Cardinal sins

Oh! for the good old days of Pope Alexander VI, robustly heterosexual and openly doting on his many children from several mistresses! No hypocrisy there, just another Renaissance prelate who was a loose-living old reprobate.

Unlike ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark and Washington DC, confidante of popes, and media go-to guy.

In disgrace after revelations that he was a homosexual who may have molested two minors decades ago (which he denies) and many seminarians and priests. Pope Francis has ordered him to live "a life of prayer and penance in seclusion". He had to resign from the College of Cardinals, the only cleric to do so since 1927.

What Americans must find galling, sickening even, is that McCarrick was the spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the sex abuse crisis in 2002, the man who called for a zero-tolerance policy. "I think it touched us all deeply to see how so many people have suffered because of a few very sick and mixed-up priests, criminal priests I guess you'd say," he said in an interview.

He was on the money about the pain caused to victims and to ordinary Catholics in the pews – except that after his own downfall, it must be hard for people to believe that there are only a few of those criminal priests.

The McCarrick debacle has blackened the name of the Catholic Church, perhaps for decades. In many minds, all clerics will be tarred as hypocrites. There’s a bit of truth in the amusing old adage that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue”, but no one is in the mood to be amused. If a Cardinal, a prince of the Church, may smile and smile and be a villain, what about the parish priest? The local bishop?

Such a conclusion is terribly unjust. Most priests and bishops, though they are ordinary men who wrestle with their own failings, live their vocation to celibacy with great fidelity. Even in the days of Alexander VI the number of austere and irreproachable saints was legion. But you can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, thanks to ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

Still worse is the suspicion that there was a conspiracy of silence amongst the Catholic hierarchy about his failings. In the aftermath of McCarrick’s disgrace some journalists say that they had known but could not publish anything in a major media outlet because they lacked documentation and convincing witnesses.

But small sites on the internet did publish well-supported denunciations. A site called Renew America reported in 2005, almost 13 years ago, that two priests had gone on the record about his invitations to seminarians to sleep with him. A blog post by Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former priest, gave lurid details in 2010,  eight years ago.

This suggests one of two possibilities: either many Church authorities had never heard of the internet or they were turning a blind eye to McCarrick’s homosexual antics.

In fact, things were humming along quite nicely for McCarrick in his honourable retirement. There was not a trickle of scandal until the dyke broke with news of allegations that he had abused two underage boys early in his career. Homosexual activity between freely consenting adults apparently was nothing for bishops to worry about, but abusing children was criminal activity which could not be ignored. At least, that’s the impression that inaction gives.

Hopefully a Vatican investigation will uncover McCarrick’s web of deception and his enablers.

What lessons should be drawn from this disheartening affair? 

One possible lesson, as one journalist has argued, is to be ever more vigilant in policing Catholic homophobia and to have more respect for out-of-the-closet clergy. Which is a nonsense. What is needed is less fear of accusations of homophobia and more esteem for Christian purity and priestly celibacy.

Another is to treat this as a #MeToo moment. The Catholic magazine America argues in its current issue that the Church needs to develop “a culture in which powerful leaders do not expect their misdeeds to be silently covered up and in which victims of abuse and harassment feel supported in their decisions to confront those who have mistreated them.”

Amen to that.

But there’s a more fundamental lesson, too. Just as the #MeToo movement will fail if it merely increases the number of consent forms to be signed before hooking up, #NoMcCarrickEverAgain will crash unless Catholics wholeheartedly accept their own Church’s view of homosexuality. It seems harsh, admittedly – “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and “under no circumstances can they be approved” – but it is the truth. And only the truth has the power to give peace to restless hearts.

For many reasons, it is wickedly imprudent to shrug off reports of immoral behaviour because a man is a good administrator and fund-raiser. Alexander VI,  the baddest of the “bad Popes”, is a paradigm case. He was a talented statesman and administrator, an excellent canonist, an illustrious patron of science and the arts, a very popular ruler– and a complete disaster. Only a few years after his scandalous pontificate, Christendom was split in two by the Reformation.

Fidelity to moral principles is crucial. If priests and bishops do not support the Catholic doctrine on homosexuality with all their heart, how will they have the courage to pull the rug from under the feet of a powerful colleague? And how can they preach that hooking-up is wrong, or masturbation, or pornography, or adultery? Yes, the truth about sexuality must be preached with tact, understanding, charity and an acute awareness of one's own weakness -- but it must be preached. The Catholic teaching on chastity is a seamless garment. If one thread is pulled loose, the rest will fall apart.

The McCarrick affair is a reminder that morality is not a matter of making everyone happy and sticking to an uncontroversial middle ground. In a 2006 interview with NPR upon his retirement, the then-Cardinal made remarks which should be framed and hung on a wall of the secluded cell where he is doing his prayer and penance:

“There is nothing really black and white, you know, because we're dealing with human beings and we're all such complex people.”

Perhaps if he had been a bit more black and white about his own life, and if his colleagues in the Church had been a bit more black and white about his, the American Catholic Church would not be in the mess it’s in.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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