Reform: Fidelity, Law, Humility

Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan and Reformer.

One of my main complaints regarding the reactions to the current crisis is that many good people are high on anger but low on ideas.  Moreover, most people, with the best of intentions, tend only to be able to look at the problem from one angle.  As several more impartial observers have noted from outside the Catholic world, the current crisis conjures up for most people ‘inside’ the typical scapegoats, real or imagined.  For the ‘left’, this is typically the problem of clericalism, networks of secrecy, and the alleged problem of an antiquated sexual ethic, especially where homosexual acts are concerned.  With the ‘right’, this is typically seen as a breakdown of morals, infidelity to the Church’s own beliefs, and the ascendancy of a hierarchy who promote the disintegration of both, whether by word or deed.

Both sides are both correct and incorrect in my estimation.  In the aftermath of my initial article on the #MeToo Clerical Movement, I received a lot of feedback, especially from voices on the Catholic ‘right’, who criticized my take on the whole issue as not focusing enough on the problem of homosexuality and ‘gay clergy’.  I also received criticism that my proposal for canonical processes for the protection of clergy and lay people was just another bureaucratic or administrative reform, and could not accomplish the end of restoration and renewal for which many people of good will yearn.

My response to these voices was the following: these people do not lack in depth in identifying the problems we face.  But they lack in breadth.  It is because they hyperfocus on one issue as the beating heart of systemic evil, that they lack the ability to see the Church not as machine, but as a living organism.  To borrow an analogy from medicine, if a cancer is localized, usually a surgeon can extract the diseased part of the person via surgery.  Thus, a ‘localized’ spiritual contagion, such as liturgical abuse or perhaps a specific moral issue can be remedied with greater pastoral efforts in a particular direction, whether on the local or universal level.  However, if the cancer is diffuse throughout the organism, general remedies are often required: chemotherapy, or other means by which the body may be healed.

We talk a lot as Catholics about our theological and philosophical approach, which has long been identified as the “both-and”.  Christ is both human and divine, God is both three and one, we are both under God’s providence and have free will.  Most crises in Church and State arise not because of one issue, but because of a critical mass of issues, a sort of nexus, a feed back loop which creates severe disorder and prejudices the common good to such an extent that drastic, systemic action is necessary to fix it. So too here, we have several dynamics at the root of our current situation.

I would also like to mention, like in my recent essay on the Holy See’s agreement with China and the problem of ignorance of history, that it belongs to the self-referential nature of the present that we presume that the things we experience are unique to our times.  The fact is, however, the majority of the problems we see today have analogues in previous crises.  There are some things that make the current situation unique, but they are more about the actors than the role they play. Borrowing somewhat from commentators coming from various points of view, I would like to create something of a synthesis, so that we may have a more cohesive, global view of the crisis, as a corrective to some of our natural tendencies.

The first problem in the midst of the current crisis, both in etiology and in distribution, is infidelity.  This is self-evident.  I say this because before we can speak of systemic collapse, we must speak of personal collapse: persons who fail at their moral duties, and so weaken the body politic.  This is as true of the Bishop who consumes the diocesan patrimony with out-of-court hush money, as it is true of the married man who hires prostitutes.  No matter what the nature of the sin, the fact is that all sin deforms and distorts.  Although the majority of the reports of Priestly Sexual Abuse or just plain sin are examples of homosexuality, and certainly that is a problem, it is not the only problem.  The fact is that vows are not being kept, and not only that, but even the simple, basic adherence to Christian and Human morals is being ignored by large swaths of the Body of Christ.  This state of affairs must cease.

The second problem seems to me to be antinomianism.  The situation seems to be much like the predicament of the end of the Book of Judges, “in those days there was no king…every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 RSV).  Why do I say this?  Because although many things have drastically improved, like the fact that reports of abuse by the clergy are at a historic low, the complaint of many years now since 2002 has been that the Bishops largely have played by their own rules.  Moreover, it seems that many people all across the Church, from the Pope to the parish curate, routinely break the Church’s Laws.  For instance, we had the sad experience of the Pope breaking the Church’s own Liturgical Law by washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday for several years before he himself changed the law.  Priests and Pastors all around the world especially are very well aware of the many administrative, contra legem actions of Bishops and Diocesan Curiae which are directly prejudicial to them, examples of which would be too burdensome to enumerate in detail.

In regard to current news, it is now the practice that if there is a serious, credible allegation against a Priest, he is to be placed on administrative leave pending further investigation.  Bishops are largely immune from the same scrutiny.  Most famously now, these same scrutinies have reached the Roman Pontiff, and he has chosen to remain aloof from the accusations against him of essentially obstruction of justice.  Once again, one law applies to the hoi polloi (commoners), another to the aristoi (elites).

I would place the problem of clericalism under antinomianism, because what emerges with any true clericalist is that they believe certain things apply or don’t apply to them as it does to others. They believe this unjustly, and often against the understanding of the Church’s Tradition, which itself is a type of law or norm.  The clericalist who looks down his nose at the laity, and the one who depreciates himself are really just two sides of the same coin: the lack of an appreciation of the difference of roles in a hierarchical Church.  A cleric should have a healthy understanding of his identity, not against the people, but for the people.  The laity should likewise have a healthy understanding of their own identity, not against their clergy, but for them.  What seems to happen is that everyone appropriates to himself things alien to their station: the Priest wants to wear lay clothes and be “one of the guys”, and the lay person wants to administer the sacraments.  The Bishop wants to be a CEO and the Priest wants to be a Social Worker.  All militate against the order of things, or the νομος (nomos/law) which regulates the body.

The third problem is one which no one seems to talk about, and may seem paradoxical, granted what I just said about antinomianism: it is legalism.  G.K. Chesterton once said famously that when the Golden Rule is thrown out, you do not have no law, you have many little ones.  And these little laws are the ones that people insist be strenuously enforced.  I feel on some level that Catholics have picked up some of the same contagion as the rest of the world.  We have all been unquestionably heeding far too much advice from lawyers and politicians than from saints and scholars.  Right now, whether it’s the #MeToo movement or the Kavanaugh hearings for the Supreme Court, we are finding that everyone wants to collapse the concept and practice of Justice to the legal.  For “justice” to be accomplished in the new conception, every jot and title of the law must be strenuously applied without deviance.  What results in some cases is a sort of ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ for Justice writ large, where the cost of attempting to enforce the unenforceable destabilizes and threatens the common good of a society.  This is why Aristotle extolled the virtue of epikeia.  The constant drumbeat of cries to reduce or eliminate the Statue of Limitations for crimes of sexual abuse is one example of this: it is a demand that the law do what it simply cannot, and that is provide absolute justice in a fallen world.  This is also seen in the increasing attempt to enact ex post facto laws, which by definition try to criminalize what was previously not criminal, or ramp up the penalty for something which previously carried a lesser penalty upon conviction.

So while we are a Church of Laws, governed by Divine Law, Natural Law and then Canon Law, we have to recognize that Canon Law and ecclesial governance, being human, will inevitably be insufficient for complete legal justice.  The same is true in the state.  People may have to become comfortable on some level with the fact that the finite resources of the state and the church cannot be employed investigating the unprosecutable.  Such efforts are Sisyphean, and are liable to create more discontent and paradoxically contempt of the law, by insistence that the law be more strictly enforced.

Saint Thomas More is quoted in the famous play A Man for All Seasons that he would “give the devil the benefit of law“, precisely because it is man’s law, for all its imperfection, which ensures relative protections for all people.  What we would deny for some people, will in turn some day be denied to us.  What we insist on for other people, will one day be insisted on for us.  We have to ask whether we are expecting of the Pope and Bishops general standards which are impossible to meet.  However, whether they can and ought to address specific allegations regarding their behavior, I think is a matter not necessarily of legal or canonical obligation, but of moral obligation.  Hence, I believe the Pope absolutely ought to respond to the allegations in the Viganò testimony.   The Pope may be the head of the Church on earth and the Supreme Legislator of Canon Law, and no one in theory may judge him canonically, but as “Servant of the Servants of God”, he will stand before Christ’s judgment seat like the rest of us.  And his judgment will be more severe, not less.  May God have mercy on him.  There is the matter of what he has the right to do, and what is the right thing to do.  He may be able to be silent, and insist upon his inviolability as a juridical person, but with every day that passes, the silence does not manifest the character of an individual patiently suffering persecution, but of a psychologically abusive father who gaslights his children into thinking the problem is not his own, but theirs.  Hence I would count the assertion that exposing empirically verifiable corruption in the Vatican and in the Episcopate is the work of the devil is absolutely offensive.

What are the solutions to the current crisis?  First, I want to make a note for the sake of humility, that neither my own take on the roots of the problems, nor my suggestions for solutions, can or will be exhaustive.  I will leave it to the goodness and creativity of others to continue to discuss constructive and creative solutions which will make the Church stronger, holier and more radiant.  But here are a few of my thoughts as to the remedies to the problems I identified.

Of course, we must have a return to fidelity.  This will first be manifested through repentance.  Everyone must take the Commandments of Christ and the Authoritative Tradition of the Church seriously, and get to the work of fulfilling whatever Christian Duties one possesses according to their state in life.

Secondly, we must have a return to true identity, which is in accord with the Law, both Divine and Ecclesial.  Bishops must stop abusing their Priests.  Priests must stop neglecting their sacred duties and forsaking their identity.  Everyone should dedicate themselves afresh to having a stronger sense of identity based on the sacramental reality of being baptized and/or ordained, and not become a law unto themselves, but humbly and lovingly accept what God has entrusted especially to each one.

Thirdly, we have to have a return to humility, which includes a sober recognition that we may not be able to see perfect justice done here on earth.  The Pope may never talk about the Viganò testimony.  Worse, he may yet stonewall and gaslight the faithful and others who seek to know the truth.  He and his allies may demand that important files be destroyed.  The fact is, we do not possess the means on our own to see that justice, even an imperfect one, is accomplished.  That may fill some people with rage and despair.  But that unfortunately is one of the facts of life here on earth, before Christ comes again and the Great Book is opened.  We may not be able to correct the past, but we can all take steps now to ensure that the future will not be like today, when we all contribute in our own ways to integral faith and Christian living.

We as the faithful must be very careful not to be manipulated or deceived as to what our priorities are. As has been observed by many religion reporters, there are three main tangent circles in the current crisis: first, there is the problem of unchastity among clergy.  That may never entirely go away, simply because the flesh is weak, even the flesh of the ordained.  Secondly, there is the problem of structures of power which encourage these sinful lifestyles, mostly via blackmail and/or mutual promotion. Thirdly, there is the problem of a lack of a present mechanism by which Bishops and hierarchy can be held accountable and encouraged to greater moral probity and transparency.  Although much of the press the past few weeks has been about the PA Grand Jury report, that is not the heart of the matter:  The McCarrick case and the Viganò testimony are.  That is the proverbial ‘head of the fish’.  All three ‘circles’ have something to do with infidelity, antinomianism, and rigid legalism, but the nerve center of it all is in the moral and human rot in the Episcopacy.  My thoughts may change or be refined in the coming weeks and months, but for now, these are my thoughts on the sources of the problems, and the actions and attitudes we can adopt for their resolution.