Home/Rod Dreher/The Catastrophic Cost Of Secrets & Lies

The Catastrophic Cost Of Secrets & Lies

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Nicola Bertolini/Shutterstock)

I know all the Catholic scandal posting is exhausting and irritating some of you readers. I want to point out, though, why this is such a massively important story. Here is a column by Damian Thompson, writing in The Spectator, laying out the stakes. Thompson points out that Canon 332 of the Roman Code of Canon Law states that a pope’s resignation can only be valid if he has not been pressured into doing it. More:

According to some canon lawyers, any Pope compelled to resign by scandal cannot be said to have made his decision of his own free will – even if he insists that he is doing so. (Note that Benedict XVI, when he astonished the college of cardinals by resigning, stressed that the decision was his alone – and no one of any consequence has disputed this: it was a bolt from the blue.)

It’s likely that, in these circumstances, Francis loyalists would jump on Canon 332 and use it to justify their refusal to recognise any successor as pope.

The result? Schism, surely. One can imagine a situation in which some dioceses or parishes recognise Francis as pope, while others declare their loyalty to the new man. The Church would be plunged back into the medieval turmoil of rival papacies, of popes and antipopes.

This explains why some conservatives would rather see Francis remain as an utterly discredited pope than contemplate a resignation.

And yet…if Viganò is shown to be telling the truth, and the Vicar of Christ was in league with a man he had been told was a wicked sex abuser, how can Catholics be expected to go to Mass and pray for ‘Francis, our Pope’? Dioceses and parishes will secede from Rome in some way or other, even if they stop short of schism (that is, formally rejecting the authority of the Roman pontiff). Can one blame them?

Medieval analogies notwithstanding, there is no precedent for the escalating chaos in the Catholic Church. And the individual chiefly responsible for that – whatever his degree of culpability in the case of McCarrick, and bearing in mind the failings of previous popes – is Francis.

We are talking about a possible schism in the Roman Catholic Church — something that hasn’t happened in a major way since the Reformation. There could hardly be a bigger religion story than that in our time.

Whether Archbishop Vigano is a good man or not, he has made some specific charges, and named names. The most serious things he has alleged are things he would have been in a position to know. Leaving aside the allegations about homosexual conspiracies in the Vatican, here’s what matters most about the Vigano statement:

1. That Pope Benedict XVI put Cardinal McCarrick on restrictions (which he flouted) at some point after Vigano reported to Rome about McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians. Vigano wrote:

In any case, what is certain is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick and that they were communicated to him by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Pietro Sambi. Monsignor Jean-François Lantheaume, then first Counsellor of the Nunciature in Washington and Chargé d’Affaires a.i. after the unexpected death of Nuncio Sambi in Baltimore, told me when I arrived in Washington — and he is ready to testify to it— about a stormy conversation, lasting over an hour, that Nuncio Sambi had with Cardinal McCarrick whom he had summoned to the Nunciature. Monsignor Lantheaume told me that “the Nuncio’s voice could be heard all the way out in the corridor.”

2.That Benedict’s restrictions on McCarrick were widely known among senior curial cardinals:

Pope Benedict’s same dispositions were then also communicated to me by the new Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in November 2011, in a conversation before my departure for Washington, and were included among the instructions of the same Congregation to the new Nuncio.

In turn, I repeated them to Cardinal McCarrick at my first meeting with him at the Nunciature. The Cardinal, muttering in a barely comprehensible way, admitted that he had perhaps made the mistake of sleeping in the same bed with some seminarians at his beach house, but he said this as if it had no importance.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current Secretary of State, was also complicit in covering up the misdeeds of McCarrick who had, after the election of Pope Francis, boasted openly of his travels and missions to various continents. In April 2014, the Washington Times had a front page report on McCarrick’s trip to the Central African Republic, and on behalf of the State Department no less. As Nuncio to Washington, I wrote to Cardinal Parolin asking him if the sanctions imposed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict were still valid. Ça va sans dire that my letter never received any reply!

The same can be said for Cardinal William Levada, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Cardinals Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Lorenzo Baldisseri, former Secretary of the same Congregation for Bishops, and Archbishop Ilson de Jesus Montanari, current Secretary of the same Congregation. They were all aware by reason of their office of the sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict on McCarrick.

Cardinals Leonardo Sandri, Fernando Filoni and Angelo Becciu, as Substitutes of the Secretariat of State, knew in every detail the situation regarding Cardinal McCarrick.

Nor could Cardinals Giovanni Lajolo and Dominique Mamberti have failed to know. As Secretaries for Relations with States, they participated several times a week in collegial meetings with the Secretary of State.

3. That on June 23, 2013, Vigano personally told Pope Francis about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, to no avail:

Immediately after, the Pope asked me in a deceitful way: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?”  I answered him with complete frankness and, if you want, with great naiveté: “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”

Whether or not there is a network of gay cardinals in the Curia and throughout the Church is a very important issue, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important questions, in ascending order of importance, are:

  1. Did Pope Benedict XVI put Cardinal McCarrick on restrictions over his sexual behavior with seminarians?
  2. Who in the Roman curia knew that Cardinal McCarrick sexually abused seminarians, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?
  3. Did Pope Francis know about McCarrick, and if so, why did he rehabilitate McCarrick as an adviser and personal emissary?

About the first question, Monsignor Lantheaume has confirmed, tersely, that “Vigano said the truth.” That doesn’t settle the matter, of course, but it’s a point in Vigano’s favor.

The National Catholic Register reported that unnamed sources close to Benedict confirmed that as pope, he put restrictions on McCarrick. On Tuesday, the German newspaper Tagespost reported that Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, responded to a New York Times claim, attributed to an American on the board of the Register‘s parent company, that Benedict had confirmed the report on restrictions. Tagespost:

“Pope Benedict has not commented on the ‘memorandum’ of Archbishop Viganò and will not do so,” Gänswein told the newspaper. The claim that the emeritus Pope had confirmed the statements lacked any foundation. “Fake news!” says Gänswein.

That is not a denial that Benedict placed restrictions on McCarrick. That is a denial that Benedict had been asked directly about the allegation. It’s clear that Benedict doesn’t want to have anything to do with this controversy, but that’s not the same thing as saying that Vigano’s claim is false. Note well: Gänswein is not saying that Benedict did not restrict McCarrick; he’s saying that Benedict did not confirm this prior to its being reported by the Register. Edward Pentin of the Register says, accurately, that in his reporting, he did not say that the Pope Emeritus did such a thing. 

Pope Benedict XVI could clarify matters by answering this simple question: “Did you impose restrictions on Cardinal McCarrick?” But he’s obviously not willing to be part of this controversy.

Pope Francis could put this entire thing to rest if he would sit for an interview with a respected journalist, and answer the questions:

Did you know about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct?

Did Vigano tell you about it in 2013?

Did Pope Benedict restrict McCarrick, and if so, why did you not observe those restrictions?

If you knew that he had molested seminarians, why did you rehabilitate McCarrick? Why did you wait until the Archdiocese of New York found in 2018 that he had molested a minor before removing him from ministry?

Pope Francis could also help dispel this controversy by ordering every one of the cardinals named by Vigano as part of the McCarrick cover-up to sit for independent interviews, and address the allegations pertaining to McCarrick. What did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?

This is entirely in Francis’s hands. His refusal to answer these questions, and to order curial cardinals to answer them, is itself an answer — and a damning one. Is the truth more important than preserving a façade? A friend who is not Catholic e-mails tonight:

Regardless of the veracity of any claim of Vigano’s or the truth of any denial from those he has implicated, the past few days have made one thing clear: who, within the Catholic world — and even in the world of reporting — are willing to pursue wrongdoing to the extent it demands, to the point of recognizing that the thing you have loved might be (or be transformed) into an idol, a statue of Moloch that tempts one away from truth.

The fact is that the Roman Catholic Church could go into schism over the sexual predation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the unwillingness of three pontifical administrations — those of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis — to deal with it effectively, including to tell the truth.

And not just popes and curial cardinals. I am reminded of the conservative Catholic men who, I was told, was part of a group of laity who flew to Rome in or around 2000, to warn officials at the Vatican not to name McCarrick to Washington, because he was a sexual predator. When I phoned in 2002 to ask one of the men, he told me he indeed went on that trip, but refused to talk about it. When I phoned the second man on my list to ask about it, he answered, “If that were true, I wouldn’t tell you for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.”

Well, it’s all out in the open now, and McCarrick’s foulness has tainted two more popes. If those men had cared more about the truth in 2002 than about protecting the image of the Church by covering up for a wicked cardinal, perhaps the McCarrick boil would have been lanced, and Church wouldn’t be facing such a grave crisis today. There is a lesson here for everyone, not just Catholics, and not just Christians. “Live not by lies,” said Solzhenitsyn.

Finally, I want to commend to you this column by David French, an Evangelical Christian, on why Protestants should care about this Catholic scandal. Though we’re a tiny church in the US, most of what French says applies to Orthodox Christians too. Excerpts:

Protestants cannot and must not view these events with a kind of detachment or distance, for numerous reasons.

First, we cannot forget that each and every revelation of abuse is the revelation of a life-altering (and sometimes life-shattering) event for the victim and a faith-crippling moment for friends, family, and countless others.

Second, given the plethora of recent sexual scandals in Evangelical churches and seminaries, the Catholic catastrophe should remind us that perhaps only the lack of an equivalent hierarchy has spared Evangelical churches from similar, systemic sin. “Our” scandals are more fragmented only because our churches are more fragmented. Yet the entire church should be galvanized by what’s happened and diligently consider the extent to which our own congregations are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Third, reputational harm to the church can sweep far and wide — well beyond the guilty parties themselves. No one should presume that in an increasingly secular world our fellow citizens can so easily discern the good guys and the bad guys. I remember well moving from the Bible Belt to Boston in 1991, and being stunned to discover that my classmates painted the church with a very broad brush. In my youth and naïveté I had largely pointed and laughed at the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, only to discover that I was one of “them” until proven otherwise, a gullible congregant in a church of con men.

The whole column is well worth your time.  No Christian — especially no traditional Christians — should think this Catholic catastrophe is going to leave other churches unscathed.

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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