Analysis: How Will Ordinary Catholics Respond to the Disappointment of McCarrick Report?

Ordinarily, a news analysis attempts to bring some context or expertise to a situation, in order to assess why something has happened, what might happen next, and whether any of it will prove to be important.

A news analysis often speculates about what newsmakers will do: At CNA, analysis considers often what the pope might do, or USCCB leaders, or bishops of prominent dioceses. But this analysis will speculate about what ordinary Catholics - people who practice the faith and love the Lord and try to follow Jesus - will do after the publication of the Vatican’s McCarrick Report.

To do that, some context in this analysis will be personal. There is a reason I offer this personal narrative. Please bear with me.

I began working for the Catholic Church in 2005, while I was in canon law school., After finishing my canon law degree, in 2007 I began working regularly on cases involving clergy misconduct.

I have sat with priests guilty of sexual assault and coercion, of grooming young men, of acting with serial disregard for the promises of their priesthood and the spiritual health of their victims. I have also sat with priests falsely accused of those things. I have seen problems ignored, and I have seen problems treated with the attention they deserve.

I have seen such priests face justice, and I have sometimes seen them face terrible injustice. I have seen victims mistreated, and victims treated with compassion and respect. I have seen cases in which every rule and protocol is followed, and cases in which most of them are ignored.

Before the initial McCarrick allegations were made public in June 2018, I had already seen some things. As friends dealt with grief and shock, I told some cynically “Now you know why I'm ticked off all the time.”

I had not known about McCarrick, but I knew about clerical abuse, and about the sins of omission and commission that allow it to happen.

The 449 pages of the McCarrick Report detail a story decades long, in which institutional and personal failures allowed a man who abused his power to act with serial and serious immorality — to, put simply, hurt people.

It includes accounts of both cowardice and courage, of institutional blindspots exploited by a manipulator, of naïveté, misplaced kindness, and ill-placed trust, of dysfunction, bureaucratic ineptitude, and malice. The report demonstrates that sin begets sin - it recounts stories of abusers who were themselves abused. It depicts the exploitation of crises for personal gain.

The report documents the damage wrought by a crippling bias towards institutional self-preservation, ironic for a Church that follows a crucified Lord.

There are few heroes: A mother who tried her best to speak out. A priest who blew the whistle to protect seminarians. A cardinal who came to realize, only over time, that he needed to make clear a serious problem.

The McCarrick Report also traces a broad trend of growing awareness of the importance of addressing abuse allegations, and addressing them properly. An increased understanding that presuming on good will is not helpful in the presence of manipulators. Efforts, often faltering, and sometimes failing, to learn from previous mistakes. But even amid that trend, there are appalling personal failures at every stage of McCarrick’s career.

The report does not document, or seem even to consider seriously, how McCarrick’s ambiguous and unmonitored financial situation enabled his decades of abuse. It mentions briefly his ability as a fundraiser, but offers no forensic analysis of his discretionary accounts. U.S. dioceses maintain records of those accounts, and to date have given no indication they plan to release them. 

The report addresses bishops who lied for McCarrick, and about him, to the Holy See, but it does not ask why those bishops were willing to lie. It does not give serious attention to McCarrick’s social networks and their influence on the life of the Church - mention is made of a friend leaking high-level documents to McCarrick in the Vatican, but no attention is given to what influence networks that friend has.  Many analysts have said it does not address whether there remain in ministry bishops who were gravely negligent, or even who compounded or facilitated cover-ups.

It brings many things to light, but the report is not a complete account of the McCarrick affair. A complete account may never emerge. Further, it does not seem to consider present-day implications of McCarrick’s life and ministry, nor to draw lessons for the Church beyond McCarrick.

Questions remain, and those questions are very likely to go unanswered. Catholics expecting to see particular individuals brought to justice seem likely to go disappointed.

And new scandals will inevitably emerge.

Since the retirement of Theodore McCarrick, there have already been some institutional reforms designed to prevent a situation like McCarrick’s from happening again. Institutional audits in U.S. dioceses, review boards, the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi. Pope Francis or the U.S. bishops may well add more layers of policy reform.

But Pope Francis has emphasized that policy reform can not substitute for personal integrity. And the McCarrick Report demonstrates how much personal integrity actually matters. The McCarrick Report will likely bring statements from bishops committing to that personal integrity, and may even inspire real conversion to that effect among some bishops and Church leaders.

Inevitably, though, there will be continued failures in the Church’s life, because the Church is both human and divine: The mystical Body of Christ protected in certain ways by the Holy Spirit, and a community of sinners, each of them in need of a savior, few of them yet saints.

The Church is always and everywhere holy— its members are not usually so.

That paradox is a challenge to every believer.

But the future for the Church in the U.S. seems to depend a great deal on how ordinary Catholics respond to disappointment, discouragement, and somewhat unresolved scandal.

Religious disaffiliation is on the rise in the U.S. - a growing number of Americans identify themselves with no religion, or have no religious practice. And many ordinarly practicing Catholics are out of the habit of going to Sunday Mass, because of the pandemic. It will be unsurprising if the McCarrick scandal exacerbates religious disaffiliation, especially among young Catholics, who say in surveys that they prioritize the perceived personal integrity of leaders ahead of institutional affiliation.

Within the Church, there is a small but growing pocket of Catholics who are increasingly strident toward the authority of the pope and of U.S. bishops. In crises past, pockets like those have eventually become schisms. That seems practically unlikely in the contemporary U.S., but it is not impossible or unprecedented — there are more than 25,000 members of the “Polish National Catholic Church,” a schismatic group that began in the U.S in the early 20th century.

The point is that scandals have the capacity to discourage the practice of the faith, to foster cynicism, anger, bitterness, or indifference.

Hence the personal narrative.

My own experience has taught me that confronting the oft-disappointing humanity of the Church is an exercise in accepting that disappointment is real, and that it can be only be relieved by embracing the cross, and the Crucified Savior.

In the spiritual life, moments of disappointment present a choice: One can nurture anger or indifference, or one can turn to Christ on the cross.

One of those choices brings life, the other does not.

That’s true for the spiritual life, and for the mission of the Church itself.

A movement of Catholics who respond to crisis with an increase of prayer, fasting, charity, and evangelization is counter-intuitive. It is also a counter-witness to the “black eye for the Church” contained in the McCarrick Report. It is confounding, and compelling.

Catholics who seek holiness in times of scandal tend often to be conduits of Christian renewal.

Making such a choice, I long ago learned, is easier said than done. There is very little that is saccharine or romantic about following Jesus, especially when confronted with the sinfulness of the Church’s own leaders. There is often more setback than progress.

Humility helps - remembering our own failures tends to put the sins of others in perspective. Confession and the Eucharist help all the more.

Embracing the cross does not mean accepting or tolerating the presence of sin in the Church. Rather it means both assiduously calling for reform and repenting seriously for one’s own sins and shortcomings. Maintaining communion with the Church, even while helping to rebuild it.

The mission of the Gospel probably has very little to do with tweeking existing policy. A statement of regret from the U.S. bishops’ conference is unlikely to spark a renewal of faith in Jesus Christ.

In the wake of the McCarrick Report, renewal of the Church likely has most to do with whether ordinary Catholics will turn to Christ, and embrace his suffering on the cross. That isn’t easy. But it is the path to eternal life, and, in this life, its consequences might well be surprising.


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