Pope Francis administered a stunning and humiliating shock to the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States last week. The American bishops had gathered in Baltimore to discuss a pair of measures to deal with the continuing crisis over clerical sexual abuses in this country.
The measures were fairly modest. One sought to build on the 2002 “Dallas charter” — measures designed to stop priests’ abuse of children, mostly young boys — by extending its rules on reporting and accountability to bishops. The other would have launched an investigation, led by lay Catholics, into reports of abuses by bishops. Conceivably, this would have looked into how former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., could have risen to the top of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, despite being widely known — in secular circles, to the Vatican, and to many in the church — as being a serial abuser and harasser of young adult male seminarians (and at least one young boy).
The night before the conference, the pope abruptly quashed both measures. The bishops were left reeling, and lay Catholics were stunned and dismayed. For some, it may even be the last straw: If their church will not deal honestly with these issues, they will leave it.
Francis’ pretext was that a Vatican summit in February would address these matters “globally.” It then emerged that Francis, despite the outcry of American Catholics for action, had tried to get the entire meeting cancelled.
Back to the McCarrick Scandal
The pope’s decision was likely related to the scandals that followed the news of McCarrick’s decades of abuse. After McCarrick’s predatory activities became widely publicized, other media accounts of the abuse of Catholic seminarians — young men entering the priesthood — have frequently appeared, detailing sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops, supervisors, and priests both in this country and around the globe. (Although the publicity is fairly recent, the existence of this type of abuse had been reported and documented well before 2018).
But Francis and his acolytes have steadily played down or ignored this post-McCarrick crisis, sometimes by trying to conflate it with the question of the clerical abuse of minors. It just so happens that McCarrick was a close adviser and intimate of Francis, and is believed to have lobbied for his election to the papacy. After becoming pope, Francis may have relieved McCarrick of (mild) sanctions that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, is said to have imposed. There is a trove of evidence that, despite knowing of McCarrick’s misdeeds, Francis protected the man nonetheless.
That hints at the reason for Francis’ brazen action against the American bishops. An investigation led by lay American Catholics into McCarrick and the clerical networks that had promoted him would be beyond Francis’ power to control. If Francis has something to hide, such an investigation would carry dangerous consequences for him and his allies.
The Dismay of American Catholics
So when the papal diktat was announced by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gasps echoed across the room.
“It makes it look like we don’t care,” said Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, adding: “No reason is good enough for the laypeople who expect the bishops to act. … How are we going to explain this to the people back in our dioceses?”
“We are not, ourselves, happy about this. … We’re disappointed, because we were moving along on this,” said DiNardo.
The pope found an apologist in Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, whose rapid rise in the Catholic hierarchy under Francis has been disconcerting to traditional Catholics. In Baltimore, Cupich quickly stood up to defend the pope’s actions.
There is a pattern here. In recent weeks, Cupich’s Chicago seminarians were appalled by his apparent indifference to the sexual molestation practiced by those in charge of their institutions. Along with former cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had to step down for his inaction in the face of abuses by his subordinates, Cupich is a member of Francis’ Congregation of Bishops, the body that oversees bishops globally and the same body that, by all accounts, has taken no action to address the crisis.
Cupich and Wuerl also sought to derail the conference’s proposal for lay involvement. Before the conference began, the two had collaborated on a plan to scrap the idea of an independent, lay-led commission. Their alternative plan called for any investigations of bishops to be controlled by the bishops. Cupich defended his and Wuerl’s approach at the bishops’ conference, saying that their proposal better adhered to Catholic “ecclesiology.” In other words, only bishops — however badly compromised and conflicted themselves — could be permitted to look into charges against their brother bishops.
It is reasonable to infer that Cupich and Wuerl knew that DiNardo and the other bishops’ attempt at accountability would be shot down by Francis, and that they had worked in advance to craft this alternate proposal, which they would then announce once Francis’ decision to nix any lay investigation had been made public.
The Bishops Tried
Just think about this. America’s Catholics have been demanding — crying out — for action. They have, to no avail, been patient for a very long time in the face of behavior that is antithetical to Christ. But they have been balked by Francis and his Vatican bureaucracy. Indeed, their requests have been treated with stony silence or cold contempt.
In August, the American Catholic bishops requested that the pope appoint an “apostolic visitor” to the United States to investigate the McCarrick matter. After delaying the request for weeks, the pope flatly rejected it, reportedly telling the bishops to go on a spiritual retreat instead. After that rebuff, the American bishops sought to take action on their own. That would have launched an investigation into themselves, and applied rules for the lower clergy to themselves.
The bishops’ behavior may be both insufficient and belated, but it is nonetheless laudable. For all their deference to one another, the majority of the bishops appear to be good men who are seeking to do justice. But the dark center within that silver lining is the pope who commanded them to stand down. There is a rot and a stench coming from the Vatican. The pope is the problem.
Why? Here are three possible explanations. The first, briefly mentioned above, is that the pope fears any independent inquiry into the McCarrick affair, and specifically into his treatment of McCarrick. At this point, the only reasonable assumption is that Francis has something to hide — and does not want anyone who is not under his watchful eyes to look into the matter. If that assumption is mistaken, then it falls to Francis to prove it so.
The second explanation concerns the pope, and the third concerns the papacy.
The Pope and the American Church
Francis’ attitude to the American church is by now unmistakable: He scorns it. Possibly this scorn stems from his hostility to things American generally — including our capitalist system, our belief in openness and transparency, our attitudes to sexual misconduct, our views on Mass, illegal immigration, or our current president. Or he may think that we are simply too nosy and noisy. In any case, he has regularly humiliated the American bishops and ignored the American laity.
The recent episode in Baltimore and the earlier refusal to designate an apostolic visitor are by no means the only instances of this. Consider Francis’ decision to re-impose the discredited Wuerl on the archdiocese of Washington D.C., from which Wuerl’s own Catholic people had sought to expel him.
Wuerl’s problems began with the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing a decades-long pattern of clerical sexual abuses in that state. The Pennsylvania grand jury looked into Wuerl, a close associate of Francis, who before moving to Washington had been the bishop of Pittsburgh. The report mentioned Wuerl some 200 times in connection with looking the other way on child abuse.
When the grand jury report revealed Wuerl’s actions and inactions in Pittsburgh, Catholics in Washington and across the country demanded his removal from his position in the nation’s capital. Pope Francis yielded to those demands, but only outwardly: He ordered Wuerl to remain in charge of his DC archdiocese until Francis named a replacement — that is, for as long as Francis pleases.
Francis also went out of his way to hold up Wuerl as a model bishop with “the heart of a shepherd” and a person of singular “nobility.” What had Wuerl done in Pittsburgh to cause his own flock to rebel against him? Here is a summary from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
The [grand jury] report alleges that Cardinal Wuerl ultimately permitted a molesting priest, Ernest C. Paone, to remain in ministry for years despite being made aware of the priest’s long, ugly history of abuse. It says he presided over a settlement agreement with two brothers who were abuse victims of a different priest, Richard Zula, that prohibited them from discussing the terms. It provides a detailed chronology of his negotiations with Zula about money the priest would receive from the diocese upon release from his incarceration in state prison.
It also tabs Wuerl as the originator of the phrase “circle of secrecy” — essentially the conspiracy of silence by which dioceses in Pennsylvania worked to shield abusing priests from the eyes of law enforcement, kept abusive clergy members in ministry, and limited public disclosure — a claim Wuerl vehemently denied. This is the man whom Francis, in a contemptuous display of raw power, re-imposed on the resistant Catholics of Washington.
An Absolute Monarchy
These problems in the Roman Catholic Church come, at least in part, from a deeper source. It is not only the idiosyncrasies of a particular p. It is a matter of the institutional structure or, in a broad sense, the “constitution” of the Roman Catholic Church as it stands today. The papacy is the last absolute monarchy in the world.
Fundamentally, neither bishops nor laity have any power in the government of their church, except within limits conceded by the pope. The pope may delegate some power, but he can retract it in an instant.
Consider what this means. There are no checks and balances within the Catholic Church, as now organized. Neither the College of Cardinals nor the Catholic episcopacy — and least of all, the Catholic laity — operates as a counter-weight to the pope. Indeed, since about the 16th century (although not through most of church history) not even an ecumenical council of the entire church has been held to have the authority to correct or depose a pope.
The Catholic Church has not always had such a “monarchical” character. True, the pope as Bishop of Rome has long been accorded a kind of primacy over all other bishops in communion with him. But primacy in that earlier understanding meant “respect,” not absolute power. As late as the 18th century, the French episcopacy claimed that it had governing authority independent of the pope. Such was the position of French bishops of impeccable orthodoxy, deep learning, and personal holiness, including the celebrated bishop of Meaux, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704).
Bossuet taught that it was “the full and supreme and universal authority of the Catholic Church that supplies what is lacking even in the Roman Church.” That authority was most generally exercised by the bishops of the worldwide church convening in a council. Bossuet’s opinion was shared by other Catholic bishops, clergy, and scholars, even outside of France.
That “Gallican” idea faded throughout the 19th century, largely in consequence of the French Revolution, which decimated the French church and left it clinging to the pope. The full results became apparent in the first Vatican Council (1869-70). For all the fanfare, the second Vatican Council (1962-65) did not really roll back that conception of papal power, or recognize any non-derivative episcopal power, even though Catholic bishops claim to be the successors of the twelve apostles.
As for Catholic lay power, that was bleached out too over the centuries. Although emperors and kings had traditionally played a significant role in papal elections, and even the Roman population once had a role, the College of Cardinals is now prohibited from giving any heed at all to lay (or other clerical) voices outside itself when selecting one of its members to be pope.
Despite his feints at power-sharing with the bishops and his professed hostility to “clericalism,” Francis knows he is an absolute monarch. He exercises his powers ruthlessly. The episode in Baltimore is a perfect instance of his style: both bishops and laity be damned.
Perhaps the problems in the Catholic Church will never be solved — unless through the intervention of secular governments — until Catholics begin to recover their history, and their church starts to return to its roots. Until then, like King George, Francis is a tyrant who has a grudge against Americans. How much damage will he do before he is held to account?