Thoughts on the McCarrick Crisis: How Are We to Respond to These Horrors?

There is no shortage of commentary on the crisis engulfing the Church since the revelation that credible accusations of sexual abuse have been lodged against now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Some of the better commentaries have been offered by J. D. Flynn, Ross Douthat, and Ralph Martin. I encourage you to read them, but keep in mind that it is not pleasant reading. However, none of these commentaries include graphic details.

To summarize for those unaware, accusations that Abp. McCarrick abused boys and seminarians have been found to be credible by the review board of the Archdiocese of New York. Pope Francis asked for and received from McCarrick his resignation from the College of Cardinals (as such, he is no longer to be referred to as Cardinal McCarrick, but Archbishop McCarrick), and the Holy Father has instructed him to enter a life of prayer and repentance while the possibility of an ecclesial trial is considered. I understand that the accusations are of abuse that took place some years ago. What is equally disturbing is that it is now established that for many years, even decades, several people, including bishops and cardinals, knew of Abp. McCarrick’s history of abuse but did nothing to stop it, so McCarrick continued to be promoted to bishop, then archbishop and, finally, cardinal even in the face of this knowledge. Abp. McCarrick was even an adviser to Pope Francis on what men should be named bishops in the United States, though nothing I’ve read on the matter has given any indication that Pope Francis was aware of the history of abuse. It’s possible or even likely, then, that there are bishops and archbishops in this country who hold their positions partly on the recommendation of Abp. McCarrick.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement acknowledging the “grievous moral failure” of those in the Church and has convened the Executive Committee of the USCCB to discuss how the bishops should respond to the scandal.

For the Catholic faithful, the obvious question that arises in light of the McCarrick scandal is: What is the Catholic in the pew to do? How are we to respond to these horrors? Here are some thoughts that come to my mind:

First, keep one’s perspective. Just as when revelations of the sexual abuse crisis among the priesthood first broke in 2002, it is important to keep certain truths in mind. The first truth is that the Church is the Body of Christ and the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ. The current scandal, just as no past scandal and no future scandal, cannot change that. That is a truth revealed by Jesus Himself, not a man-made claim by popes, bishops, or priests. So, none of the sins of popes, bishops, or priests can change this reality because the reality of the Church is not dependent on them, but on Jesus. The Church is not the Church because her members are perfectly faithful to Christ. The Church is the Church because Christ is perfectly faithful. The Church possesses the rich deposit of faith that God has revealed to us for the sake of our salvation. Truth is not contingent on the one who proclaims or teaches it. Your math teacher may have been a jerk, he may have been an abuser himself, but that doesn’t change the truth that 2+2=4. Just so, Abp. McCarrick’s sins are many and heinous. It may be that you yourself were a victim of the sins of a priest or religious or a parent who pretended to be a good Catholic. None of that changes the truth of God’s revelation in Christ, including the truth that the Church is the instrument of that revelation.

The second truth to keep in mind is that we are all sinners. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). If you’re tempted to imagine that Abp. McCarrick’s sins are surely so horrible that he is unworthy of the mercy of God, but your sins are not so horrible, than you are a heretic and a fool! Satan and the secular elites surely want you to come to this conclusion. They want you to conclude that Abp. McCarrick and those who enabled him are greater sinners than you. This will make it easier to justify leaving the Church and abandoning Christ’s Body and His grace and mercy. But, bishops and priests represent only a tiny minority of the Catholic population. The vast majority of Catholics are lay persons. That means that the vast majority of the sins committed by Catholics are committed by lay persons. How many of us fall to the temptation to put ourselves and our perceived needs first and foremost? How many of us are more interested in protecting our personal reputations and positions than in standing for the truth? When we are challenged by others or by circumstances at work or at home or wherever to set aside the priorities of the Gospel, do we fall easily? Do we deny Christ to save ourselves embarrassment, humiliation, financial or physical stress, or a loss of place in the esteem of others? How is it, then, that the sins of others justify our abandoning the Body of Christ? St. Francis de Sales said, “While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal – who allow scandal to destroy faith – are guilty of spiritual suicide.” Ask yourself: What is our faith? Is our faith that we are so holy that we have no need of the mercy of God? No! Our faith is that we are sinners in need of redemption, that Christ has won for us that redemption, and that the Father is eager to forgive and restore us to life (Luke 15:11-32).

The third truth is that Jesus never promised that His Church would be free of sin or scandal. In fact, He warned us of them. In the parable of the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), Jesus told us that the Church would suffer sinners. Jesus sows the good seed, but the enemy steals in at night and plants weeds. There have been enemies of the Church, enemies within the Church, who have giddily planted weeds among the wheat over the centuries. Our age is no different. Every age has suffered. In the eleventh century, St. Peter Damian condemned the plague of homosexuality and pederasty that infected the clergy of his time. “Alas, it is shameful to speak of it!” St. Peter said. “It is shameful to relate such a disgusting scandal to sacred ears! But if the doctor fears the virus of the plague, who will apply the cauterization? If he is nauseated by those whom he is to cure, who will lead sick souls back to the state of health?” St. Catherine of Siena lamented the “stench of sin” in the papal court of the middle fourteenth century, the homosexual activity and the covering up of such by religious superiors. None of this in new to the Church. These sins and so many others have speared the heart of Christ over the course of Church history, from the betrayal of Judas, Christ’s own disciple, to the current flock of bishops who betray Him by their accommodating the sins of their priests and fellow bishops.

Second, consider the whole truth. While the sins of clergy and other Catholics are surely part of the Church’s story, they are not the whole story. They never have been and are not now. The Church does remarkable work for the sake of others. First and foremost is the preaching of the Word and the grace poured out through the sacraments. The Church is the instrument of God’s revelation to humankind for the sake of our salvation, and many in the Church are faithfully doing yeoman’s work in proclaiming the Good News of our salvation to the world. The Masses celebrated, the Baptisms, Anointings, and Confirmations administered, the Confessions heard – what graces bestowed! How can they be measured? Should the sins of some priests be given greater consideration than the good work so many priests do in this country and around the world in service to both the temporal and spiritual needs of the faithful and to all who come in need, regardless of nationality, race, or creed? How many billions of hours of service do Catholics provide in service to others? How many billions of dollars do Catholics donate to assist others in need? How many schools, hospitals, clinics, adoption agencies, shelters, food pantries, prison ministries, immigration services, etc… has the Church founded over the world over the centuries? Satan and his henchmen would have you believe that the Church’s care for the poor and lowly amounts to nothing more than scraps from garbage heaps, if existent at all. In truth, no other institution in the history of the world has contributed more to the care of the poor, the infirm, the imprisoned, the lowly, the destitute, the lost than the Catholic Church. No other institution in existence today does more. None of this will make headlines. All of it is part of the Church’s story.

Third, commit to personal holiness. Any crisis of infidelity in the Church can only, ultimately, be effectively addressed by greater fidelity. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of holiness among bishops and priests. However, I am not speaking here primarily of the holiness of bishops and priests, but of the Catholics who sit in the pews every Sunday. Where is our heart? Where is our faith? How committed are we to personal holiness and to the life of faith and the battle against sin and selfishness? How often to we choose a television show or movie, a few extra moments on social media or surfing the internet, or a few extra minutes of sleep over a commitment to personal prayer and devotion? This is no time for spiritual laxity, any more than it is a time for moral laxity. The Church needs our prayers. The pope, bishops, priests, deacons, and religious need our prayers. Victims of abuse need our prayers and, yes, so do those who have committed abuse. I challenge everyone reading this to take on an added devotion and offer that for the health and holiness of the Church and of all her members. The Church does not merely belong to bishops and priests, but to all of us. We all have a responsibility to care for her well-being and spiritual support. There are so many prayers and devotions from which Catholics can choose: daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, daily rosary, devotions to the Sacred Heart and to the Immaculate Heart, the Divine Mercy chaplet, etc… There are also sacrifices that can be made: meatless Fridays, regular fasts, offerings of time, talent, or treasure to support any one of the myriad ministries of the Church. I have never been one to be overly militaristic in my religious imagery, but perhaps this is the time to renew our understanding of ourselves as the saints militant, those dedicated to Christ here on earth battling the forces of evil both for the sake of our own salvation and for that of the whole world. The enemies of the Church are many, strong, and unrelenting. We cannot afford to be less so in our defense of the faith. Satan has many demons doing his bidding. The Church needs saints serving Christ faithfully.

Fourth, commit to the teachings of the Church. Not only is personal holiness required, but so too is fidelity to the teachings of the Church, the revelation of God given to us for our salvation. In our culture dominated by secular values of tolerance and diversity, our desire to be genuinely respectful of others can sometimes morph into a syncretism that regards all faiths as equal and inappropriately exalts personal opinion as personal truth. This can lead to a watering-down of one’s confidence in the truth of the faith, as if the revelation of God in Christ is simply one among a multitude of religious, spiritual, and moral traditions. But, the truth is the truth, and the notion that there are many truths, or competing truths, or even personal truths is a ploy of the devil. Bishops, priests, deacons, and religious do poor service to the Gospel when they compromise the fullness of God’s revelation, creating doubts and confusion in the minds of the faithful over our responsibility to embrace and proclaim all that Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). Yes, some bishops with well-earned reputations for orthodoxy have failed to diligently apply the reforms adopted by the bishops in the early 2000’s and have fallen to the temptation to put concern over the Church’s public reputation ahead of concern for the safety of children. Even still, it is clear that the majority of clerics who have failed the Church in the matter of the abuse crisis have been less committed to the fullness of Church teaching, especially on matters of morality and especially on matters of sexual morality. Too many have been too willing to accommodate moral laxity or even infidelity. Hand-in-hand with this attitude of compromise is the trumpeting of a false compassion, believing that tolerating activity that the Lord has condemned is a legitimate means of boosting the faith and self-esteem of persons committed to habits or lifestyles of grave immorality. As members of Christ’s Body, it is our responsibility to provide correction to those who would diminish the fullness of God’s truth and hamper others in their efforts to live the Gospel faithfully by excusing or accommodating false teaching or immoral living, even if those who require correction are our bishops or priests. We cannot hesitate to proclaim the truth boldly, with passion, and with confidence in the face of a culture that will condemn anything other than the full acceptance and affirmation of lifestyles contrary to the Gospel. It is nothing less than our duty to Christ and His Church, Who merit pride of place and devotion in our hearts and minds.

Finally, listen to the children and to all who raise concerns. If anyone reports to you abuse or concerns about abuse, listen attentively and take them seriously. Yes, we must be careful not to jump too quickly to assumptions of guilt, and concern has been raised that the standard of “credible accusation” has been reduced to nothing more than “not entirely impossible.” I myself have been the target of a false accusation by a mother who attempted to cover up her own physical abuse of her child by pointing a finger at me. Sadly, those who did not know me were quick to believe her. But, in most cases the truth will out. I recently read an article in the New York Times about one of Abp. McCarrick’s victims. He was just a boy when the abuse started. It took him four or more years to get up the courage to tell his father. But, when he did, his father dismissed the boy’s report out of deference to his friend, Fr. McCarrick. You can read my post on this here. How many other victims could have been spared and how much damage to the faithful could have been avoided if this boy’s father had listened and taken his son seriously! Just as we should not be too quick to assume guilt, so we should not be too quick to dismiss reports of abuse. Create a relationship of trust with your children so they feel safe coming to you about anything. Then, when they do come to you, listen and take them seriously.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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