We live in an era of diminished trust and heightened cynicism. It is hard, now, to imagine someone expressing unqualified faith in government, the media, business — or even, for that matter, religious institutions. And the implication of this development is not simply the erosion of trust. It is the increasing difficulty of learning about the world around us, as we lose belief in those who might teach us.
Learning requires risk-taking. It forces us to face what we don’t know with the hope of advancing toward some grasp of it. The smaller the undertaking, the lower the emotional gamble — learning tomorrow’s weather forecast doesn’t entail an interior journey. But learning about the true and important things in life does require trust and dedication and vulnerability — usually under a teacher’s guidance. It is no surprise so many of us come to love the ones who teach us.
Neither is it a surprise, any longer, that some people charged with these roles of profound responsibility abuse them in the cruelest ways. The latest revelation concerns the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, who resigned Saturday from the College of Cardinals. Over several decades, McCarrick is alleged to have sexually abused at least one child and several adult seminarians or young priests, all of whom looked to the charismatic prelate for guidance — moral, vocational, spiritual. Into his den, he drew them.
McCarrick, who has denied the allegation involving the child, has now become the first prince of the church to resign his role since 1927 and the highest-ranking member of the Catholic hierarchy to step down amid sexual-abuse allegations. But there are others in the church who presumably knew of the charges against him decades ago and failed to act when given the chance. Two New Jersey dioceses where McCarrick served as a bishop paid settlements to young men who alleged abuse as recently as the early 2000s; it isn’t likely that $180,000 went missing from church coffers with only McCarrick’s knowing. In 2011, a priest from Brazil filed a lawsuit against McCarrick for unwanted sexual advances. The suit was withdrawn — but again, it seems unlikely the episode came and went unknown to anyone other than McCarrick.
The question of who in the church hierarchy learned of the allegations against McCarrick — and when — has thus spawned its own predictable controversy. Some Catholics have blamed the hierarchy’s lax attitude toward abuse claims on a modern, Pope Francis-inflected tolerance for gay priests and disregard for traditional church doctrine on sexual morality. Others counter that scapegoating gay priests who remain faithful and celibate is a dangerous and misplaced overreaction. The particular matter of who abetted McCarrick and how has taken on a dimension of doctrinal argument, subtly shifting into a debate about what the church ought to teach.
I am a faithful Catholic, and I worry that this discussion seems not only off-point but also ominously premature. What the church ought to teach makes sense to debate only if it is established that the church can teach at all. And it is precisely that capacity that McCarrick, along with his anonymous enablers and his legions of abusing predecessors, have all but destroyed. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, “the Catholic bishops are now somewhat protected from media scrutiny by virtue of their increasing unimportance.” The price of that protection is a conspicuous moral muteness: The light has gone under a bushel, and the salt has lost its flavor.
The church has described itself as “mater et magistra,” mother and teacher. Yet, having obliterated its ability to inspire trust, in large part through decades of abuse and abuse-enabling, the church has now been rendered unqualified, in the eyes of many, to serve in that role. As McCarrick allegedly transgressed and abused his position as a spiritual guide, so, too, can it be said that the church has forfeited, at least for now, its own teaching role.
Every effort ought to be made to restore this crucial function, which begins with rebuilding trust. And that requires accountability, which is painful. Francis has already mandated that McCarrick remain in penitent seclusion until the accusations against him can be examined at a canonical trial. This is a positive step, but the Vatican ought also to invite an independent inquiry into who aided McCarrick’s reported abuse, passively or otherwise, how and for how long.
The church should punish those found guilty and cooperate with law enforcement when needed.
The process will likely be ugly, but so much less so than what came before. It is not too much to ask not to be raped or otherwise sexually abused by shepherds of the faith in the course of following Christ. Neither is it too severe to say that if clerics cannot meet that meager demand, they can scarcely teach His people anything at all.