Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
QUESTION: Paul Ricoeur says “The more the system flourishes, the more its victims are marginalized. The success of the system is its failure. Suffering, as what is expressed by the voices of lamentation, is what the system excludes.” Pope Francis takes a stand in the margin which is a methodological stand even in writing Encyclicals. How do you evaluate his methodology? Fr Thomas M.C.
ANSWER: The year 2020 was not so bright as expected. At the beginning of the new millennium, in 2000 we had a lot of dreams and proposals for 2020, envisaging a more peaceful and fraternal world. Apart from Covid 19, many socio-political facts have scattered the dreams. The Church also goes through unexpected challenges globally and locally due to many events. The sexual scandal and child abuse, as well as the financial scams and misuse of authority within Church, challenge its age-old pillars. However, the leadership of Pope Francis and his timely and radical intervention offers new hope and vigour, irrespective of the challenges ahead. The publication of McCarrick report on 10 November 2020 is one of the important steps in this regard. It tells that whatever things we were hiding in the banner of confidentiality may not be secret as the earlier practises and it is always good to reveal the reality to the public to avoid the unnecessary smoke. The publication of the report and acceptance of the various mistakes underlines the words of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, quoted by Pope Francis in his letter to the faithful on 20 August 2018. “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Christ! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by His disciples, their unworthy reception of His body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces His heart. We can only call to Him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us!”
Exploiting the Value of Confidentiality
Pope Francis openly accepts in the above-mentioned letter that the Church, as an ecclesial community, was “not where it should have been and it did not act in a timely manner realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.” The 449-page McCarrick report discloses the way how the clerics in the Church failed to handle such a serious issue. Though there were many accusations against bishop McCarrick while he was in the office especially during the process of his promotion, the accusations were left unanswered because they were unsigned or sometimes the words of victims were not ‘credible’! People who were in the responsible offices were not ready to take the responsibility to find the ‘truth’ behind it and to act sincerely to the task entrusted to them. In the McCarrick report, it is clear that how the concern of Cardinal John O’Connor was manipulated by the pattern of clerical self-protection, the cultivation of ignorance and deniability through the incomplete and inaccurate information of the three of the four American bishops with whom the Holy See consulted on the promotion of McCarrick as Archbishop. Moreover, the organisational and administrative capacities of bishop McCarrick was impressive and he was very powerful in the indoors of the Vatican. He was also a good friend of all with incredible fund-raising abilities and produced higher-than-average vocations to the priesthood. In a broader frame, the way of handling the accusations points towards the degeneration of the value system within the Church. Instead of holiness, the qualities of leadership have changed. As it is observed, “holiness does not in itself assure the successful running of a large non-profit. A saint does not promise to provide a diocese with enough money to operate its programs, retain its employees, and secure itself against lawsuits.”
It was not in the case of McCarrick alone. As per the study of John Jay College Research Team (2010), the main concern of US bishops to the allegation of clergy sexual abuse to minors was to save the ‘good name’ of the priests and the dioceses. More than a story of individual bad actors, this study reveals that the abuse crisis is a story of comprehensive failures of ecclesial governance. The McCarrick report presents a unique insight into the failure of bureaucratic norms to prevent an abuser who operates within the bureaucracy itself. A culture of clericalism, built around the privilege and ambitions of the Church’s priests and bishops, is exactly what made the cover-up and perpetuation of McCarrick’s abuse. Adding fuel to the fire, these failures are not just tragic accidents but the predictable outcome of the incentives and attitudes that have shaped the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Before 1985, more than 80% of the abusive cases were reported to the diocese within a year of the incident. In most of the cases, the family members wanted to keep the matter in confidence and the most common request was to help the priest-offender. The families also did not like to make it public or to confront with the priests. In this situation, most of the incidents were not disclosed. It was also difficult to take any serious canonical trial or a criminal indictment in the absence of clear proof and the unwillingness to witness. However, there were some attempts to solve the problem. In 1992, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States developed recommendations to respond to the complaints of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Between 1950 and 1979, 34.8% of priests with complaints of sexual abuse of a minor against them were reprimanded and returned to ministry. Another 33% were referred for evaluation. Only 12.4% were suspended or placed on administrative leave. On the other hand, from 1990 to 1999, 45.6% of priests with complaints of sexual abuse of a minor against them were being sent for treatment and evaluation and 20.6% were suspended or placed on administrative leave. Only 3.8% were being reprimanded and returned to ministry (The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010).
Some leaders of the Church covered up these crimes rather than reporting them to civil authorities and a culture of secrecy led to an apparent mindset of cover-up over transparency, self-policing over reporting to civil authorities, and legal manoeuvring over caring first for victims. The publication of the McCarrick report is a huge step in the policies of the Vatican’s transparency and accountability. Not only the details of the perpetrator are publicised, but also the circumstances, the people who helped him in various ways, his influence in the local and the global Church, the main concern of the authorities of the Church, their approach to the issue etc are disclosed. It addresses questions such as ‘who knew, what they knew, and why they failed to act against Mr McCarrick.’ It has already opened for a debate within the Church which asks for a structural and administrative reformation. While some fear about the collapse of the century’s old practices of confidentiality, many hopes that it may help to radicalise the reforms introduced by Pope Francis to eliminate clericalism and ensure transparency and accountability in the Church.
Rays of Hope amidst the CrisIs
From its beginning, the Church was not free from different kinds of abuses and corruptions. But at each epoch of crisis, there were some voices or movements of correction and renewal. The Didache strongly warns against the false prophets and corrupters and the sheep that turn into wolves (Didache, 16). Some commentaries argue that it is a warning against the corrupt clergy of the time. There are 38 canons related to deviant clerical sexual behaviours in the council of Elvira in 309. The Council of Nicaea in 325 debarred unchaste priests from exercising ministry. In all those days as well as in the development of the legal system, the sexual offences were taken seriously and the punishment was severe.
It was a clear mandate to Jorge Mario Bergoglio to clean up the murky finances of Vatican, to renew the curia bureaucracy, and to reform the Church which was shaken by many scandals when he was elected the Pope in March 2013. From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis tried to create a less impartial papacy with a broadened-outlook and more merciful approach especially to the people in difficult situations. He continuously invites the Church for introspection and self-renewal. According to Pope Francis, “if we can recover the courage and humility to admit that a time of crisis is a time of the Spirit, whenever we are faced with the experience of darkness, weakness, vulnerability, contradiction and loss, we will no longer feel overwhelmed. Instead, we will keep trusting that things are about to take a new shape, emerging exclusively from the experience of a grace hidden in the darkness” (The Message of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, on 21 December 2020). He also urges us not to judge the Church just based on crisis and scandals. After reflecting the various crises in the Bible, he requests us to be more realistic and hopeful amidst the crisis. “Yet a hopeless reading of reality cannot be termed realistic. Hope gives to our assessments an aspect that in our myopia we are often incapable of seeing. God replied to Elijah by telling him that reality was other than what he thought: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus… Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:15.18). It was not true that Elijah was alone; he was in crisis” (The Message of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2020). He urged the members of the Curia not to confuse with a crisis with conflict. While the crisis has a positive outcome through real conversion and reformation, conflict may create discord and competition that ends up with the victory of one party and victimisation of the other.
From Crises to Conversion
The various crises can be overcome only by conversion and change. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium Pope Francis invited the members of the Church to a deeper conversion. Quoting Paul VI, he urged the Church to look with penetrating eyes within herself, ponder the mystery of her being. The Church as a community should be daring enough to take up the struggles to correct the flaws introduced by its members through the sincere process of self-examination and openness to the realities. As a pilgrim community, it needs continuous reform and renewal (Evangelli Gaudium, 26). While inviting the entire Church for reformation, the papacy was not exempted, rather the papacy also requires reformation, renewal and change (Evangelli Gaudium, 32).
In the process of renewal, Pope Francis has been facing a lot of criticisms, accusations and challenges. Realising the difficulty on the renewal, in his message to the Roman Curia on 21 December 2019, he urged the members of Roman Curia to be more courageous to face the changes within the Church. As he tells, “faith is the Church’s foundation. Faith, confidence, courage… Only love conquers weariness.” To effectuate the change, the power of the ‘missionary option’ is necessary. It is capable of transforming everything, so that the customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structure of the Church are to be transformed as per the needs of the time. Rather than self-preservation, the Church must open itself for the need of present-day reality. He openly confesses that the attempts to meet the new challenges are threatened by “the temptation of assume an attitude of rigidity”. Accordingly, “rigidity, which is born of the fear of change, ends up erecting fences and obstacles on the terrain of the common good, turning it into a minefield of incomprehension and of hatred.” The temptation of rigidity has become very evident in the Church today. The ongoing reform is a necessary part of the Catholic Church’s fidelity to its mission to proclaim the Gospel. Quoting the prayer of St. John Henry Newman, Pope Francis invites us to be “more simple-minded, more humble, more holy, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God,” that is to be taken place through conversion and change.
Ultimately the result of the renewal depends on the responsibility of each individual. If people are not willing enough to open to the realities and to accept change, the effort will be in vain. Policing may help to regulate, but will not heal the Church. The publishing of McCarrick Report may strengthen to reform the Church in such a manner that instead of the worldly ambitions and material benefits, the Church may rejoice in holiness and poverty. Instead of covering up the faults, let us open our eyes and see the reality as it is. An open, transparent and accountable Church will be more sober, beautiful and authentic, spreading the fragrance of the gospel of Jesus.