In late August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to the United States (essentially the Vatican’s ambassador to America), issued an open letter alleging widespread cover-up of the sexual crimes of former Washington D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a cover-up that includes the Pope himself.
The letter was shocking but unsurprising. It has massive implications for the Catholic Church. Less obvious, it illustrates issues affecting the entire pro-life movement.
McCarrick – we can drop the title cardinal because he retired in disgrace – is alleged to have groomed adult seminarians for sexual favours, both in Newark and Washington. There is ample evidence of his wrong-doings – sins, actually – and new allegations that he abused altar boys came to light earlier this year. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July. Viganò’s letter claims that Pope Benedict XVI placed McCarrick under some sanctions that included no contact with seminarians and limiting his public appearances, effectively putting him on the inactive list of ecclesiastical leadership. Viganò says that Francis knew of the allegations and removed the sanctions against McCarrick and turned to him as an adviser. It also names a long list of bishops and cardinals whom McCarrick helped promote within the Catholic Church and who defended the disgraced cardinal within Church circles.
Many within and outside the Catholic Church see the letter as a cri de coeurcalling for a massive cleanup, and indeed it is.
The purpose of this column, however, is not to delve too much into Church politics or debate the merits of various accusations and fixes. For fuller coverage of the letter and scandal, check out LifeSiteNews online and Faithful Insightmagazine. On a purely personal note, I encourage Catholics not turn away from their Church no matter how depressing the crisis is. Shining a light on the scandal may encourage the necessary reforms and what the laity should do now is pray and demand action, then pray some more. (The Sorrowful Mysteries seem especially apt at this time.) I hope that other Christians will also pray for a correction to the problems plaguing the Catholic Church, for Catholic leadership is necessary in the broader culture.
The pro-life movement has been called the ecumenicalism of the trenches. Catholics, Protestants and other Christians, and members of other faith communities, have worked together in opposition to the Culture of Death for nearly five decades. We have worked together to oppose abortion and, later, stem cell research and euthanasia. We have moved beyond life issues to uphold the traditional family, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and authentic education. But this alliance of laypeople has obscured an uncomfortable fact: that with a handful of exceptions, the Catholic leadership isn’t coming from leaders (cardinals, bishops) within the Catholic Church, but individual courageous pastors and lay leaders from the Catholic Church. This is a point that First Thingseditor R.R. Reno has made several times, notably in the October edition of that ecumenical magazine. Sure Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have provided strong moral and intellectual leadership on life issues, and there have been a handful of truly heroic cardinals and bishops (former New York Cardinal John O’Connor and retired Vancouver Archbishop Adam Exner come to mind, foremost). But as Reno observes, the pre-World War II North American ecclesiastical leadership has mostly dried up.
This leadership matters. Jerry Falwell and various leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention – not typically hotbeds of sympathy for the Catholic Church – have noted how important pro-life leadership from Catholic pulpits are for the movement to activate grassroots support and get action from politicians. If politics is a numbers game, Catholic Churches, up to now, have been able to deliver numbers.
Priests take their cues from bishops and cardinals. If bishops and cardinals are not leading then priests will follow their example. When bishops and cardinals are speaking out, priests follow that example.
The same is true in Canada. More than one evangelical politician has told us at The Interimthat its easier to talk about pro-life and pro-family issues when Catholic bishops are also addressing them.
There are several reasons for this, but the McCarrick cover-up speaks to a number of theories.
The first is that as the Viganò letter makes clear, Pope Francis and his liberal allies need numbers in the College of Cardinals and throughout the Church’s vast bureaucracy to promote the modernizing agenda in both morals and liturgy. There is certainly a lavender mafia, a gay subculture within the Catholic Church. There are priests and bishops that prey on seminarians and carry on (consensual) homosexual relationship with each other. But there is a larger network of clergy and bishops that turn a blind eye to the sexual activity for either ideological or collegial reasons. Tragically, were silenced when their very priesthood had been threatened by superiors within the Church.
Generally, toleration, acceptance, practice, or celebration of homosexuality coincides with rejection of other moral teachings of the Catholic Church. There may be exceptions, but whether it is ideological or psychological (I’m a sinner, who am I to judge another), it happens. A secular equivalent of this is how some pro-life politicians abandon their principles following divorce. They do not want to be charged with hypocrisy of not living up to one moral standard while upholding another, so they abandon the pro-life principles. The same thing happens to priests partaking in gay activity or defending those who are. As as Fr. Shenan Boquet, executive director of Human Life International, said, the participation of priests in homosexual activity and tolerance of this by their fellow priests, “ensures that their voices are silenced or weakened.”
That’s one explanation, but it may go deeper than that. Reno writes in First Thingsthat following “widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae,” within the Church, there was a “debilitating toleration (that) characterized the Church for decades (afterward).” This was doubly true in Canada, where bishops signed onto the dissenting Winnipeg Statement. Bishops then became “reluctant to speak strongly and regularly on behalf of Christian sexual morality.” As an embarrassing example, Reno noted how Catholic bishops have not been leaders against the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in the United States the way evangelical and Mormon religious leaders have. It seems, Reno charges, that many bishops have accepted “our culture’s morality of consent” and therefore have “no stomach for a battle over gay sex between consenting adults, not even when one of them is a clergyman.” That is, the Church has accepted the secular culture’s definition of right and wrong as determined not by Natural Law or Revelation, but the morality of consent.
Reno writes that the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not bring about the sort of changes these “conservative” popes might have expected to inaugurate. Rather, these two popes ignored that modernizing, liberal dissidents who were not turfed from the Church, but rather went into hiding yet remained ensconced in Catholic institutions, most notably the schools and seminaries, were they continued to breed dissent. This is why Catholic children can go through 12 years of separate schools in Canada or parochial schools in the U.S., and come out of it with a moral worldview no different than students who attend public schools. If Catholic students are adopting secular moral values, the future pro-life movement is imperiled.
Furthermore, as Fr. Boquet says, “the sex abuse crisis feeds directly into the Culture of Death.” It is in itself a gross violation of sexual morality and therefore it “gravely undermines the credibility of the Church to speak on the most urgent moral issues of our age.”
And that is a tragedy. The crisis is not only the abuse of children and seminarians, and the failure of priests to practice their vows. It is the loss of leadership when priests, bishops and cardinals become silent on the most important moral issues of the day, from abortion to euthanasia to family life and marriage.
And yet, it is worse than that. Catholic complicity with sexual immorality threatens the centuries-long project of evangelization, of Christianizing the West and the rest of the world.
Writing in the National Catholic Register, Benjamin Wiker, director of Human Life Studies at Franciscan University, says that pagan Roman-Greco culture was Christianized by the Catholic Church in the early centuries after Christ, and only then did revulsion grow against the practices of pedophilia, homosexuality, sexual slavery, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. “They became moral issues, rather than accepted pagan social practices,” Wilker writes, “only because of Christian evangelization.” Legal strictures followed. But as the Catholic Church makes peace with secular morality, it provides an assist in the de-Christianizing of society, and the moral barbarities of antiquity become the moral standards once again today.
The lay pro-life movement can only do so much. The pro-life movement needs Christian leaders in all churches to be authentically and fully Christian. The Catholic Church enmeshed in sin and cover-up cannot be the witness and beacon that the times so desperately requires. That’s why not only Catholics but all Christians and believers from other faith communities should care about the crisis afflicting the spiritual home of one billion followers of Christ.