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Sacrament Factory Blown To Smithereens

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The Catholic academic Larry Chapp offers his take on the McCarrick Report, the Vatican’s 400-page analysis of how former cardinal Theodore McCarrick became one of the great power brokers in the contemporary Catholic Church despite having been a homosexual lecher. The report is rather deficient, for reasons Chapp explains. But first, some background from him:

As I have mentioned before, when I was in the seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s (Emmitsburg, Maryland) from 1981-85 I knew several seminarians from the diocese of Metuchen during the time that McCarrick was bishop there.  In fact, one of them was my roommate for a year.  And he and others told me that McCarrick had a habit of inviting seminarians to his beach home at the Jersey shore for little weekend parties wherein McCarrick was constantly drunk and was very prone to groping people inappropriately while drunk and that he routinely selected one of the seminarians to share a bed with him for the night.  Therefore, to say that it was an open secret that McCarrick was a pervert is a gross understatement.  Because it was no secret at all.  Everyone knew about these “rumors” and everybody joked about it.  Indeed, even one of the seminary professors, a priest, upon hearing that McCarrick was going to visit the seminary warned many of us to stay away from “Bishop Howdy Doody” as he called him.

I eventually left the seminary and moved on with my career as an academic, but I always kept one eye on the rise of McCarrick to high office.  And when he was made Archbishop of Washington, and then later a Cardinal, I just could not fathom, in my naivete, why somebody had not blown the whistle on the guy.  I could not get my mind around how such a manifest sexual deviant and drunken ecclesiastical party boy, had gotten so far.

It was the worst-kept secret of the Catholic Church on the East coast, but it stayed a secret because nobody who had first-hand knowledge of it, and could have blown the whistle, actually would. I know this because I tried to get them on the record; they wouldn’t do it. You can imagine how hard it was to me, as a journalist and a Catholic (at the time), to take phone calls from priests telling me everything they knew about McCarrick, and urging me to do something about him … but not willing to go on the record themselves. This is the main reason why the story was so untold for so long.

Chapp says the McCarrick Report does hit the nail on the head from time to time. It grieves him that a hero of his, St. John Paul II, was so deaf to the pleas of abuse victims. But the Report misses the mark, in Chapp’s view:

However, even after taking all of that into account, I also think such analyses fall short of the mark because they do not analyze the actions that were taken with regard to McCarrick by his fellow prelates through the lens of a performative reduction.  And by that I mean that our tendency is to analyze such things too abstractly and our questioning never rises to the level of asking the concrete question of what the performative actions of the prelates in question tells us about what it is they truly believe – – or, as the case may be, what they do NOT believe.  Because if we know one thing for certain after the revelations of massive priestly sexual abuse and its cover up, it is that this is not a problem peculiar to either liberals or conservatives and it cuts across the ideological spectrum like a hot, searing, scalpel that lacerates to the bone.  Nor is it reducible to the inaction of a single pope or popes, who failed to “govern” the Church with due diligence.  Nor is this an issue that is largely a matter of “bad policies” that can be fixed with “charters” and absurd “Virtus training programs” for lay people who, for crying out loud, are not the core of the problem. In fact, the presence of Virtus training programs is actually a symptom of the problem insofar as it represents nothing more than a nod to the lawyers and insurance companies.  It is also a cynical exercise in deflection.  Cynical, because they don’t really think it will work (nor do I think that they care if it does or does not).  And “deflection” because it is merely an attempt to foster the illusion that “something is being done.”

My claim is actually more shocking – – some would even say “dark”. My claim is that the concrete actions taken with regard to McCarrick in particular, and the entire sexual abuse issue in general, tells us that many (most?) of our priests and bishops are de facto atheists.  They may overtly give public statements of faith, perform the Sacraments, kneel dutifully before the Blessed Sacrament, bless boats and homes and pets, all the while being “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis puts it. I would further add the following: most lay people in the American Church today are also de facto atheists who, therefore, swim in the same cultural soup of cultivated spiritual mediocrity.

Those lines put me back to a walk through Manhattan I was taking with a Catholic priest friend, in 2002, as we were all struggling with the enormity of the abuse scandal. As we walked around Columbus Circle, I told my priest friend that I simply could not grasp, as a Christian, why priests would do this, and bishops would allow them to get away with it. I’ll never forget the priest’s answer: “Because they don’t believe in God.” He went on to say that you could not understand the abuse crisis except in relation to the broader crisis of faith within the Catholic Church.

Now, eighteen years later, here is Larry Chapp saying the same thing. In the end, the McCarrick Report makes him angry for what it does not say:

And so as I read the summaries of the McCarrick report and skim through its many pages my overall reaction is a mixture of anger (as I said at the beginning, everyone knew.  EVERYONE), sadness (for McCarrick’s victims, some of whom were my friends, and for the Church) and disappointment that the deeper issue that what really afflicts the Church is a deep, deep loss of faith was never addressed.  I get that the report was not meant to delve into such deeper issues, and yet … damn it, it should have since without it the entire report just becomes a cataloging of failures without a point.  This is, after all, a document of the Church and not the cold analysis of a corporation inquiring after why its market share has gone down.

But that’s just it: the men who run the Catholic Church, too many of them have turned the Church into the Sacrament Factory. And too many of the laity are happy with that, and don’t want it disrupted.

Read his entire post.

This is not just a Catholic thing, as his post should make clear.  This is the world we all live in. The crisis manifests in different ways in different churches, but we all live and worship under its cloud. I’m guilty of it too. If I really believed in God as I should, I would live differently in small but important ways. I know this. Every time I choose to stay online, reading another essay, and put off nightly prayer, I know exactly who I am, and why I do this. I am not an atheist. But I am not the Christian I should be. I do not love God with all my heart. I do not love my neighbor as myself. I don’t even much love myself.

That said, let’s not lose one of Chapp’s core points about the McCarrick Report: it represents a failure, even after all these years, of the Catholic institution to tell itself the truth about itself. Among my friends, the most committed Catholics remain Catholic because they genuinely believe that the Catholic Church is the ordinary means of salvation established by Christ. But they don’t expect anything from the institution but mediocrity. A Catholic father, lamenting the situation at his kids’ Catholic high school in a big football city, said, “They don’t expect anything more out of these kids than that they will become champion tailgaters.” The idea that the Church and its educational institutions exist for something beyond themselves — that has been lost in many places.

I can’t tell you how it is with us Orthodox Christians, because we are so very small in the US. I can tell you from talking to my Protestant friends, they are going through the same thing, though it shows up differently. At the moment, so many of the Evangelicals are reacting against the excesses of right-wing politicization in their ranks by leaping uncritically into left-wing politicization. It’s all so despairing, because it is a way of avoiding the problems.

This e-mail just came in from an Evangelical:

I think I’m one of those young people. I’m 29, and I recently left my church I had been growing distanced from because of MAGA when the pandemic sent people off the deep end. Misconduct and conspiracy theories nearly drove me to suicide.

I’m picking up the pieces with Kent & Rosaria Butterfield now, trying to figure out where to go from here. I’m still not 100% sure I believe in Christ anymore.  I had always been the first to say that the conduct of Christians doesn’t control the truth or falsehood of Christ’s resurrection. But I’m trying desperately to cling on now.
1. If Christians will believe anything, if their discernment is so sick, what about the resurrection? If Christians are so stupid, what if the disciples were too, and they’re just delusional about the resurrection?
2. I thought Christ was supposed to discipline his Church. What about Hebrews 12 discipline? 1 Corinthians 11 discipline? Acts 5 discipline? Where is that? It’s not the actions of Christians themselves that bother me … but the apparent inaction of Christ. I want to scream at God and demand him to discipline his Church or else. And if that discipline and judgement has to start with me, at least I’d feel loved — that’s what Hebrews 12 is about.
It’s stupid of me. You know you should fear God. You know that when you say that … it’s the extreme version of “Be careful what you wish for … because if you ask God for patience, he might teach it to you the hard way.” Who knows what I could bring on myself?
But I just want Daddy to treat me like a son.

I just want Daddy to treat me like a son. See? The hurt, the disillusionment, the felt absence of authority, and the rawness of it all. Me, I just want to sit with this young man, and say, “I’ve been there, and it hurts, and there’s no easy way out.” It took years to heal after having my Catholic faith ripped out of me, and to see that what had drawn me first to it as a young man was the craving I had for a father figure who didn’t reject me. I projected all that need onto John Paul II. When I learned how worthless the fathers — bishops, but even the Bishop of Rome — were at protecting children from predators among their own, it was shattering to me at a level far beyond propositional thinking.

Yet by the grace of God, I remain a Christian. Jesus had been there too, saying to his Father as he hung on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

These are not problems that can be white-knuckled through, or pushed to the side, or solved with bureaucratic acts, or building better coffee bars in the narthex and buying a more sophisticated lighting system.

What do you do when the Sacrament Factory (or Protestant equivalent thereof) has been blown to smithereens? Because that’s where we are. All of us. Flannery O’Connor said that faith is walking in darkness, not a theological solution to a mystery. Think about that.

UPDATE: From a Catholic parish priest:

Just some thoughts on Chapp.  I actually disagree with his assertion that there is a crisis of belief in the priesthood.  That is not my experience at all.  Even the liberal priests I am friendly with definitely believe in Jesus.  I also think most bishops believe in Jesus.
Honestly, there is no motivation to be a priest if you don’t have faith.  Why would I give up a wife and family?  Most of us wouldn’t.  Or even a better, more secure life?  The benefits of the job are not enough to keep me if I didn’t truly believe I had made a vow to the Lord.  I know most priests feel the same.
Regarding safe environment programs.  I am quite sure these are being done to satisfy the demands of insurance companies.  They aren’t going to keep covering churches with liability insurance if they don’t think bishops are doing enough to protect the church from abuse.  I don’t think these programs and initiatives would have been started by the bishops themselves to draw cover, I think they are being made to do it under threat of losing coverage.  I have that on pretty good authority.
Because of how the bishops have mishandled this whole thing, they are now being controlled by concerns of liability.  There is no more connection between bishops and priests.  Bishops will say the right words, but they treat all priests and lay people like potential liabilities.  Ironically, they don’t actually provide us with training to avoid potential problematic situations (I don’t mean abuse) I mean they don’t teach us how to avoid liability.  Instead, they continue to tell us to enter into situations that could put us at risk for false accusations.
It’s too easy of an answer to say the problems in the church are because of a lack of faith.  Also, remember your history.  It has been much worse for the Church when it comes to corruption.  If I were to identify one thing that seems to be the source of the problem it always revolves around institutional preservation.  I think the bishops truly believe the church is a source of good in the world.  This has led many of them to limit public knowledge of the moral failures of its clerics.  Not because they don’t think it’s evil, but because they know the damage that can come from that scandal.  And, to be sure, clerics do have a right to privacy.  Not when they abuse kids or embezzle money.  There is a limit.  But I don’t think it would be good for the church to expose every single moral failure of its priests.  People don’t have the right to know everything about us.  This sounds contradictory, but I think one of the problems in the church is that the laity want their priests to be saints.  I don’t mean after they die, I mean now.  I don’t know one.  If sanctity were required of clerics most of the apostles wouldn’t have qualified nor some men who ended up being rather significant saints.
There is this mirage created by clerics and maintained by the laity that priests are holier than everyone else.  One of the good things that has come out of these scandals is people don’t automatically believe this anymore.  Clerics have to earn the trust and confidence of their people.  I think that’s the way it should be.  Also lay people are more ready to speak up if they think their priest isn’t truly caring for them.  Another good thing.
Lastly, the church isn’t done.  The episcopacy is a mess and has lost its credibility for probably a number of generations.  But when a priest truly loves his people and cares for them.  When he teaches them the truth in love, they respond.  And there are parishes where this is happening.  People still want to be Catholic, but they hunger for authenticity from their clergy, not mere posturing.
If I were a bishop, I would spend the majority of my time and money on continuing to form my priests.  They basically ordain us and then leave us to our own designs.  I would put in place numerous levels of formation and training, including elements like psychotherapy and emotional support.  It would be intensive and ongoing.   But I don’t know a bishop who is doing anything like this.  It’s just business as usual and hope for the best.  After all, now they can just import extra priests from Africa and Asia to replace them.
Just some thoughts.  I’ve probably told you this stuff before.  I have to say, though, that my priesthood right now is really quite wonderful and people are coming from all around the city to be a part of the parish.  They are happy and joyful and they love the Lord.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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