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The Failure Of A Conservative Catholic Myth

Uncle Ted was appointed by John Paul II (CBS Screenshot)

Here is an extraordinary essay in Commonweal by James Heaney, a conservative Catholic layman who has been disabused by the scandal of his trust in the Catholic institution — though not his trust in the Catholic faith. He starts like this:

Ten years ago, I believed a myth. In the beginning, there was Vatican II. It was good but messy, and the Bad Catholics hijacked it to undermine doctrine. They took over seminaries and turned them into cesspools where heresy was mandatory and depravity rampant. Then Pope John Paul II came along. He drove out the Bad Catholics and cleaned up the seminaries. Too late! The Bad Catholics had already committed terrible crimes, which were covered up without the pope’s awareness. In 2002, their abuses exploded into public view, and the JPII Catholics got blamed for crimes committed by a dying generation of clerics. The JPII bishops took it on the chin, but they fixed the problem with the Dallas Charter. Then Benedict XVI, the great theologian, appointed orthodox bishops who would carry forward the renewal. The horrors of the Scandal were behind us. The two primordial forces of the postconciliar church, orthodoxy and heresy, had fought a great battle, and orthodoxy had been vindicated.

Subsequently, Heaney learned — via the scandal in his own diocese — that the line between good and evil did not pass between orthodox and heterodox clergy. In fact, clergy tended to protect other clergy, at the expense of the laity. More:

Theoretically, the Holy See is supervising, but there are more than three thousand ordinaries reporting directly to the pope. I don’t know about you, but in my workplace no one person is allowed to manage more than a dozen direct reports. More than that, and management becomes distracted and ineffective. With so much on its plate, Rome won’t intervene, and probably won’t even notice, unless someone is convicted of a crime. Besides, a few well-cultivated contacts in today’s Rome will get you a lot further up the career ladder than holiness. Power flows from the top of the hierarchy down through overt and covert cliques. Powerful clerics are accountable to those cliques, not to the faithful. The laity are needed only for their wallets.

The structure I have just described could hardly be better at catalyzing abuse. Look at Cardinals Egan and McCarrick. One was considered conservative, the other liberal, but both were notorious on abuse—and St. John Paul gave both the red hat. How about Cardinal Mahony and Cardinal Pell? Archbishops Finn, Wilson, and Bruskewitz? Or Cardinal Law, the great conservative prelate whose punishment was promotion? The same story unfolds today in HondurasChile, and Australia. Now we’ve learned from Pennsylvania that dozens of bishops, perhaps a cardinal, are implicated in a broad, deep, clerical conspiracy—a conspiracy that was well established years before my old scapegoats, Vatican II and the sexual revolution, were around to take the blame. This crisis was not caused by Marty Haugen tunes and the Land O’ Lakes statement. At the root of this crisis is structure—the particular way church governance has calcified in the past couple of centuries. That structure has to go.

Read the whole thing. There are a lot of details in it that I’m not going to reproduce here. I think Heaney might be making the same kind of mistake here that he made before: finding a single cause for the scandal. The collapse in many quarters of Catholic orthodoxy, along with massive changes in popular culture (e.g., the Sexual Revolution), as well as the homosexualization of the priesthood, all played a role in bringing about this crisis.

What’s important about Heaney’s essay is that it challenges directly the story that many conservative Catholics — I was one of them once — told themselves about what was wrong with the Church. It’s a story that more than a few liberal Catholics still tell themselves, from the other side, now that a progressive is pope. Catholics seeking genuine reform need to focus on the root causes of the problem, not just on what explanations fit their prior convictions.

To repeat: I don’t believe James Heaney’s account is sufficient. But I am certain that it is necessary. It is very hard for conservative Catholics to surrender the myth that Heaney aptly describes in his first paragraph. But it has to be done if the Church is to be saved from its own clergy. This kind of thing is what Archbishop Georg Gänswein, no liberal he, meant when he said in Rome this autumn that “the hour of strong and decisive laity has struck.”

(Incidentally, an orthodox Catholic priest told me the other day that the best thing that the laity can do now to bring about reform is to use the power of the purse. I didn’t have enough time with him to ask him to clarify.)

UPDATE:Monsignor Charles Pope writes something similar.  Excerpt:

There is a shocking yet persistent picture of disorder, confusion, and denial up to the highest ranks, both nationally and internationally. There are, to be sure, notable exceptions in which holy and courageous bishops, priests, and deacons have sought to stand in the gap and heal the breach, often at great personal cost. The overall atmosphere, however, is one of unholy disorder, brought about by the very ones ordained to bring Holy Order:

The faith is openly betrayed and denied by renegade bishops—even whole conferences of bishops—and heads of religious orders. Synods sow confusion and division rather than clarity or unity.

Teaching is on holiday, silence in the face of error is rampant, and listening without limit is called “magisterial.” Ambiguous euphemisms that violate Catholic anthropology, doctrine, and sacred tradition are adopted uncritically.

There are wandering “celebrity priests” who promote the LBGT agenda without any reference to repentance or chastity. Policies that deny the Lord’s clear words on divorce/remarriage and ignore St. Paul’s admonitions about Holy Communion are proposed and adopted. Legitimate questions and requests for needed clarifications are met with silence.

Catholic colleges openly teach dissent without any correction from the bishops and there is a tolerance of a moral life among their students that would shock even the most pagan of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Liturgical abuses have abounded and remained uncorrected for decades.

In the seminaries and within the priesthood, homosexual predation by an apparent network of priests has gone on for years along with coverups, denials, and secret payouts.

The number of states initiating grand jury investigations is increasing daily. The federal investigation into abuse by Catholic priests now includes every diocese in the country.

Mass attendance has been declining for years, leading to the closing of numerous parishes and schools. There has been an almost complete loss of Christendom in the past 60 years.

Scandals continue to arise. The Vatican Bank has been plagued by scandal for years. A drug-fueled homosexual orgy reportedly took place in the summer of 2017 in the apartment of a high-ranking Vatican prelate. There have been seemingly arbitrary dismissals of bishops and priests both within the Vatican and elsewhere.

The Holy Father himself is surrounded by questionable figures who are at the very heart of the current crises. He has received credible, largely corroborated allegations by a former nuncio that he and others knew of the illicit activities of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In response to the crises, from Rome there has been silence, name-calling of those requesting investigations, and only occasionally promises to look into the matters.

The faithful are dismayed by the chaos. Even prior to the current sexual and financial scandals, the general stance of this pontificate has been artfully described as “weaponized ambiguity.” Some of the most confusing and strange things have been said and done by the Pope and then left unexplained. Many of the faithful, who love the Church and the Holy Father, have been placed in the highly awkward position of having to openly express their dismay, sadness, and confusion.

UPDATE.2: Leon Podles comments:

Those who knew John Paul II personally (e.g. Cardinal Schoenborn) could not account for his blindness about sexual abuse. Perhaps the pope feared that dealing with sexual abuse with lead to an exposure of widespread corruption in the clergy, including the hierarchy, and that was something John Paul refused to admit. John Paul’s failure will continue to harm the church, and there is little the laity can do. Small donors mean almost nothing; bg donors pay the bills, and many Catholic organizations even in the U. S. get a big portion of their budget from the government.
The bishops think the current swell of anger will pass, as it did in 2002 (they have said as much), and then they can go back to business as usual. Bishops answer only to the pope, and his erratic behavior gives no clear message, except that he doesn’t want to think about the problem of clerical sexual misbehavior.

Some people will stop coming to church, some will no longer regard themselves as Catholics, some will join evangelical churches. The bishops could not care less. They are not pastors, but bureaucratic functionaries, and they care little about what the laity think or do.

Once again, this is why I strongly urge lay Catholics to explore what the Benedict Option means for them. They’re on their own. The institution will not be reformed anytime soon, and in many places will be against them if they try to pass on the authentic Catholic faith. They need to burrow in deep and develop strategies to outlast the crisis within their Church.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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