The still-unfolding (as I write) mess in Catholic Church leadership is drawing unfavorable attention onto our church from every direction. Ideological groups left and right, inside and outside the church, are trying to use it to further their agendas, to no one’s long-term benefit. And it has created doubt in many Catholics’ minds about the trustworthiness of church leadership: Who is compromised? Who is not telling the full truth? And most important, Who can I trust as a guide toward holiness for me (and my family)?
There are no easy answers to those questions at this point.
I and most pastors I know have, from experience, developed an ambivalent attitude toward the upper clergy: As Msgr. Ronald Knox said, “To sail tranquilly in the Barque of Peter, stay as far as possible from the engine room.” Pastors live and work too close to the machinery for comfort. But that ambivalence, for me at least, always presumed on the part of bishops and cardinals good will and dedication to the Gospel and to the well-being of the People of God (however misguided I might have thought any particular decision or policy might have been). Now I know some church leaders were not worthy of that presumption of good will; at least one has been shown to be corrupt, others incompetent in their decisions. Claims of dereliction of duty reaching to the Holy Father have been made by a retired archbishop; this is not disagreement over policy, or even a theological argument: It now touches on the personal integrity of the people who shape the life and mission of the church, and who claim the right to guide our souls.
I cannot begin to imagine the numbers of people who are being harmed by this – beginning with those directly abused, sexually or physically, of course, but by no means ending there. You have probably read, as have I, of Catholics who are now former Catholics because they cannot stomach what is being revealed about some church leaders. And many, many good Catholics who stay are demoralized and (rightly) angry. This is no way to run a church.
Let me draw a distinction here between weakness and corruption. Every church leader sins. A leader who sincerely adheres to a goal of personal holiness and competent pastoral service but sometimes fails, is weak – as is every human being. The church will never have perfect leaders (or perfect members). But a leader whose goals are egocentric, whose life is aimed at power, or pleasure, or wealth, or prestige, or anything other than the fulfillment of his vocation from God – such a leader is not just sinful but corrupt. And a church organization that cannot guard against corruption, uncover it when it occurs, and deal effectively with it by removing corrupt leaders from their positions quickly and decisively is a system in dire need of a major overhaul.
I want to be clear: The recent revelations from Pennsylvania and about Archbishop McCarrick, and the (as I write, unsubstantiated) accusations against Pope Francis and other cardinals and bishops by Archbishop Viganò, in no way shake my faith in Christ or in the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s teaching. What we face is a failure of the organization to select and promote suitable leaders, and to hold leaders properly accountable when they misuse the powers and the trust they must inevitably be given if they are to do their work.
So we have three issues: First, those who have been harmed must be given care and justice. Second, we must quickly know who in leadership has abused people’s trust and must be held to account and, if necessary, removed from office. And third, over the longer term, the church has to come up with a better system for the selection, promotion, and supervision of its leadership.
Every Catholic has a right to reasonable confidence in both the good character of the individuals who hold high office in the church, and in the processes that guard against the misuse of leaders’ power. At this point many good Catholics have confidence in neither. Restoring that confidence will take a long time, given what has been going on since the first phase of this crisis back in 2002. But the rebuilding needs to start now. I am committed to doing what I can here in our parish to see that your trust is never abused. Other leaders of local parishes whom I know are similarly committed. The wider church, locally and internationally, does much good work through its hospitals and charities and other ministries. But all of us are under a cloud, and our mission is compromised, when higher leadership is suspect. This is no way to run a church.