In a number of conversations in Rome, both with Americans living here and Italians who read their own national media as well as Church-oriented American websites, I have floated a theory: that one reason the Vatican is so staggeringly inept in its response to the crisis in the US Church is that they don’t understand what’s going on in America. According to my theory, the Italian press is badly informing the Italian public (whose number includes cardinals and curial officials) about the American situation – and the Vatican is reacting based on bad information.
The answers I have received range between “Yes, absolutely!” and “Yes, but.”
The “but” has to do with the observation by some that Francis is not following a particular strategy at all, but rather does whatever he likes (he is Trump-like in that way). You can’t get him to stick to a script of any sort, or to take coaching. So they say.
All of my interlocutors believe that curial officials are badly out of touch with conditions on the ground in the United States – specifically, with the deep sense of anger and betrayal among ordinary US Catholics. The Americans with whom I’ve spoken are genuinely shocked by how badly the Holy See is handling this issue, not only substantively but in terms of media relations. The sense seems to be that the Vatican’s press office is hamstrung by the fact that the Holy See’s policy makers – the Pope in particular – don’t know what they want to say, or how they want to say it. Rome really seems to believe that it can ride this out. That may change, though, after Pope Francis meets (finally!) with US Cardinal DiNardo and his delegation on Thursday.
Quite a few of my Catholic readers, both in Rome and elsewhere, sent me this report from yesterday about a homily Francis gave. “Can you believe this?!” said one. Read this news account and marvel: 
The Great Accuser is trying to uncover bishops’ sins in order to scandalise the people, Pope Francis has said.
In a homily at Casa Santa Marta on Tuesday morning, the Pope told bishops that they seem to be under attack from the devil.
The best way for bishops to fight this, he added, is by being men of prayer who remain close to the people and who have the humility to remember they were chosen by God, Vatican News reports .
The Pope said that prayer is “a bishop’s consolation in difficult times,” because “Jesus is praying for me and for all bishops.”
Referring to the devil, Pope Francis said: “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops.”
“True, we are all sinners, we bishops,” he added. “He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.
“The Great Accuser, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’.
Got that? According to the Pope, if you say anything critical about the bishops, you are a tool of Satan.
If that’s not a cancerous form of clericalism, what is?
On Wednesday the Vatican announced that the Pope will early next year convene a worldwide meeting of bishops in February to discuss the protection of minors from sexual abuse. Many media outlets reported it was just minors, but some reported that a Vatican press official added that it would also include “vulnerable adults” — meaning, apparently, those with conditions that would impair their ability to resist sexual abuse or exploitation. Does being a seminarian count?
I wouldn’t complain about a global synod to deal with child sex abuse, but I recall a conversation I had with a cleric in Rome who told me before the announcement that we should be very wary that the Vatican is going to try to change the subject, and to get the focus off of bishops and homosexuals in the priesthood. It’s hard to know how seriously to take Francis’s planned meeting when he pops off with sermons about the evils of criticizing bishops.
Rome is a great place to pick up high-octane Church gossip these days, with so many people super-anxious,, though people are very wary about what they say and around whom they say it. I went for a late dinner with someone who asked if we could sit in a somewhat hidden corner of the restaurant, to reduce the risk that they would be seen talking to me. Another theory I’ve heard bandied about by several people in Rome: that Francis & Co. are being silent in the face of Archbishop Vigano’s accusations not out of any spiritual strategy, but because they can’t be sure which documents Vigano has on him. If they say that X isn’t true, but Vigano has a document proving that X is, in fact, true, they will look terrible. Seems to me that if you tell the truth in the first place, you don’t have to worry about getting your story straight. But the Holy See is way past that point now.
One more thing about how the American crisis is playing over here. I’m picking up a general sense among Italians that this is a political thing ginned up by Pope Francis’s enemies. There are certainly some in the Church who are falling into the tribal warfare aspect of it, but I particularly like the statements by conservative Catholics like Matthew Schmitz and Michael Brendan Dougherty, who have consistently said that the Church needs to be cleaned up, and if that means chopping conservative heads along with liberal heads, then fine. And I appreciate liberal voices like Elizabeth Bruenig’s, heard today in her profile of a young man who wanted to be a priest, but then Archbishop McCarrick stuck his hand down his pants to cop a feel , and he was never okay again. He was ordained, but eventually left the priesthood. Excerpt:
Adult men make less instantly sympathetic victims than children, and the alleged incidents involving McCarrick are less headline-grabbingly horrifying than the episodes revealed by Pennsylvania’s recent grand jury report . But the church has more than a duty to ensure that minors aren’t victimized and should be sensitive to the fact that, where religious authority is exploited, the effects of sexual abuse can be especially devastating, as in Reading’s case.
No person ought to be molested in the Catholic Church, and no such crime should go unprosecuted by religious or civil authorities. The only hope for victims and the lay faithful is a self-sacrificial act of repentant transparency: Vatican officials and American prelates close to McCarrick ought to open the archbishop’s file to the public, defrock any clergy found to have aided or abetted incidents of abuse and do so before the 88-year-old simply passes away in seclusion. After all that corrupt clergy have taken, the truth is so little to ask.
Great job, Liz Bruenig. Tell these stories. No matter what Pope Francis says, truth-telling articles like yours are the Lord’s own work.
UPDATE: I endorse Phil Lawler’s column. Excerpt:
Pope Francis has called the leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences to Rome, to “speak about the prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.” Great.
The meeting will take place next February—more than five years after the Pope announced his plan to set up a special commission to recommend plans and policies for “the prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults .” So you might ask yourself, what has that commission been doing these five years?
For one thing, the commission has been butting heads with various Vatican officials, trying—and often failing—to gain approval for its recommendations. Commission members have resigned in frustration, complaining about the lack of cooperation from Vatican agencies and episcopal conferences. If he saw the problem as urgent, the Pope, as the Church’s supreme legislator, could require all the world’s episcopal conferences to adopt norms suggested by his commission. Instead, he’s convened a meeting—in five months—to talk about the issue some more.
Or rather, to talk about a part of the issue. The revelations of recent weeks—the Chilean debacle and the McCarrick scandal in particular—have made it impossible to ignore two aspects of the scandal that have not been addressed: the influence of a homosexual network among the clergy, and the complicity of bishops who have failed to address abuse charges. These issues are not even mentioned in the Vatican’s announcement of the February meeting.