Source: The New Yorker
Pope Francis will make a fate-laden journey to Ireland this weekend. On Sunday, when he addresses a throng of Catholics in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, he will recall the last papal visit to Ireland, that of John Paul II, in 1979. But another papal address of that year should also come to mind. In June of 1979, John Paul II spoke to more than a million Poles in a field outside of Krakow and set in motion events that changed history. But that was then. Nowhere is the difference between what the Polish Pope confronted and what the Argentinian Pope now faces greater than in Ireland, which is ground zero of the collapse of Roman Catholic moral authority. Polish Catholicism was ascendant as the Cold War was winding down; Irish Catholicism is buckling. The hospitable Irish will receive Francis warmly, but an undercurrent of heartbreak and anger will also greet him. What can he possibly say?
Just two weeks ago, a Pennsylvania grand jury found that, over the course of seventy years, three hundred priests abused a thousand young victims—and likely many more who have not yet been identified—with bishops resolutely protecting the perpetrators rather than the children. “This is the murder of a soul,” one victim testified. The Vatican responded to the revelations in Pennsylvania with an expression of “shame and sorrow,” words that Francis repeated on Monday, in an unprecedented letter to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, though neither statement moved beyond perfunctory generalities of regret. But in Ireland, the priest-abuse scandal—in 2009, it was revealed that bishops had colluded with the police in order to protect predators—rocked the nation as, perhaps, nowhere else.
The Vatican’s ongoing failure to reckon with the catastrophe in Ireland was dramatized last year by the resignation of Marie Collins, an Irish woman who had been a victim of abuse, from Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, citing what she called “resistance by some members of the Vatican Curia” to the commission’s work. Collins praised Francis for his own sincerity, though she had previously challenged him on the abuse and coverup in Chile, a matter for which Francis apologized in April, admitting his own “serious errors.”
But the Irish wound is deeper still. A year ago, the long festering scandal of the so-called Magdalene Laundries, nun-run institutions in which orphaned girls and young pregnant single women were effectively enslaved, reached a terrible low point with the discovery that, between 1925 and 1961, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home for unwed women and their children, in Tuam, County Galway, nearly eight hundred infants had died and were secretly buried, some in a disused septic tank. There had been monsters not only among the priests but among the sisters. The revelations have taken their toll: in a 2015 referendum, more than sixty per cent of Irish voters approved same-sex marriage, and the nation’s overwhelming vote in favor of legalizing abortion, in May, was, in the words of a Trinity College professor, “the final nail in the coffin” of the Irish Church hierarchy. “Their hopes of reëstablishing themselves are gone.”
As if all that were not enough, in June, Francis accepted the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, an American, from the College of Cardinals. The former archbishop of Washington, McCarrick stands accused of having abused a man for nearly twenty years, from the time he was eleven years old, and also of imposing himself on numerous seminarians and young priests, beginning when he was a bishop in Metuchen, New Jersey. In 2005 and 2007, New Jersey dioceses secretly paid to settle two abuse claims against McCarrick, raising questions about what the Vatican knew of his behavior, and for how long. In 2006, the Vatican accepted his pro-forma resignation from his position as archbishop upon turning seventy-five, but he continued to play a high-profile role as an eminent Church leader in the United States and around the world. (McCarrick, who is eighty-seven, maintained his innocence in a recent statement, saying that he has no memory of the reported abuse.)
McCarrick’s case could be thought to represent a kind of nadir of Church failure. Yet the Australian Cardinal George Pell, who awaits two separate trials in Melbourne on “historical sexual assault offenses,” dating back decades, was senior to McCarrick; he was formerly the Vatican’s top moneyman and an intimate adviser to Pope Francis. (Pell has pleaded not guilty to the charges.) The disgrace of the two Cardinals reveals not only how inadequate Rome’s responses to the crisis have been over the past three decades, including during Francis’s tenure, but lays bare the deep corruption of clericalism, in which perpetrators have reliably found protection. Indeed, clericalism has itself proved to be that very “culture of abuse and coverup.”
Ironically, criticisms of clericalism as a power structure that sets the priesthood apart from and above the people whom priests serve have been a staple of Francis’s exhortations. The “spirit of clericalism,” he said in 2016, is “a very ugly thing.” In his letter on Monday, he added that clericalism “helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all sorts of clericalism.” Yet, even now, Francis has shown no sign of actually moving against that culture. The structure of the priesthood still stands on its all-male character and on the requirement of celibacy, however selectively it is enforced; for the Church hierarchy, chipping away at the twin pillars of clericalism amounts to an attack on the faith itself. But the disillusionment of Catholics in the face of the clergy’s betrayal points to a problem that goes deeper into the Catholic imagination than how the priesthood is organized. Earlier this month, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responded to the McCarrick case by saying, “Our Church is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality.” There it is in a phrase: a crisis of sexual morality. Whatever DiNardo meant, his words are spot on: the problem is not merely with misfit priests and their protectors but with the entire way that Roman Catholicism has long defined its ethic of sex.
Conservative Catholics in America tend to see the priest-abuse crisis as having followed on the perceived loosening of moral standards set by the Second Vatican Council—convened by the change-minded John XXIII, in 1962—and they are poised to use the crisis against Francis, who is retrieving the Council’s vision of reform. Conservatives emphasize that the Second Vatican Council occurred, after all, on the eve of the sexual revolution. It’s as if sexual freedom were a virus, and the Church was infected. For conservatives, that is, the issues of priestly sexual abuse and gay clergy (which Church conservatives often see as being linked), together with the Catholic laity’s divorce rates, its acceptance of contraception, and its readiness to loosen strictures against abortion and homosexuality, all flow from the post-John XXIII liberal takeover of the Church, with relativists, feminists, and, well, hedonists in the lead.
But that is wrong. The broad cultural shift in sexual mores represents not a Catholic temptation but a Catholic opportunity. Basic assumptions about sexual morality are at play everywhere in the present Church crisis, and they cry out to be reëxamined. The claims of feminism, in particular, do indeed amount to an epiphany. As in so many other spheres, the equality of women is a wedge issue for Catholicism, and its cutting edge has never been sharper than today. Women must be heard. But the roots of Cardinal DiNardo’s “crisis of sexual morality” are as old as the Church itself, and reckoning with them at last defines the opportunity embedded in this calamity. Roman Catholicism’s original mistake, epitomized in the fourth-century teachings of St. Augustine, was to set itself against the sexual longing of human beings, as if the sexual pairing of Adam and Eve defined “the Fall.” The theological vilification of sexuality as the locus of sin (“Original Sin”) sanctified the denigration of women, sponsored male control of female reproduction, glorified virginity, sparked a problematic ambivalence about homosexuality (officially condemned, secretly taken for granted), and planted the seeds of a puritanical dread of “concupiscence” that readily tips over into neurosis. All this shaped the Catholic imagination, while defining an essential note of the culture of clericalism as it developed, especially once celibacy became the required discipline of the priesthood, a millennium ago. And all this is a long way from Genesis 5:2, which holds that “He created them male and female, and He blessed them, and called them human.”
Many priests, nuns, and religious brothers, of course, build creative, fulfilled, and generous lives around their vows of celibacy, but the regimen, as institutionalized in clericalism, has been exposed by “the culture of abuse and coverup” as an engine of corruption that overrides individual good intentions and selfless devotion. Good priests everywhere feel this contradiction more deeply than anyone. Yet enforced celibacy of the all-male clerical state enshrines the larger Catholic mistake, and now—whatever the good priests think—intensifies the Church’s catastrophe. Clericalism is both the crime and the evidence of that crime.
For all of this, Ireland is a case in point. After the Reformation, and its brutal wars of religion, spiritual domination by the Pope in Rome offered a counter-colonialism with which to reject the colonialism of the English, and the Catholic religion became the island nation’s boiling wellspring of resistance and its fiercest source of identity. But Catholicism was also Ireland’s tenderest source of consolation, which was never more valued than during the decades-long nineteenth-century nightmare of famine and emigration. The Irish priests and nuns—teaching, encouraging, burying, blessing—were beloved beyond words. And why should the Emerald Isle, so betrayed, not have become this vale of tears?
When John Paul II visited Ireland, in 1979, it is said that nearly half the nation’s population saw him in person, and a million people greeted him in Phoenix Park. Francis is expected to see half that number on Sunday—organizers have printed five hundred thousand tickets. The occasion for his visit is the World Meeting of Families, which convenes in a different country every three years. (Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor as the archbishop of Washington and a close ally of Pope Francis, will not attend the meeting, where he was scheduled to give the keynote address; the Pennsylvania report describes him as having been involved in the coverup when he was the Bishop of Pittsburgh. He responded that the report confirms that “I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”) Families, of course, are the still point around which the Church crisis turns. When the crowd, however large, finally settles down to listen to the man in white, what will they hear?
Pope Francis is hemmed in by tradition and by blinders bracketing his own vision. As his obtuse statement this week suggests, there will be no sweeping announcement of a reconstituted priesthood (married people and women ordained, full transparency of all procedures, laity empowered at every level of Church governance). Nor will there be the promulgation of a reimagined sexual morality (yes to female sexual autonomy; full acceptance of homosexuals and transgender people; sex measured as love and pleasure as much as reproduction and, therefore, yes to contraception). But this Pope’s record points to a capacity for new beginning, even now. Francis could still firmly and clearly indicate that the Church stands at the threshold of a new way of understanding the questions that underlie its broken authority. He could find a way of heralding an open Church future, in which true female equality, lay power, sexual maturity, real accountability of Church leaders, and a restored availability of sacraments to all Catholics can be realized.
But what can he actually do? What steps toward change would be gradual enough to be widely accepted, and to withstand the likely conservative pushback when another Pope succeeds him? In fact, the seeds of the necessary transformation have already been planted, and all Francis need do is make a large point of nurturing them. He could begin the reconstituting of the priesthood (without calling it that) by expanding the diaconate. An ancient form of Holy Orders, Catholic deacons were brought back as a distinctive and permanent ecclesial rank, in 1967, by Pope Paul VI, effectively empowering married men to do everything that a priest does other than saying Mass or hearing confession. I was a seminarian then, and I remember thinking that Paul was deflecting pressures toward a married priesthood—the diaconate was his way of buying time. I was right, and now that that time is up, the diaconate represents an opening. Today, the worldwide shortage of priests has turned whole regions of the globe into Eucharistic deserts. This disappearance of the Mass violates the most sacred claim the Catholic people have on the Church. There are more than forty thousand permanent deacons around the world, but, as constituted, they can’t help. Yet the order is still new and can be readily adjusted. Following the tradition of emergency exceptions (a layperson can validly administer the sacrament of baptism when there is imminent danger of death), why not authorize deacons to celebrate the Eucharist where there are no priests available? (Francis could promise to formalize such an initiative at the upcoming 2019 Synod of Pan-Amazon Bishops; there are ten thousand Catholics for every priest in the Amazon region, compared to two thousand per priest in the United States. The Church risks losing many of the faithful there, and responsible bishops are clamoring for a way to make the Eucharist more regularly available.) Then, while expanding the diaconate, why not open its ranks to women, especially since scholars find ample evidence that women served in such roles in the early Church? These people would be clerics, and, with such simple sidestepping of the usual cant about the sacrosanct priesthood—the clericalism that Francis deplores would be remade.
Such an indirect strategy for accomplishing a major religious and cultural mutation may seem inauthentic, but the changes that stick in the Catholic Church are the ones that can be experienced as having been prepared for. Think of the stark authority with which Pope Francis, last month, announced a new and absolute Catholic prohibition of the death penalty, which was long justified not only by tradition but also by explicit Biblical texts (not to mention by opinions written by numerous Catholic members of the U.S. Supreme Court). In announcing this basic doctrinal change, though, Francis was careful to note that his predecessors had themselves disapproved of the death penalty, if not absolutely. He argued, in effect, that his top-down command to revise the catechism on this question was only an expansion of what Popes before him had taught. An elaboration of the prior authorizations of the diaconate made by those same Popes would only be a further instance of how the Church must accommodate unprecedented circumstances, especially when basic questions of morality and meaning are at stake.
This proposal, however much conservatives might oppose it, would barely scratch the surface of the kind of changes that are needed, but it would set the change in motion. The point is that the time for Catholic business as usual is long gone. No one wants to hear anymore of the Vatican’s “shame and sorrow.” The Church’s crisis of sexual morality, in sum, must be addressed at its very roots, and there is no better place to begin that than in Ireland. When John Paul II preached in Krakow, in 1979, his theme was “Be Not Afraid,” and that message helped spark the Solidarity movement, which was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union. He was taking on Communism, the Church’s great nemesis, dating back a century to the celebrated “communards,” who executed the archbishop of Paris. To address the present heartbreak in Ireland and beyond, Francis must confront another piece of fateful history, one of Catholic teaching from two millennia ago, which, having made magisterial authority cruel, is still demolishing what’s left of it. For Francis, the Church’s nemesis is the Church.
James Carroll is the author of twenty books, including, most recently, the novel “The Cloister.”