment that sexual predators can fly under the radar, even creating predatory rings (of the sickening type described in the Pennsylvania report). Blaming and banning gay men from a ministry that attracts so many of them in the first place only reinforces this dangerous culture of sexual secrecy that consequently allows predation to flourish undetected.
Our efforts at reform need to be both structural and cultural. Power structures in the church need robust mechanisms of accountability, for bishops as well as for priests. The culture of secrecy and lies needs to be replaced with one of transparency, and one where vows mean something. Focusing our attention to these tasks is much more productive than the promoting the canard of gay culpability.
The church’s leaders should be open to at least discussing thorny issues around its patriarchal culture and its teachings about human sexuality and gender.
By John Gehring
Several hundred Catholic bishops from around the country have gathered in Baltimore for a national meeting at a time when many of us faithful are grieving, angry and running out of patience. The horrifying scale of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as chronicled by a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August that revealed widespread abuse and cover-up over several decades, underscores an obvious but essential point: Bishops can’t be trusted to police themselves.
Moreover, a recent investigation by The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer found that more than 130 bishops — nearly one-third of those still living — have been accused of failing to adequately respond to sexual abuse in their dioceses. New explosions are still coming. Last month, a former assistant to Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo released hundreds of secret documents that showed how the bishop continued to send predator priests back into parishes. Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia resigned in September after claims that he had sexually harassed younger priests.
It’s not the first meeting of its kind: 16 years ago, after The Globe’s groundbreaking “Spotlight” investigation, bishops met in Dallas to adopt zero-tolerance policies. Any priest who had abused a minor would be removed. Civilian review boards would investigate claims of clergy misconduct. Those policies led to the removal of hundreds of priests, but the bishops didn’t implement procedures that held themselves to the same standard of accountability.
The Vatican, including Pope Francis, has also not done enough. A proposal to create a Vatican tribunal to evaluate accusations against bishops — an idea floated by the pope’s own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors — has gone nowhere.
Marie Collins, an abuse survivor who resigned in frustration from the commission, rightly observed that “history will judge Pope Francis on his actions, not his intentions.”
The failure to hold bishops accountable perpetuates a privileged culture of clericalism that lets the hierarchy operate under different rules.
Bishops were scheduled to vote on policies to address the abuse crisis in Baltimore. But in a surprise move, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stunned his fellow bishops and media by announcing that the Vatican wanted those plans put on hold until after a February meeting in Rome called by Pope Francis that will bring together bishops from around the world. That could prove to be prudent for the final outcome, but it’s hard to overstate how tone deaf the timing is given the growing Catholic anger in the pews.
Whatever credibility the Catholic Church has left as a voice for justice in public life, the clock is ticking down fast.
Standards and systems that prioritize transparency and accountability are essential. But church leaders should also recognize that technical or bureaucratic responses are insufficient to address the urgency of this moment. The Catholic Church faces a profound crisis of legitimacy. This crisis is not only the product of sexual predation. Moving forward, Catholic leaders should be more open to at least discussing a host of thorny issues. The church’s patriarchal culture — most exemplified in excluding women from the priesthood — and its teachings about human sexuality and gender are rejected by not only many Americans but also a sizable share of faithful Catholics in the pews.
How does the church hope to influence the wider culture when pastors are ignored by many of its own flock?
At this dark crossroads for the Catholic Church, there is an opportunity for Pope Francis and the bishops to take a fresh look at the church and begin a prayerful discernment about the limits of patriarchy, human rights for L.G.B.T. people and the exclusion of women from the clergy. These will be uncomfortable but necessary topics to explore if the Catholic Church wants an era of renewal and its leaders hope to reclaim the ability to speak more persuasively to a diverse public square.
The final report from a recently concluded monthlong meeting at the Vatican that brought together young Catholics and hundreds of bishops from around the world acknowledged the need for a broader conversation about the church’s teachings on sexuality. There are questions, the report noted, “related to the body, to affectivity and to sexuality that require a deeper anthropological, theological, and pastoral exploration.” While conservative bishops such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia led the charge to make sure the descriptor “L.G.B.T.” was not included in a final report — a pre-synod working document used the term for the first time in Vatican history — that subtle but significant opening is an invitation for a long-overdue conversation.
Church teaching isn’t set by a poll or the shifting winds of popular opinion. At the same time, the church is not a static institution. Doctrine does change and develop. The Second Vatican Council met from 1962 until 1965, a time when bishops opened the windows of the church to the modern world. The council brought historic changes in the way Catholicism understood democracy, the Jewish faith, the role of lay Catholics, interfaith dialogue and liturgy.
The question isn’t whether the church should stay the same or change. Paradoxically, the church has always done both. The more essential question is whether a 2,000-year-old institution that thinks in centuries can once again stand with a foot firmly planted in the best of its tradition while stepping into the future renewed and relevant to a new generation.
Ten years ago, I believed a myth. In the beginning, there was Vatican II. It was good but messy, and the Bad Catholics hijacked it to undermine doctrine. They took over seminaries and turned them into cesspools where heresy was mandatory and depravity rampant. Then Pope John Paul II came along. He drove out the Bad Catholics and cleaned up the seminaries. Too late! The Bad Catholics had already committed terrible crimes, which were covered up without the pope’s awareness. In 2002, their abuses exploded into public view, and the JPII Catholics got blamed for crimes committed by a dying generation of clerics. The JPII bishops took it on the chin, but they fixed the problem with the Dallas Charter. Then Benedict XVI, the great theologian, appointed orthodox bishops who would carry forward the renewal. The horrors of the Scandal were behind us. The two primordial forces of the postconciliar church, orthodoxy and heresy, had fought a great battle, and orthodoxy had been vindicated.
My diocese, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, was proof. In the 1980s, we were led by Archbishop John Roach. Appointed by Pope Paul VI, Roach fit the “Spirit of Vatican II” archetype to a tee. Under Roach, Saint Paul Seminary was taken over by dissenters, one of whom described the Eucharist as “cookie worship” that he had “moved beyond.” There were open homosexual affairs. Those who dared adhere to church teaching were punished.
Saint Paul soon experienced one of the first abuse scandals in the American church. For years, Roach and his cronies had secretly shuffled abusive priests between parishes. When this came out and the diocese was sued, Roach found himself under oath, where he became conveniently forgetful. The diocese lost, with the victim awarded $3.5 million—paltry by today’s standards, but shocking at the time. In response, Roach imposed “tough policies,” which won praise from newspapers. Privately, he declined to enforce them.
Finally, in 1995, Roach retired. John Paul the Great—as we called him—appointed Archbishop Harry Flynn. Flynn was a kindly Irishman with an adorable accent. He came from the Diocese of Lafayette, where he’d handled another early abuse scandal. He’d healed the victims of Lafayette, and he’d largely written the USCCB’s new abuse policy. Flynn was a JPII man. He loved prayer and took strong stands. He turned the feeble St. John Vianney College Seminary into the biggest minor seminary in the country. After Archbishop Flynn’s arrival, the sex-abuse story finally faded from the headlines. We were so proud when Flynn led the American church in drafting the Dallas Charter.
In 2008, Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop John Nienstedt, an orthodox leader who led the campaign against redefining marriage in Minnesota. While much of the country was roiling from Boston and its aftershocks, we enjoyed a palpable sense of peace. The Good Catholics had saved Vatican II from the Bad Catholics, and our Charter would keep it from happening again.
Our myth—their lie—collapsed in 2013. Archbishop Flynn was no healer, we learned. He was the USCCB’s damage-control guy. In 1986, Flynn went to Lafayette and killed the bad publicity. He said he’d visited all the families of the abused there. He hadn’t. He said he’d got the abusers out of ministry. He hadn’t. He got the media to think he had, but focused on getting the records sealed by court order. The scandal went quiet—but it was the quiet of a muzzle, not of healing.
When Flynn came to Minnesota, he did the same. We pew-sitters were led to believe the scandal ended here because Flynn’s policies solved the problem. In fact, it ended because Flynn’s legal team convinced a court that Minnesota’s statute of limitations on sex crimes barred most lawsuits. Flynn drafted the Dallas Charter, but he never bothered much with following it. In 2004, the diocese found pornographic images on Fr. Jonathan Shelley’s computer. To some, it seemed to be child porn; others considered it only “borderline illegal.” The borderline caucus won, and Flynn kept Shelley in ministry. That same year, Fr. Daniel Conlin provided marriage counseling to two of his parishioners, then fathered a child with the wife. Flynn removed Conlin from the parish…and transferred him to the marriage tribunal, where he came into contact with more vulnerable women. All of this and more was covered up.
Archbishop Nienstedt mostly continued the lax practices of his predecessors. While more proactive than Flynn, Nienstedt still fell far short of church policy and law. Nienstedt made one excellent choice: he appointed Chancellor Jennifer Haselberger, a canonist devoted to interpreting ecclesial law as written—not bending it to favor Roman collars. When Haselberger rediscovered Fr. Shelley’s “borderline illegal” porn in 2011 and showed Nienstedt, chancery officials spent more than a year debating what to do, instead of just calling the police. As similar cases mounted, Haselberger resigned and blew the whistle.
Our beloved myth exploded. Twin Cities Catholics like me came face-to-face with an unpleasant fact: the orthodox Good Clerics hadn’t taken over from the Bad “Spirit of Vatican II” Clerics and cleaned house. The Good Clerics were buddies with the Bad Clerics. They did everything in their power to protect the Bad Clerics—even violating moral, civil, and canon law on their behalf. We’d believed there were two sides in the Church: orthodoxy and heresy. We often cheered for the clerics on our “team” and booed the other guys. But we were wrong. Everyone in the chancery was working together…against us.
I know there are good priests. There may even be good bishops. But don’t trust your instincts. I knew most of the people in our diocesan crisis. Reading the depositions, I saw old family friends pitted against each other. My childhood babysitter called the priest who used to be so sweet to us kids at the big parties a liar and an obstructionist. The man I worked for in college closed ranks with my wife’s childhood pastor to protect the priest who celebrated my wedding from the scrutiny of my alma mater. I never saw any of this coming. Their orthodoxy (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it. My judgment of their character (or lack thereof) missed the mark. There was only one consistent pattern: the closer they were to power, the more my shepherds collaborated to keep the sheep deaf, dumb, and victimized.
One could blame all this on some kind of network of unchaste priests and their allies, who supposedly work to shield one another from accountability while undermining Catholic teaching on sexuality—a so-called “lavender mafia.” Or one could blame it all on clerical celibacy and sexual repression. A rumor circulated for years that Archbishop Nienstedt cruised for gay sex and punished priests who refused his advances. Most of us scoffed at this rumor as an obvious smear. But a 2014 investigation into Nienstedt’s past revealed so much evidence that Auxiliary Bishops Piché and Cozzens concluded Nienstedt should resign and immediately flew to Washington to confer with papal nuncio Carlo Viganò. Instead, the nuncio ordered the investigation be drastically narrowed. (Viganò fiercely disputes suggestions that this was tantamount to ending the investigation.) Fr. Christopher Wenthe, while serving as my associate pastor, told a vulnerable woman about the difficulties of his vow of celibacy, just before abusing her in my childhood parish’s rectory. Yet when A. W. Richard Sipe articulated how a priestly culture of secret unchastity created space for child abuse, people like me dismissed him as an anti-Catholic kook.
So, yes, in our scandal, as in many others, you can point to some malefactors who fit the “heresy” narrative and others who fit the “repression” explanation. But there are many more who don’t fit either. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Archbishop Flynn was unchaste, yet his indifference toward victims was depraved. Likewise the nuncio. Vicar General Peter Laird was an up-and-coming communications-savvy “John Paul II” priest, an exemplar of the new generation. Yet, like so many other chancery clerics (the “transitional presbyterate,” as Haselberger memorably put it), Laird consistently downplayed the risks of keeping problem priests in circulation.
They were Team Chancery. We were Team Lay. They played to win.
Modern priests live with priests, learn with priests, work with priests, die with priests. They’re expected to form no permanent ties with any single parish or community, because reassignment looms. They vow celibacy, so other clerics become their (dysfunctional) family. The bishop can cut their pay, give them vacation, reassign them to Siberia, put them up for promotion…anything, for any or no reason, without recourse. Priests have relatively few rights, often lack means to exercise them, and are conditioned in seminary to accept indignities, even evil, as “holy obedience.” Absolute power over priests corrupts the bishops, and absolute submission does no favors to priests.
Theoretically, the Holy See is supervising, but there are more than three thousand ordinaries reporting directly to the pope. I don’t know about you, but in my workplace no one person is allowed to manage more than a dozen direct reports. More than that, and management becomes distracted and ineffective. With so much on its plate, Rome won’t intervene, and probably won’t even notice, unless someone is convicted of a crime. Besides, a few well-cultivated contacts in today’s Rome will get you a lot further up the career ladder than holiness. Power flows from the top of the hierarchy down through overt and covert cliques. Powerful clerics are accountable to those cliques, not to the faithful. The laity are needed only for their wallets.
The structure I have just described could hardly be better at catalyzing abuse. Look at Cardinals Egan and McCarrick. One was considered conservative, the other liberal, but both were notorious on abuse—and St. John Paul gave both the red hat. How about Cardinal Mahony and Cardinal Pell? Archbishops Finn, Wilson, and Bruskewitz? Or Cardinal Law, the great conservative prelate whose punishment was promotion? The same story unfolds today in Honduras, Chile, and Australia. Now we’ve learned from Pennsylvania that dozens of bishops, perhaps a cardinal, are implicated in a broad, deep, clerical conspiracy—a conspiracy that was well established years before my old scapegoats, Vatican II and the sexual revolution, were around to take the blame. This crisis was not caused by Marty Haugen tunes and the Land O’ Lakes statement. At the root of this crisis is structure—the particular way church governance has calcified in the past couple of centuries. That structure has to go.
Portions of the church’s structure are divinely instituted, so their reform is neither possible nor desirable. But most of the details were dreamed up by humans. Those can change. Consider the College of Cardinals. It evolved from political contingency, not scriptural necessity. Pope Francis could dismiss it tomorrow and ask half-a-dozen ordinary Catholics to choose his successor instead. Three consecutive papacies have run aground trying to reform the Curia, which grew in parallel with the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it is time for the Curia to simply dissolve.
Consider mandatory clerical celibacy. It’s only a thousand years old. As recently as 867, Pope Adrian II’s still-living wife and daughter accompanied him to the Lateran Palace upon his election. Or consider the seminary, den of so many recent iniquities. The modern, insular seminary was born at Trent, a mere five centuries ago.
Consider the auxiliary bishop, who “leads” the flock of a fictitious “titular see” while actually assigned to help another bishop lead his flock. This novelty was invented under Pope Leo X just before the Reformation. The idea of a bishop leading a non-existent see would have baffled the fathers of the church. But it helped dioceses get very, very big. In England, in 1086, the entire country had around 1.7 million residents, and, by my count, twenty dioceses: about 85,000 people per diocese. Today, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis alone has 3.1 million residents, of whom nearly 850,000 are Catholic. In medieval times, our diocese would be split into ten, twenty, even forty smaller dioceses, with scaled-down bishops who’d have no choice but to share “the smell of the sheep.” Instead, with help from the auxiliaries, the archbishop is able to run his unthinkably large and unaccountable archdiocese more like a corporation—a corporation desperate to protect its assets. And the Twin Cities is not even close to the worst of the mega-dioceses.
Consider, finally, the appointment of bishops. They have always required the consent of the pope, but have typically been selected by others. Bishops, especially in the patristic era, were often elected by their own dioceses or by their brother bishops (a practice that continues in the East). St. Ambrose was made bishop of Milan by acclamation of the laity before he was even baptized! Even in the nineteenth century, the first terna used by the pope to select American bishops came from the priests of the diocese. Direct papal selection, mainly on the advice of the nuncio and the Congregation of Bishops, is pretty new—and clearly isn’t working well. Among other things, the older system encouraged bishops to be promoted from within the diocese to serve the diocese for life. The new system sees far more bishops imported from a thousand miles away, then exported again when a job in a more prestigious diocese opens up.
I note these changeable things not to endorse any one of them in particular, but rather to make clear that structural change is possible. Moreover, some structural change is necessary. This crisis calls for radical changes like those of St. Gregory the Great. The mechanisms that turn clerics against their flocks cannot be broken otherwise. New policies, new preaching, and new personnel aren’t enough. They would help, but the Saint Paul Archdiocese is proof: if we do not reform the church’s fundamentally clericalist structure, the abuse scandal will just happen again, and again, and again.
As Catholic leaders from around the world rush to draft a document summarizing their monthlong deliberations on reaching out to young people, they have consistently struggled with what may seem like a simple question: how to refer to gay people.
The issue has come up repeatedly in briefings and interviews with the nearly 270 bishops and cardinals, as well as 72 nonvoting observers – including some 30 young adults – who have been debating a range of issues at this global summit, known as a synod, which is taking place under the aegis of Pope Francis, who wants to see open discussion of difficult topics.
Francis himself sparked the discussion about the church and homosexuality soon after his election in 2013 when he was asked whether gay men could be priests – something his predecessors sought to bar. Francis responded: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
That last phrase became a virtual meme of this papacy. But just as momentous was the fact that Francis was the first pope, and the rare Catholic leader, to use the term “gay.”
Church leaders and official church documents almost always use the more clinical word “homosexual,” or “same-sex attracted.”
“If the church continues to use antiquated, outdated and overly clinical terms like ‘same-sex attracted’ rather than the name the group uses for itself, the church will simply make dialogue more difficult and make these Catholics feel even less welcome in what is, after all, their church too,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the institutional church and LGBT Catholics can promote a constructive relationship.
“Besides,” Martin added via email, “if Pope Francis can use the word ‘gay’ so can everyone else.”
For the synod, this debate over vocabulary is fraught because conservatives fear that using terms such as gay or LGBT could signal an official approval of homosexuality and could undermine church teaching and the church’s public policy stands against gay marriage, for example.
“There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a U.S. delegate to the synod and a leader of the conservative camp, told the assembly in a speech to the floor earlier this month.
“It follows that ‘LGBTQ’ and similar language should not be used in church documents, because using it suggests that these are real, autonomous groups, and the church simply doesn’t categorize people that way,” he said.
The problem is that the working document that served as the blueprint for discussions in fact used the term LGBT (the acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and it often includes “Q” for queer) because it drew on input from young people and church leaders whose views were solicited by the Vatican over the previous year.
“The youth are talking about it freely and in the language they use, and they are encouraging us, ‘Call us, address us this (way) because this is who we are,’” Cardinal John Ribat, a synod delegate from Papua New Guinea, said at a press briefing on Saturday (Oct. 20).
The inclusion of LGBT in that document triggered anxiety in some quarters. Conservative media outlets have pressed cardinals and bishops at every turn to clarify whether the terms would be included in the final synod document, which is scheduled to be voted on this Saturday.
The spotlight has clearly left many synod fathers, as the cardinals and bishops are called, uncomfortable as they struggle to respond to questions without using terms like “same-sex attracted.”
They know that would alienate not only gays and lesbians but also young people who are increasingly accepting of LGBT people. Using the term “gay” at press briefings and in interviews could also be interpreted as pressuring their more conservative colleagues, who are already irked at what some refer to as a “gay lobby” they say is using the synod as a vehicle to change church teaching on homosexuality.
This dynamic strongly suggests that the final document will not use the terms gay or LGBT because each paragraph must receive a two-thirds approval vote to be included and that does not seem likely if the hot-button words are included.
Instead, bishops appear to be favoring terms such as “inclusive” and “welcoming” to describe a general attitude of openness not only to gays but to everyone. Others are stressing that everyone, gay or straight, is a sinner in need of God’s grace, and all are called to conversion – though what gay people, in particular, have to convert to is not always spelled out.
Even that compromise language, which would essentially leave each bishop free to decide what that means in his diocese when it comes to LGBT people, might not please conservatives. And just throwing out a broad-based “welcome” mat may not please gay advocates, either.
“Francis said ‘welcome’ five years ago. The synod is supposed to be a time of discussion, to move things forward. I think we have to move forward from welcome. The fact they are using that term is not bad, it’s just not specific enough,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics.
“What are you going to do with LGBT people after you welcome them?” added DeBernardo, who is in Rome for the month reporting on the synod and the approach to LGBT issues. He noted that gay Catholics continue to face discrimination — a church worker in San Diego resigned last week after months of abuse — and others are routinely fired when bishops or church leaders discover they are gay.
DeBernardo did feel the fact that the synod was trying to discuss the issue openly was a positive development.
Previous popes, he said, “painted themselves into such a corner on LGBT issues.”
“I think Francis and meetings like this are at least allowing them a way out of that corner,” he said. “It’s the first step out of that corner. But it can’t be the last step because it’s not answering the problem.”
With the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reaching a critical mass, Pope Francis has issued an unprecedented call to the world’s top bishops to meet with him in Rome, next February, to discuss “the protection of minors.” But the pressing question for leaders of the Catholic Church no longer concerns abusive priests or complicit bishops, because the Church has forfeited the credibility necessary for such investigations, and has been replaced by civil authorities, such as the state attorneys general—six, as of last week—who are following Pennsylvania’s lead into this morass.
The question for the Church now, given the astounding scale of the dysfunction, arching from the Americas to Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and Australia, is: What in Catholic culture caused this debauchery? The proximate cause concerns essential mistakes of moral theology, including the stigmatizing of normal erotic longing and the sanctifying of prejudice against women and homosexuals. Those errors have roots in the ancient Church, when fundamental options in favor of male power and against sex for pleasure and love were made.
But the immediate cause of the crisis is more recent. The Second Vatican Council, which met in the course of three years, beginning in October of 1962, began as an attempt to redress the old problems. The Council fathers seriously undertook to empower the laity, replace the negative attitudes toward sex that underwrote a deep-seated Catholic neurosis, reform the doom-laden moral theology, democratize the form of the Mass, and transform the self-protecting clerical culture. The pushback began even before the Council adjourned, especially once Pope John XXIII died, in 1963. It is likely that Church disciplines on contraception and priestly celibacy would have begun to change were it not for the panicked intervention of the new Pope, Paul VI, in the Council’s procedures.
After the Council ended, in December of 1965, a full rollback of the reforming impulse was quickly launched. The laity were never meaningfully empowered. The clerical culture was protected. The natural pluralism of theological inquiry was stifled. Women were kept in their place. Perhaps most symbolically, in 1968, Pope Paul condemned the use of birth control among Catholics. The centralized authority of the papacy became stronger than ever. The avatars of this conservative reaction were John Paul II and his enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, but the agents of backlash, shaping Catholic attitudes for the past generation, have been the very bishops whom Pope Francis has now summoned to Rome. Even the so-called liberals in the hierarchy would not have been promoted if they had not readily accommodated Ratzinger’s squelching of reform.
One wishes that, in this critical hour, the Church could turn to a cohort of independent-minded Catholic lay people, women and men alike, who have experience in Church administration at the senior-most levels, but there is no such cohort. A devoted legion of volunteers serve the Church, but they exercise no meaningful authority. If the promise of the Vatican Council had been even minimally fulfilled, this would not be the case. Abusive priests would not have been blithely set loose, and the enabling bishops would not have been able to absolve them—or themselves.
It is deeply ironic that the dilemma facing Pope Francis, while caused in part by his own clerical myopia, is made exponentially more pressing by his conservative opponents’ weaponizing of Church confusion about homosexuality. They are doing this precisely to eliminate, once and for all, what little remains of the reform impulse that began at Vatican II. The alarm signal of danger that Francis posed for conservatives was his early refusal to condemn homosexuals. That a bishop like Theodore McCarrick is credibly alleged to be a homosexual harasser—he is accused of, among other things, using his power to prey upon vulnerable seminarians, a charge that he has denied—has given the Pope’s critics the opening that they need. This is in addition to the fact that leading figures among the disgraced have been supportive of Francis, including McCarrick and Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, who will be tried for “historical sexual assault offenses,” to which he has pleaded not guilty; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., who last week announced that he will ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation following accusations that, when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he was involved in the coverup of the abuse in Pennsylvania. With this lethal brew being stirred by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has called on Francis himself to resign, the charges are flying, and homosexuals as a group are being scapegoated. Among conservatives, to have tolerated gay priests is now being equated with having tolerated sexual harassment and, in some cases, the rape of children. But even this murkiness is a mark of an incoherent Catholic morality about all kinds of sexual expression.
It once seemed certain that Pope Francis, grounded in the spirit of Vatican II and possessing an ample trove of common sense, was equipped to lead the Catholic Church in its recovery from this disaster. Two things have dimmed that prospect. The first is Francis himself. He is woefully in the grip of male-dominated, celibate clericalism, even though he criticizes it. He still puts his trust in gestures of good will and in bromides of shame, as he did last month, on his trip to Ireland, instead of launching the massive institutional reform that the crisis demands. He seems to think that a meeting of bishops is a solution when, as a class, they are themselves the problem. And, apparently, he regards next February as a timely response to a bankruptcy that has already been declared.
The second factor is the recent accumulation of new evidence showing that the depth of Church corruption wildly surpasses any previous estimate. Every week brings a new bolt of accusation. Last week, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, of West Virginia, amid allegations that he had sexually harassed adults (he has denied allegations against him), and the news that a report to be issued by the Church this week will reveal that more than three thousand minors were abused by more than a thousand priests in Germany. On Saturday, a Dutch newspaper investigation found that, between 1945 and 2010, more than half of the bishops and cardinals of the Netherlands had protected priest abusers instead of victims.
This cascade of accusation, revelation, and indictment will keep flowing. That Pope Francis responds with a business-as-usual meeting of bishops next winter shows how far he is from grasping the stakes of this crisis. His enemies exploit it, while Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize the utter collapse of Church morality.
It has been a season of anguish and rage for Catholics. Sixteen years after the BostonGlobe uncovered widespread clergy sexual abuse in a city where the church’s powerful influence once defined a brand of swaggering American Catholicism, those chilling words—“predators” and “cover-up”—are again back in the headlines. The first explosion went off in early summer. Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and a prominent church leader who traveled the world on social justice missions, was removed from ministry after an investigation found credible allegations that he sexually abused a teenager as a priest. Reports also surfaced that McCarrick, who now holds the ignominious title of the first American to resign from the College of Cardinals, routinely sexually harassed seminarians. Not even two months later, a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed a horrifying history: More than a thousand children and young people were abused by hundreds of priests in six dioceses across the state over the past seven decades. This staggering scale of institutional evil shattered any lingering illusions that the abuse crisis was isolated. The culture of abuse and cover-up is systemic. After consulting with the FBI, the grand jury described the way church officials acted as “a playbook” for concealing the truth. The bombshells didn’t end there.
The latest eruption landed with even more impact, and has sparked perhaps the most bitter round of church infighting in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church. On a Sunday in late August, conservative Catholic media outlets in the United States and Italy released a stunning 11-page letter from the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The testimony, as the nuncio described it, made a series of sweeping allegations without documented proof, the most dramatic being that Pope Francis ignored Viganò’s warnings about McCarrick’s behavior. In the late 2000s, he alleges, Pope Benedict XVI had ordered McCarrick to “a life of prayer and penance,” prohibiting him from saying Mass or speaking in public. Francis, the retired nuncio wrote, not only disregarded that supposed order but made McCarrick a “trusted counselor” who helped the pope appoint several progressive-minded bishops in the United States, including Cardinals Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joe Tobin of Newark—both viewed as prominent Francis allies. Most audaciously, Viganò urged Pope Francis to resign “to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses.”
Pope Francis, addressing reporters during an in-flight press conference after the news broke at the end of his recent visit to Ireland, essentially dismissed the allegations, encouraging journalists to uncover the truth. “I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have the sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions,” he said. Reporters from multipleoutlets have already pointed out discrepancies between Viganò’s testimony and the historical record. While the former ambassador claims that Pope Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick to never say Mass and withdraw from public view, reporters quickly produced photographs, videos, and other evidence of the disgraced cardinal presiding at Mass, including in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica during Benedict’s papacy. McCarrick continued to attend papal functions during Benedict’s tenure, received awards from Catholic institutions, sat on the board of Catholic Relief Services, and made dozens of international trips. In a 2012 photograph, Viganò is seen congratulating McCarrick at a gala dinner sponsored by the Pontifical Missions Society in New York. More recently, the former ambassador has backpeddled, telling LifeSiteNews, one of the conservative Catholic media outlets that originally released Viganò’s letter, that the alleged sanctions imposed on McCarrick were “private” and that neither he nor Pope Benedict XVI were able to enforce them. The retired pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told the Italian media outlet ANSA that reports of Benedict confirming some of the accusations in Viganò’s testimony were “fake news, a lie.” Last week, in a letter obtained by Catholic News Service, a top official from the Vatican’s secretary of state office acknowledged receiving allegations about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians as far back as 2000, during the papacy of John Paul II. A statement released this week from members of the pope’s advisory council of nine cardinals expressed “full solidarity with Pope Francis in the face of what has happened in the last few weeks,” and noted that the Holy See is “formulating possible and necessary clarifications.”
While the daily developments and details of Viganò’s claims should be thoroughly investigated no matter where they lead, there is no way to understand this saga without recognizing how the former ambassador’s claims are part of a coordinated effort to undermine the Francis papacy. The Viganò letter is as much about power politics in the church as it is about rooting out a culture of abuse and cover-up. A small but vocal group of conservative Catholic pundits, priests, and archbishops, including the former archbishop of St. Louis Cardinal Raymond Burke, have led what can be described without hyperbole as a resistance movement against their own Holy Father since his election five years ago. Pope Francis, the insurgents insist, is dangerously steering the church away from traditional orthodoxy on homosexuality, divorce, and family life because of his more inclusive tone toward LGBT people and efforts to find pastoral ways to approach divorced and remarried Catholics. These conservative critics, many of whom essentially labeled progressive Catholics heretics for not showing enough deference to Pope Benedict XVI, are not discreet in their efforts to rebuke Francis. Last year, in a letter to the pope from the former head of the doctrine office at the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington, Fr. Thomas Weinandy accused the pope of “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” the faithful, and creating “chronic confusion” in his teachings. “To teach with such an intentional lack of clarity, inevitably risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth,” the priest wrote in remarkably patronizing language more befitting a teacher correcting a student than a priest addressing the successor of Peter.
Viganò’s testimony therefore should not be read in isolation or as an aberration, but as the latest chapter in an ongoing campaign to weaken the credibility of Pope Francis. Political, cultural, and theological rifts among Catholics are nothing new in the church’s 2,000-year history, but Viganò’s call for the pope’s resignation has set off the ecclesial version of a street fight. “The current divisions among Catholics in the United States has no parallel in my lifetime,” Stephen Schneck, the former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, said in an interview. Bishops who usually take pains to show unity in public have issued dueling statements on Viganò’s letter that reflect this discord. Cardinal Tobin, who was appointed by Francis, sees Viganò’s accusations being used by the pope’s opponents to gain leverage. “I do think it’s about limiting the days of this pope, and short of that, neutering his voice or casting ambiguity around him,” the cardinal told TheNew York Times. Some conservatives in the hierarchy have cheered Viganò. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, issued a statement just hours after the letter was made public and ordered priests in his diocese to read his statement during Mass. “As your shepherd, I find them credible,” the bishop wrote in response to Viganò’s allegations.
In part, the letter feels like a manifesto written with all of the standard Catholic right talking points and grievances. This is especially the case when it comes to how the church approaches sexuality. The former nuncio, who consulted with a conservative Italian journalist before releasing the text, writes about “homosexual networks” in the church that “act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” Viganò laments church leaders “promoting homosexuals into positions of responsibility.” This language and demonization echo the arguments some Catholic conservatives have made for years in an effort to blame the clergy-abuse crisis on gay clergy, and more broadly to challenge the advance of LGBT rights in the secular culture.
Viganò is not a newcomer to these fights. During his time as nuncio in Washington, he broke with ambassadorial norms of carefully avoiding becoming publicly enmeshed in hot-button political disputes by appearing at an anti-gay rally in 2014 organized by the National Organization for Marriage. Speaking at the event outside the U.S. Capitol, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said Viganò’s participation “signifies the presence and support of Pope Francis.” But it was during Pope Francis’ 2015 trip to the United States when Viganò really went rogue, working with Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group, to enlist the pope into American culture wars by hastily arranging a meeting between Francis and Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The brief meeting, at the nuncio’s residence, blew up into a fiasco that threatened to spoil the pope’s successful first visit to the United States. Conservative leaders in the church attempted to frame the meeting as the pope choosing sides in the Davis controversy. Vatican officials immediately denied that and distanced themselves from Viganò’s decision to orchestrate the meeting. Instead, the Vatican highlighted a meeting the pope had at the embassy with a gay former student and his partner.
In his letter, Viganò specifically names the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent editor at America magazine, as an example of how the church’s teachings about homosexuality have been derailed under Francis. In his writings, television appearances, and most recently during a speech at the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, Martin has urged the church and LGBT Catholics to dialogue together. Even though he doesn’t call for a change in church teaching on same-sex marriage and has the backing of several American cardinals, the media-savvy priest, who has a wide following on social media, is a bogeyman for a network of Catholic right groups. Last fall, the seminary at Catholic University rescinded a speaking gig for Martin because of the manufactured controversies surrounding the priest. “While the contempt directed at gay clergy is coming from just a handful of cardinals, bishops and priests, as well as a subset of Catholic commentators, it is as intense as it is dangerous,” Martin recently wrote in America. Two American bishops, responding to Viganò’s letter, give credence to Martin’s argument. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord,” Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to Catholics in his diocese. Cardinal Burke told a conservative Italian newspaper that a “homosexual culture” has “roots inside the church and can be connected to the drama of abuses perpetuated on adolescents and young adults.” A detailed study of the causes and context of clergy abuse, led by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice after the Boston scandals erupted, found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely to abuse minors. A witch-hunt mentality toward gay clergy nevertheless persists. Viganò’s letter only energizes that ugly tendency.
There is a certain irony that Archbishop Viganò wants to target a supposed “homosexual culture” in the church and claim the mantle of truth and transparency on clergy abuse. His record and credibility on those counts are checkered. Two years ago, when documents were disclosed as part of a criminal investigation of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, a memo from a Catholic priest alleged that in 2014 Viganò ordered two auxiliary bishops to end their investigation of then-Archbishop John Nienstedt over his alleged misconduct with adult men, including seminarians, when he was serving in another diocese. The memo stated that a local law firm’s investigation into the allegations found compelling evidence against the archbishop, and that archdiocese officials agreed that Nienstedt should resign. But after Nienstedt allegedly met with Viganò to persuade him those claims were made by critics who disagreed with his vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, the memo said, the nuncio ordered the investigation to end quickly and told the archdiocese to destroy a letter from auxiliary bishops to him objecting to that decision. Viganò has recently denied those charges. Citing his own failure of leadership, Nienstedt voluntarily resigned in 2015 after prosecutors accused the archdiocese of repeatedly ignoring warning signs of an abusive priest. That priest was later defrocked and sent to prison for abusing boys in his parish.
The swirling accusations and counter-responses surrounding the former ambassador’s letter highlight the influence of a close-knit, well-funded conservative Catholic network. Viganò’s letter was not first reported on by secular news sources or down-the-middle Catholic media. He released the text to the National Catholic Register and LifeSiteNews, two outlets that have often served as a hub for Catholic commentary critical of the pope’s reforms. The Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, is a leading critic of the Francis papacy, and the Register’s parent company, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), mixes traditionalist Catholic programming with conservative political and religious commentators often more aligned with Donald Trump than Pope Francis.*
The New York Timesreported that before the letter was published, Viganò “shared his plan to speak out” with Timothy Busch, a wealthy Catholic lawyer, donor, and hotel magnate who founded a Napa-based winery where conservative bishops, philanthropists, and the occasional Republican politician meet each summer for prayer and networking. Busch is also on the board of EWTN. “Archbishop Viganò has done us a great service,” Busch said in a recent interview with the Times. “He decided to come forward because if he didn’t, he realized he would be perpetuating a cover-up.” Busch should be viewed with skepticism when it comes to this recent interest in holding church leaders accountable for clergy abuse. His own Napa Institute employed the services of Archbishop Neinstedt even after the archbishop resigned in the wake of clergy abuse scandals in Minneapolis. In a recent email sent to Napa Institute supporters, Busch denied that he was consulted on the letter before publication.
It still remains to be seen how many of the accusations leveled by Archbishop Viganò will stand up under scrutiny. His letter is part and parcel of an anti-Francis movement. Some Catholic networks on the right, which baptize themselves self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy and want to undermine the pope and his allies, will continue their campaigns. None of this gives a pass to any church leader, especially Pope Francis, on the sex-abuse crisis. Even Francis’s allies acknowledge that while he has spoken out for victims, he has not created systems to hold bishops accountable for enabling a clerical culture where abuse and cover-up flourish. If the Catholic hierarchy is able to emerge from this crisis with any credibility, it will only happen when a patriarchal hierarchy recognizes that nothing less than radical reform is needed. This reality includes making sure that lay people, especially women, are empowered. Kerry Robinson, founding executive director of the Leadership Roundtable, which began after the sexual abuse revelations in Boston, asks the right question. “How compromised is the Church by failing to include women at the highest level of leadership and at the tables of decision making?” she told me. “This is a matter of managerial urgency.” Internecine fights between Catholic factions that weaponize the abuse crisis to advance agendas might be inevitable in a deeply polarized church, but only deepen the wounds of survivors and prevent future abuses. The Catholic Church must radically reform a culture where clericalism privileges secrecy and abuse of power. Dismantling that system will require an uncomfortable shift away from an institutional mentality that views clergy and bishops as a special caste. Catholics at the grassroots, on the left and right, will need to lead this revolution together.
The grand jury report of Catholic priests’ predations in Pennsylvania is enough to make one vomit. The terrifying fact that hundreds of priests were preying upon over a thousand victims in that state alone makes one shudder at the thought of how many hundreds and thousands of abusers there are elsewhere in the nation, elsewhere in the world. It is time to stop waiting for more reports to accumulate, hoping that something will finally be done about this. Done by whom? By “the church”? If “the church” is taken to mean the pope and bishops, nothing will come of nothing. They are as a body incapable of making sense of anything sexual.
A wise man once told me that we humans are all at one time or another a little crazy on the subject of sex. A little crazy, yes. But Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time. These functionaries of the church are formally supposed to believe and preach sexual sillinesses, from gross denial to outright absurdity, on the broadest range of issues—masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests—and uphold the church’s “doctrines,” no matter how demented.
Some priests are humane or common-sensible enough to ignore some parts of this impossibly severe set of rules, which gives them reason to be selective about sexual matters. Since scripture says nothing about most of these subjects, popes have claimed a power to define “natural law.” But the nineteenth-century English theologian John Henry Newman was right when he said, “The Pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature.” That would be true even if the natural law being invoked had some philosophical depth, but Catholics are asked to accept childish versions of “natural law.” For instance, since the “natural” use of sex is to beget children, any use apart from that is sinful, and mortally sinful. Masturbate and you go to hell (unless, of course, you confess the sin to a priest, which gives an ordained predator the chance to be “comforting” about masturbation).
Contraception prevents the “natural” begetting? Condoms are a ticket to damnation. Homosexuality gives no “natural” progeny? Straight to hell! This is like saying that the “natural” aim of eating is for maintenance of life, so any eating that is not necessary for bodily preservation is a sin. Toast someone with champagne and you go to hell. “The church” adopted this simpleton’s view of natural law only after it had to abandon an equally childish argument from scripture. Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii noted that Onan was condemned to death for coitus interruptus with his brother’s widow, when “he spilled it [his seed] on the ground” (Genesis 38: 9-10). Dorothy Parker said she called her parrot Onan because it certainly spilled its seed on the ground. When Bible scholars pointed out that the Genesis passage concerned levirate marriage, later popes had to invent a lame natural law argument to replace the lame scriptural argument.
Priests are set apart, by celibacy, by sacramental powers. They are privileged, and they do not want to give up such influence. When dangers to their status come up, they must mute or minimize the dangers. After all, they do perform good work. Catholic charities are impressive. Priests cannot give people counsel and comfort if their position is compromised. This leads to a long-tacit bargain, a devil’s deal. If you do not challenge the priestly mystique, which bishops mean to use for good purposes, they will not reveal the vile treatment of boys. The priesthood itself is at stake.
And other things are at stake, too. Property, for instance. The first thing bishops have done when charged with abuse is to lawyer up. And lawyers advise their clerical clients not to show sympathy for victims, since that will strengthen their claim. If one has to recognize some responsibility, by all means do it quietly, paying victims but with an agreement that the victim will not talk about the payment. In order to buy this silence, church property must be protected.
To be a priest is to be a company man, the company being the pope and the hierarchy. The farther one rises in the hierarchy, the higher the stakes. Pope Francis probably does want to do something about the priest mystique; but he is surrounded by loyalists of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and he is trammeled by his predecessors’ many years of priest-mystique maintenance, which is the principal task of many in Rome. Waiting for the pope to do something is to hope that the protector of the mystique will forswear the mystique.
Many victims of abuse by priests have made the mistake of reporting their charges to a bishop. They should have gone straight to a secular authority. To expect from the celibate clergy either candor or good sense on sexual matters is a fool’s game. The Vatican II Council proclaimed that the church is the people of God, not their rulers. The hierarchy, when it opposes the laity, makes itself the enemy of the church, not its embodiment. There are no priests in the Gospels (except Jewish priests at the Temple). Peter and Paul never called themselves or anyone else a priest. Jesus is not called a priest in the New Testament apart from a goofy claim in the late and suspect “Letter to the Hebrews,” in which Jesus is said to be a priest not in any Jewish line, but in that of a non-Jewish, so-called priest named Melchizedek, who can never die.
The laity should reclaim its centrality in the church. It has begun to do that in silent ways: for instance, by widespread disuse of the confessional (a medieval invention), by ignoring the ban on contraception (how otherwise could the birth rate of Catholics have declined so far, so fast?), by the number of Catholic abortions (registered by the Kinsey Institute), and by the drop in church attendance (after the pedophile scandals). Some Catholics, of course, have abandoned the church over one or more of these matters—as can be seen in the decline of the church in Ireland. But people like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League are upset at those who still consider themselves Catholic while ignoring “church teaching” on sexual matters, who go to communion without going to confession, who mock the absurdities called “natural law.”
Those who still want to stand with their Catholic brothers and sisters should not merely dissent in private ways, but should also speak up and demand what opinion polls show they really want for the church as the people of God. It is mandatory celibacy and male-only priesthood that is “unnatural.” Even an admired spiritual leader like Thomas Merton, who thought he could get away from temptation by sealing out “the world” in a monastery, fell madly in love with a young nurse when he had to go to a hospital. It was a love that Kaya Oakes, in a new book of tributes to Merton, thinks made him fully human for the first time.
That story is worth contemplating when we think of all the gay priests studied by the late monk, psychotherapist, and author Richard Sipe who were forced into a dishonesty by the church teaching against homosexuality that condemned them and sometimes made them cover up for other, pedophile priests committing vile acts against children because they had their own little hierarchy-imposed secret. They could resort to dodges like the claim that priests could not be bothered by the married life, with the problems of children, when their whole attention was on spiritual matters. We do not ask whether a surgeon or a pilot or even our family doctor is celibate for fear that, if not so, he will pay us less attention than he ought. In fact, it may be a recommendation for a family doctor that he knows what we all go through.
Rot and dishonesty are hard to claw out, especially when given centuries to embed themselves in the traditions of the church. We can only hope that, this late in the game, they can be cured. There is no way of knowing but to try.