Cardinal Tobin’s visit to Notre Dame

The faith’s Mysteries are among the Church’s greatest treasures, but confusion — especially when created and maintained by the Church hierarchy in a time of crisis — is perhaps its most pressing affliction.

Last week, Joseph Cardinal Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, visited Notre Dame’s campus to deliver the Annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C. Lecture on Catholic Social Tradition, entitled “Reawakening the American Heart,” which focused on immigration. His lecture and the student discussion that he hosted the following afternoon reached far beyond the prearranged topic; students wanted clarity about the current sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

Unfortunately, Cardinal Tobin did little to help clear up the many mysteries currently circulating in the Catholic world, especially concerning the current crisis, its roots, and his role in these challenging times.

The gravity of this crisis cannot be overstated; it might well be characterized as the greatest crisis in the Catholic Church of the last few centuries. Reports abound of sexual abuse of minors, circles of sexually active priests in seminaries, and abuses of power by bishops and cardinals in covering up the sinful conduct. The root of this crisis? “I really personally agree,” Tobin said, “that the root problem behind the sexual abuse and the coverup of sexual crimes among the clergy is clericalism.”


He offered little explanation for the claim, only adding that he thought “the sort of casting of priests and bishops as a caste, separate from everybody, has not only created the conditions where abuse happens — and a proper account of it is not happening — but also separates the body of Christ…” Though this explanation offered an argument for the cause of disunity in the Church, it remained unclear how exactly this related the current crisis of abuse, or what addressing this problem would look like. It is easy to imagine various dangerous interpretations of his diagnosis, including ideas that support radical –– and heretical –– changes to the priesthood. It is these types of ideas that arise when confusion in the Church prevails.

Cardinal Tobin continued to make unclear statements, noting that he thinks “there’s a growing consciousness, even, if it needs to be said, among bishops, that the bishops aren’t going to think or lead our way out of this.” Here, Cardinal Tobin seemed to be implying that the gravity of the crisis is such that the very shepherds of the Church will be unable to lead the faithful through it. Although his appreciation for the gravity of the crisis is commendable, it was far from comforting to hear that we cannot look to our bishops for leadership in this troubling time. If anything, this statement highlighted another deep crisis: one of formation and preparation, not only of the faithful, but of the very leaders of the Church.

Later on, Cardinal Tobin stressed that the “Vatican Council — a little over 50 years ago — produced new wine. And for 50 years we’ve been trying to stuff it into old wineskins, and what does Jesus say: it bursts. This is a spectacular bursting of the wineskin.” This analogy, especially when given without further elaboration and within a highly secularised culture, is dangerously vague. In this time, when ceaseless attacks are made on some of the Church’s most vital doctrines and traditions, the Cardinal’s words seemingly opened the door to adapting the Church to the ideas that most eminently define the current culture. Given that today’s popular culture is defined by radical individualism, moral license, relativism, and immediate gain, such an adaptation would be a tragedy.

At many points throughout the lecture and the lunch-panel the following day, Cardinal Tobin used jokes to attempt to illustrate his points. They succeeded in drawing laughs, but, especially given the context of the  current scandal, also gave the worrying impression that the Cardinal was making light of the situation, a situation in which he is now personally implicated.

When asked directly in the student discussion about the most recent controversy, the letter from Archbishop Viganò on the sexual abuse crisis deep within the Vatican in which Cardinal Tobin himself was mentioned, Tobin responded with vague dismissal. He claimed that the testimony, which he read in the original Italian, was problematic. “You have to wonder about the tone of it because the tone is sarcastic, biting,” he said. “This is the way the Italian reads — its ironic.” He did not respond to his name being implicated in the matter.  

In the end, the fact of the matter is that we –– this generation of young Catholics –– are in serious need of clarity, both in terms of the Church’s teachings, and with regard to the current crisis of sexual abuse. The prevalent lack of formation in the faith, aggravated by the vague and secretive responses to scandals, has fostered deep confusion within the hearts of this generation, driving many to, at best, become lukewarm in their faith, and at worst, lose it altogether. Instead of providing clarity about the current scandal, Cardinal Tobin – through unclear metaphors, superficial points, and blatant omissions – left a lot of room for interpretation, and misinterpretation, furthering the corrosive confusion in the Church.

Nicolas is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in philosophy. He strongly believes that any movie worth watching should not be started after 7:30pm. You can contact him at