Cardinal McCarrick, the Sins of the Church, the Faith of the People

Francis and the CardinalCambridge, MA. In every Catholic Mass, just before the exchange of peace that itself precedes communion, the priest prays, "Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you; look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will." Peace flows, from Christ, to the Church, to all God's people, and so we can share communion at the altar.

Thus, the standard order of things. But several decades ago, I was a regular celebrant in a rotation of Jesuits for a Sunday evening Mass on campus at Boston College. One week, a recently ordained Jesuit was the celebrant, and inadvertently, in the prayer for peace before communion, he prayed, “Look not upon the sins of your Church but the faith of your people.” According to the book, it is the other way around, the faith of the Church, the sins of the people. Though I’ve never used his formulation at Mass, I’ve highly approved of his mistake, because it catches an often missed aspect of our experience as Catholics: we are all sinners, but it is the faith of the people – and here I mean all members of the Catholic community, including the hierarchy but with no special privileges or ranks – that keeps us afloat; and it is sometimes the sin of the Church – and here I mean the official hierarchy that reserves responsibility to itself – that nearly sinks us.

This felix culpa, happy mistake, comes to mind when we are faced with the latest scandal in the Catholic community, regarding Cardinal Theodore (“Ted”) McCarrick. It is a particularly disheartening one, to say the least. Many have already written eloquently about it. To name just four: James Martin in America, Ross Douthat in the New York Times, Michael Brendan Dougherty in the National Review, and John Gehring in Commonweal. I am not a Vaticanologist and I haven’t researched the matter on my own, so I can add nothing information-wise to such commentaries: so here is just my own opinion, as one Catholic who is also a priest for 40 years and a Jesuit for 50 years this summer. (Though interested readers might take a look at my last post, on the prophet Amos — who dares to speak up in our society and Church today?)

The scandal is a shameful matter because of the suffering Cardinal McCarrick inflicted on a number of young men, apparently without repenting, over decades. Lives were gravely harmed by his long-running habits of abuse. But it is very discouraging too – and this is the point in this blog – because of the hypocrisy involved, surely on the part of the cardinal himself, but also in the Vatican itself, which reserves to itself the appointment of bishops and cardinals. Either they were entirely incompetent in Rome, or worse:

In an era when the Church was insisting that homosexuality was intrinsically disordered, and indicating that gay men were not to be welcomed in the seminary, the cardinal was sharing his bed with young men, apparently touching them in an explicitly sexual manner — and yet the Vatican gave him its blessings and moved him up the clerical ladder.

In an era when Church leaders were as usual claiming to be better than secular leaders because they used their power only as a way of service, the cardinal was taking advantage of seminarians and young priests whose careers he could help or hinder — and yet the Vatican gave him its blessings and awarded him higher and higher posts on the clerical ladder.

In a most tragic era when the world and most Catholics were horrified at the clergy abuse crisis, the cardinal still carried with him the (apparently open) secret of regularly abusing a boy he had baptized — and yet the Vatican still gave him its blessings and kept him there, near the top of the clerical ladder.

It is hard not to see all this as deep, sustained hypocrisy: to keep saying one thing to the public, so as to cause deep distress for many good men who were/are gay and who also have vocations to priestly ministry, to keep reassuring people that things had changed, even while at the very same time, day after day, rewarding the cardinal, despite his record of transgressions. McCarrick should have known better, there is no excusing him. But Jesus was more tolerant of sinners than of hypocrites, particularly those with religious power:

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23.4)

The sins of commission and omission of a Theodore McCarrick or a Francis Clooney can and do harm the Church, as the sins of every individual Catholic do harm — but not as much as the hypocrisy of those who claim to speak in Christ’s name at the top of the Church. How much damage can “the sins of the Church” do before “the faith of the people” makes the whole edifice collapse, for this generation? (Indeed, the faith of the people, and why it is still there, is the topic for yet another post.)

The prayer for peace at Mass, in its ordinary form, had a certain logic to it, which I cannot dispute: despite our sins, the Church, imbued with the Spirit of Christ, does better than we do, guided in the work of Christ in the world. The Church is never reducible to the sins of its individual members. The precedent is old: Peter, a coward, denied Jesus three times the night before he died, and just a few days later, the risen Jesus reaffirmed him as leader of the new community. But that was grace, not merit, not an excuse for promoting abusers of power to ever greater positions of power. We cannot have a Church whose policy it is to reward professional, clerical sinners with positions of leadership in the Church, while telling other Catholics to repent and reform their lives.

As the commentators have eloquently pointed out, it is not enough to look ahead, refining ever stricter rules, if we don’t trust those who are to enforce the rules. As Juvenal put it, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches over those appointed to watch? Even the best of rules won’t work, if those on top think that for the good of the Church the sins of its leaders — of themselves — can be overlooked. That approach, if it ever worked, can’t work now, particularly when entangled with the Church’s inconsistent teachings and practices regarding sexuality and gender. Peter, appointed leader of the community by Jesus himself, needs to be reprimanded by Paul (the erstwhile Saul) whose authority comes from his own personal and largely private experience of that same Jesus: "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned." (Galatians 2.11)

According to the traditions of the Church, repentance and a firm purpose of amendment require also participation in the sacrament of reconciliation — and this sacrament requires us not to imagine moving forward without also looking back, as any honest examination of conscience requires. The Church needs also to look back and scrutinize with honesty who knew what, when: general expressions of regret count a bit, but as in confession, confession requires some particulars. And sometimes public repentance is required. Who in power were the main enablers of McCarrick during his decades of ascent? Who knowingly and culpably gave him ever greater roles in the Church, despite what he was doing, even as they knew he was doing it? Names need to be named, if clerical sinners are to be forgiven. (Note: as I wrote a while back, the Catholic tradition of repentance is not the easy way out.)

Back to the Mass: If our leaders don’t face up to their grave responsibility at a moment like this, they can hardly keep asking the Lord to look not upon the sins of the people, as if to look instead upon the faith of the Church. God may not be patient with such distinctions, at least right now. Every priest and bishop should be be tempted to pray the uncommon form, “Look not upon the sins of your Church but the faith of your people" - or least to be hesitant and momentarily tongue-tied before moving on to the next words, "...and graciously grant us peace and unity in accordance with your will...", or indeed, stop and do what is right and just, before presuming again to share communion — on the timing of which Jesus had some timely and challenging words: Matthew 5:23-24 —leave your gifts at the altar, make peace and do what is right, and then return to your pious practice. First things first.

(This essay was posted before the cardinal's resignation was accepted by the Pope on July 28.)