Strength in battle in the midst of the abuse crisis
On Wednesday, August 22, the sexual abuse scandal rocking the American Catholic Church took on a new dimension and a greater significance when the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò, published an extensive 11-page document indicting many cardinals and bishops, as well as the Holy Father himself. The document alleges that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, had long known of Archbishop Emeritus of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s long history of sexual abuse of both seminarians and minors, and had not only been involved in covering up the abuse, but had made McCarrick a close advisor on matters concerning the Church in the United States.
At the time of the letter’s release, the Pope was attempting to heal the Church in Ireland, which was decimated by a similar scandal beginning in the 1980’s. Confronted by a member of the press on his flight back to Rome, Francis responded to the allegations saying, “I read it and I will say sincerely…Read the document carefully and judge it for yourself. I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself.”
The pope’s response to Viganò’s allegations was disheartening and even appalling to many Catholics who hoped that the Holy Father would provide clarity and hope in the midst of fear and uncertainty. Pope Francis’s apparent dismissal of Viganò’s seemingly credible and corroborated allegations, as if they were too absurd to warrant a response, has been interpreted by many of the faithful as insufficient at best, and an admission of complicity at worst.
The Pope’s evasion is especially discouraging when held in contrast to his statement upon the conclusion of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, released on August 20, 2018. In that letter addressed to the People of God, Pope Francis urges that, “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
Francis is not the only member of the Church hierarchy who has adopted a somewhat flippant disposition. To the shock and horror of American Catholics, when asked to address the scandal on August 28, Cardinal Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago (also implicated in Vigianò’s testimony) responded, “The Pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”
Statements such as these have left many in the Church feeling like the Church leadership is out of touch with the concerns of the laity. In some, it has induced a feeling that the Church leadership is not taking these grave matters seriously, and in even more, a lack of confidence in the clergy’s commitment to ridding the Church of this grave evil.
On the basis of his claims, Cardinal Viganò concludes his testimony with a call for Pope Francis’ resignation. He writes, “To restore the beauty of holiness to the face of the Bride of Christ, which is terribly disfigured by so many abominable crimes… We must tear down the conspiracy of silence with which bishops and priests have protected themselves at the expense of their faithful.”
This has sparked great controversy within the Church. Many have come to Francis’ defense in sincere disbelief that a man so humble and holy could be caught up in this scandal. This may be part of a larger tendency among the faithful to inadvertently and subconsciously elevate the clergy—especially the hierarchy of the Church—to superhuman status. Though the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and sometimes teaches with infallibility, the Pope and the bishops are fallible, fallen men, just like their predecessors the Apostles and like all of the rest of us.
Though we must take all care to avoid rashness, we must also be vigilant and aggressive in our battle against this scandal. In his letter on August 20, Francis quotes the Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, in a warning to his Church about the great deception of spiritual corruption. Spiritual corruption is “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14)”
Many Catholics now look to the words of Saint Peter, “Stay sober, stay alert! Your enemy, the Adversary, stalks about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) No member of the hierarchy should be seen as impervious to sin in this great battle with the Adversary. Should the allegations against the Pope and many Cardinals cited in Viganò’s testimony prove to be true, the faithful and other Church leaders must be willing to rise up and declare that there is no place in our Church for those complicit in abuse.
All of the ordained are to embody Christ the Good Shepherd, willing to lay down their lives for the flock. In the same way, in a time of grave Church scandal, any member of the clergy implicated in the sexual abuse scandal must be willing to lay down their position for the good of the flock. Those complicit in evil cannot be relied upon to root it out.
Of course, there is a tendency to feel wholly discouraged and to pull away from the faith as a result of the scandal and the hierarchy’s unsatisfactory response. We must not. In Cardinal Viganò’s testimony he recalls the words of Saint Ambrose, “the Church is “immaculata ex maculatis,” she is holy and spotless even though, in her earthly journey, she is made up of men stained with sin.”
The Church is not in its essence her hierarchy. We are the Church. The faith, the tradition, the doctrine; all exist independently from individual members of the clergy. That is the great beauty of our faith. Though man is fallible and fallen, Christ is not. With Him as the Alpha and the Omega, we cannot be shaken by sin or evil.
We must keep at the forefront of our minds that God works in all things. This is by no means the first time that the Church has faced evil and scandal from within her very core, and it will likely not be the last. We are now in a great spiritual battle.
We must be wary, we must be vigilant, we must demand that our Church leaders respond with integrity by opening an investigation into those at all levels of authority and rooting out evil wherever it lies, but we must not lose heart. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
Keenan White is a senior studying political science with minors in history and Constitutional Studies. She is a staunch, albeit hypocritical, advocate of living on campus all four years. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.