2018: Annus Horribilis

Cole Thomas, The Course of Empire: Destruction

A Year In Review

This time of year it is customary for writers to reflect, to the best of their lights, upon the significance of the year which is about to close. This year saw the beginning of this blog, which I began after an insistent pull I received during my Canonical Retreat in February. Little did I know where my writing would take me, with some of these essays making it to the front page of Catholic World Report, and drawing the attention of Priests and Lay Faithful in diverse parts of the world. I am grateful to my readers, and humbled by the opportunity and the duty to provide, to the best of my ability, commentary and analysis in accord with my own high standards of thought, sentiment and Christian virtue. Most of all, I pray all my writing is suffused with love for the Church and individual souls, because without charity, we are but a clashing cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). Although I dislike at times using a nom de plume, the purpose of this relative anonymity is so that my own personality may recede, and that the ideas I wish to present may be at the forefront.

Although in the secular scheme of things, the year 2018 probably wasn’t the best or worst year on record, I think I am justified in calling 2018 a true annus horribilis in regard to ecclesiastical affairs. We have not had such a confluence of destructive and demoralizing events happen perhaps since another infamous annus horribilis, fifty years ago, in 1968.

Cardinal McCarrick

The story broke in the New York Times on July 16, 2018. The nation’s paper of record ran the story that was the proverbial match that lit a global powder keg. There are numerous ironies in the fact that the Old Gray Lady was the executioner of the career of then Cardinal McCarrick: it is well known that the New York Times, as well as other media sources, were relatively well informed about McCarrick’s predilection for Priests and young Seminarians. McCarrick had long been a congenial figure both in Washington and in Rome. He had many powerful friends, and the election of Pope Francis seemed to literally give wings to the octogenarian, as he crisscrossed the world giving talks and influencing events in various parts of the world. His blessing was the cause of the rise of many clerics, and his displeasure, their ruin.

The Cardinal McCarrick story arguably may never had been run if it had not happened that he was accused by a minor. Generally speaking, the newsrooms of the Western World are predominately liberal, and they cannot coherently destroy a cleric for homosexual unchastity if they profess to be ‘allies’ of the same people. For most liberals, sexuality and its multiform expressions are meant to be vigorously celebrated. Sexual freedom is to be maximized. Yet arguably the one thing the press loves more than complete sexual freedom is its atavistic hatred of the Catholic Church and Catholic Priests.

McCarrick was and is the ecclesiastical Harvey Weinstein. Just as the New Yorker broke the story which created the “#MeToo Movement”, so too, when the McCarrick story broke, I sensed that something had tectonically shifted in the ecclesiastical world. Hence, I wrote in July The Emergent #MeToo Clerical Movement, an article which I know struck a nerve with many readers worldwide. Although I received criticism that I had not sufficiently condemned homosexuality as the core problem of the current crisis, I continue to stand by my assertion that it is corruption writ large, not homosexuality alone, which is the problem: certain conservative voices, many of whom I respect, use unhelpful monikers like “homoheresy” or “sodoclericalism”, which I think are histrionic and ugly. They focus, with white-hot intensity, on one particular head of the hydra, while the rest of the creature continues to grind the Church with its teeth.

Going forward into 2019, what distresses me the most about the fallout from the McCarrick scandal is how supine most of the clergy still are. Seemingly no one wants to continue to speak constructively about Church Reform, especially in regard to the nomination of Bishops and the problem of massive non-compliance and non-enforcement of the provisions of Canon Law. McCarrick’s fall uncovered a sprawling network of bishops who are his ideological allies. Almost to a man, they are devoted to compromising the teachings of Christ and his Church, and spare no energy in prostrating the Church before the powers of the world. To date, only Cardinal Wuerl has met with his demise, but there are other prelates out there who are part of the problem.

In the wake of this crisis, I set myself to writing several articles on Reform from various vantage points: spiritual, canonical, historical, etc. Although sometimes I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, I will continue to write these as almost an Ecclesiastical “Federalist Papers”, because ultimately, there is such a paucity of writers out there who want to have the discussion on Church Reform. Movements which are high on passion and low on ideas tend to create more destruction than reform, and the voices on the right especially that are riding that bull should be very careful that they do not get gored when it slips out of their control.

The PA Grand Jury Report

The second major blow to the Church Universal came this August with the release of the PA Grand Jury Report, which described in detail several alleged cases of sexual abuse in all the Dioceses of Pennsylvania, save Philadelphia, which was the focus of a separate report several years ago. The media coverage of the report has been consistently myopic, sensationalistic, and prejudicial to the Church at large. It is my conviction that the PA Grand Jury Report had very little do with justice at all, since the number of prosecutable cases were in the single digits. I also believe this has very little to do with protecting children. If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were truly interested in the welfare of children, they would extend their investigation not only to the Church, but to the organ of the state supposedly dedicated to the education of youth: the public school system. I suspect that if most states did what the City of Chicago just did this year, they would find numbers of cases and degrees of cover up which would make the Catholic Church look like a gathering of Vestal Virgins by comparison. Those awful public school teachers with their vows of celibacy! They have no other choice than to become perverts!

The PA Grand Jury report once again put the Bishops in the crosshairs. The conduct of Priests and Bishops was odious, to be sure. But one fact remains: the PA Grand Jury Report is a portrait of a Church that largely no longer exists, at least in terms of how children are treated. There are numerous mechanisms now in place which have caused even accusations against clergy to drop to an all-time low since the Dallas Charter was adopted in June 2002. Although there are still serious problems with the Dallas Charter, no one can gainsay the success we have had in aggressively addressing the problem of the sexual abuse of minors.

The good to be found in the wake of the PA Grand Jury Report was the proliferation of very good, independent commentary, from The Media Report to Ben Shapiro and on, who sharply criticized both the report and Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro. One great commentary asked, Should That New Grand Jury Report Run on the History Channel? It was consoling to see many rational voices come forward apart from the echo chamber of the Associated Press. Thank God for these men and women who were able to look beyond the hysteria, and ask the important questions.

The PA Grand Jury Report, a report largely about the past, I think was a huge distraction from a present problem which l’affaire McCarrick presented. Yet there was one particularly important man who did not take his eye off the ball.

The Viganò Letters

On August 22, 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò released his “testimony”, which is probably the most remarkable document regarding Church Affairs in the 21st century: it was a direct, frontal attack not only on the conspiracy of silence surrounding McCarrick, but also on the person of Pope Francis himself. Viganò has been roundly calumniated as a disappointed careerist who decided to strike at the Pope and his allies, but I think that narrative is extremely thin. In the intervening months, much of Viganò’s testimony has been corroborated, or more ominously, has not been denied. The Pope has since obliquely likened Viganò to the devil himself. He has since kept rigorous silence regarding the accusations made against him. One wonders if someone should remind the Pope of the old legal dictum, qui tacet consentire videtur. He who keeps silence, seems to give his consent.

It would not take work worthy of a Pulitzer Prize to identify the fact that the Francis Papacy is one completely wrapped up in corruption. Whether it’s cocaine fueled gay orgies attended by curial officials, allegations of financial malfeasance against one of the Pope’s inner circle, the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, or even the direct charge that Francis knew about McCarrick and chose to ignore the information, what emerges to any person willing to connect the dots is that Pope Francis is not a peripheral figure in the malaise of the Church today: he is quite clearly at the center.

Viganò has subsequently released two other letters with further allegations and direct, forceful defenses of himself and his actions. To this day, very few people know where Viganò is hiding.

I do have a few questions about the Viganò testimonies though: for such a shrewd man, why does he not produce the copies of certain documents he claims exist both in Rome and the US Nunciature? Surely he must know that every shredder from here to Samarkand would be employed to destroy said evidence. Fortunately, other voices have emerged to corroborate Viganò’s words, and although liberal commentators may dismiss him, his testimony was a “shot heard around the world”. It is my hope in 2019 that Viganò continues to release more information to the public, so that neither the Pope nor his allies can try to make these facts disappear from our awareness.

Looking Forward

It is almost impossible to predict where 2019 will go, or how much worse the condition of the Universal Church can get. The upcoming February meeting in Rome on the problem of sex abuse is going to be extremely important, especially since the Pope told the US Bishops to cease and desist from addressing the issue in their November meeting, which caused a considerable uproar.

The fact remains that the problems of 2018 can be reduced to one word: Bishops. All the problems we are experiencing are because of their ineptitude and cowardice, if not their plainly evil actions. We need to pray for them and stand by the good ones, so that they too may recover their spine, and with it, their dignity. There is no group in the Catholic Church today simultaneously more irrelevant and held in contempt as Catholic Bishops. It need not be that way, and if we insist upon the necessary changes, we can reasonably hope that our Bishops will be more Priests, Prophets and Kings than Psychotherapists, Public Relations Specialists, and Chief Financial Officers.

Finally, there are a few things that I think are important to remind our Shepherds, and ourselves:

  • First, the time for silence is over. Silence is part of what got us into this mess: silence about sex abuse, silence about serious and public sins, silence about the moral teachings of Christ and the Church, silence in the face of a hostile and aggressive secular state. It is time for the Bishops to find their voice, and cease being like the dogs who have forgotten how to bark, as the Prophet Isaiah said (Isaiah 56:10). There is a silence which is strength, which comes from interior tranquility in the face of evil. Yet there is another silence which is complicity with evil. If you know something, speak! If something must be done, act! “Whoever knows the right thing to do, yet fails to do it, it is a sin for him.” (James 4:17)
  • Second, Bishops and Priests need to rediscover what obedience is, and what it isn’t. Obedience is not an evangelical counsel opposed to conscience and reason. If a superior orders something gravely immoral, you are not being virtuous in carrying it out. On the contrary, you share the guilt. In fact, you have a duty to resist an evil command. The fact, though, is that most Priests are scared. They are scared of losing their livelihood and reputation if they dare speak out. Dear Fathers, we need to understand something: Bishops need us more than we need them. If your Bishop is doing something which is clearly wrong, you have a duty to resist him. Bishops, if your Priests are doing something clearly wrong, you have a duty to correct them. Bishops, you even have a duty to resist the Pope, if it comes to that. Some may say you are destroying the unity of the Church by doing that, and that you promote a schism. Don’t let these people gaslight you, and lay the problem they created at your feet. The fact is that their attacks on the integrity of the Church’s teachings and morals are a far more powerful solvent than questioning the leaders of the institution. We are for a Church which is holier, more faithful, and more dedicated to her mission to proclaim the Gospel to every man and woman. Are you?
  • Third, over and above a return to Gospel teachings, we need to vigorously undo the antinomianism of the past fifty years. But we can’t stop the rot if we ourselves don’t have our affairs in order. Fathers, follow the laws of the Church which govern your state of life: wear your ecclesiastical habit, or “clerical attire”. Don’t let people turn you into a Mass-Machine, and try to be attentive to the word “necessity” in “pastoral necessity.” Prepare your homilies well and preach them well. Study with care theology and other subjects germane to your vocation. Don’t practically forsake your sacramental orientation to the Most Holy Eucharist by employing an army of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Don’t “farm out” your sacramental duties. Celebrate the Sacred Liturgy with dignity and devotion, and avoid all banality. Take your Canonical Retreat and be present and zealous in your pastoral responsibilities, not going over the allotted time for vacation as Canon Law prescribes. I don’t say this because these are my hobby horses, but because we don’t have any business talking about Bishops and lay people who routinely violate both moral and canonical laws if we act even worse.

Finally, the most important thing I think I can say about the events of 2018, and in anticipation of 2019, is: do not lose heart! As distressing as these times are, hard times are also the crucible which make great men and women. At the same time, scandal-mongering is not being pro-reform. There are several groups that make quite a lot of celebrity and money by being the avant-garde in criticizing episcopal and priestly behavior. We must resist this temptation, if only because anger and outrage can easily be used by the devil to rob us of peace and a true interior life. It is a good thing to have one’s eyes open, to see life and reality for what they are. Yet it is another to be so blinded by rage that we can no longer conceptualize our goals.

2018 was a year of a thousand problems. May 2019 be a year of solutions. Each one of us possesses a piece of these solutions. By the grace of God, we will prevail.