Who Will Watch the Watchmen?
The usual metaphor for complications brought about through deceit is that of a web. But a web, even one greatly tangled, remains a flimsy structure that can easily be brushed aside. A more apt metaphor for the accumulation of deceit is that of weight. Each lie adds to the mass that covers the truth until that mass becomes too ponderous to be supported by the underlying structure. Whatever individual or institution the deceit was intended to protect is then crushed beneath its weight; buried beneath the lies.
We have come to a point in time when falsehood is more common that truthfulness: every public statement may be a lie and every public personage may be a fraud. The media – the so-called Fourth Estate charged with preserving integrity in public life – has become the main perpetrator of “fake news.”
There is a corrosive dishonesty eating away at what remains of our culture. The Big Lie has become pervasive and has given birth to a monstrous cynicism. Pontius Pilate’s infamous response to Christ, “What is truth?” has become the motto of our time. We no longer believe our politicians, our celebrities, our pundits and purveyors of news. Fraudulence, like an enveloping vapor, has settled over the landscape and we can no longer trust our eyes – or ears.
Living in an envelope of lies both hardens the heart and weakens the will. All allegiances are broken or weakened; they are made conditional, pending further disclosures. We come to look at one another, at life itself, with a deepening distrust that kills our charity. Who can love that which may be a lie? And no one can act with conviction and determination if he suspects his resolve may be based on falsehood.
Now, the distrust that has poisoned our politics and social life has worked its way into the Church. Not a day passes without the revelation of a new scandal, or the unravelling of a coverup. The once most powerful cardinal in the United States has been stripped of his priestly faculties for homosexual misconduct and abuse of power. And the evidence appears undeniable that Pope Francis knew about “Uncle Ted” McCarrick’s predatory behavior and didn’t care.
The Pope’s silence in the face of this charge, his refusal either to admit his complicity or deny it, and his repeated characterization of anyone who questions his conduct or that of his bishops as allies of satan – “the great accuser” – has effectively nullified his moral authority on the greatest moral issue facing the Church.
Stripping the already disgraced McCarrick of his priestly faculties gave no credibility to the recent meeting of the heads of the bishops’ conferences for the ostensible purpose of addressing the abuse of minors by the clergy. It was preceded not only by McCarrick’s laicization, but by the removal of the Pope’s “spiritual son,” Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, from the post the Pope created for him after accusations of sexual misconduct (attested by his own priests) forced his resignation as head of his diocese of Oran in Argentina. Criminal charges against Zanchetta and the growing scandal of the Pope’s protection of him forced Francis to act, but only after further harm to his integrity had been done. And if more evidence of the Pope’s insincerity were needed, he appointed Cardinal Kevin Farrell the camerlengo (chamberlain) of the papal household, an important position that puts Farrell in a key position as manager of the next papal conclave.
This is the same Kevin Farrell whose career was guided by his good friend and former room-mate, ex-Cardinal, now ex-Father, Theodore McCarrick. Farrell denied knowing anything about McCarrick’s homosexual activities, a denial that was ludicrous. So, on the eve of a summit that was seemingly intended to restore some confidence in the hierarchy’s integrity, the Pope elevates to a position of great trust a man generally regarded as a bold-faced liar and a close ally of the most notorious sexual abuser ever to wear a red hat. It is difficult not to speculate that this is Francis’s way of saying to all of his critics and the critics of the bishops, “Go to hell.” It is either incredible stupidity or monstrous arrogance.
The Pope, like many politicians, appears to believe that the general ignorance and apathy of his subjects can be counted upon to help him weather any crisis. For some Catholics, the pope must be a saint because he’s the pope. And this pope has the media on his side, polishing his public persona as a humble man of God. In return for the public relations the media performs for him, the Pope reliably echoes the Left, adding some pious phrases and sprinkling its agenda with a bit of holy water.
But people are not as stupid and apathetic as the Pope seems to assume. More Catholics, even the “conservative” ones who dutifully try to square the circle by giving Francis’s errant pronouncements an orthodox reading, are at long last regarding the Pope with a critical eye. That he is not a man to be trusted to handle the clerical abuse crisis or to protect the immemorial teaching of the Church is becoming increasingly obvious. And the Church is emptying out, with fewer young people attracted to it and fewer older people able to endure the ceaseless scandal and remain loyal to an institution that has no evident desire for reform.
There have been attempts by the hierarchy to reframe the clerical-abuse crisis not as a problem arising from homosexuals in the priesthood but from “clericalism.” It is not sexual deviancy and the sin of sodomy that need to be addressed, but the abuse of power by wielders of authority. The solution, then, would be a re-adjustment of attitude among the clergy and perhaps some added protocols for reporting abuse (of authority).
The fact is that no knowledgeable Catholic, no Catholic parent, can any longer trust the priests and religious that in former times were looked upon as the best among us: irreproachable, if not impeccable. From Pope to cardinal to bishop to priest to lay brother – all are now suspect: if not perpetrators of abuse, or enablers and protectors of abusers, then silent accomplices. Even good men in whom we may place personal trust may be keeping quiet about their fellow priests or religious they know pose a danger to the innocent. They may do so for the sake of self-preservation or from a sense of impotence, but the duty of their office will not excuse them on either count. Courage, not compromise and caution, is what is demanded of them.
It may be that the corruption of the institutional Church is so widespread and so deep that it cannot be salvaged – not in its present form. We may soon witness a collapse of the external structure of the Church. If it happens, it will seem terrible, like the end of the world. But when a structure becomes so undermined, so weakened in all its supports, that repair is no longer possible, then demolition must follow. All the rot must at last give way and the pile of ruins cleared from the foundation before anything new and strong and clean can be built in its place.
At this point in time, Pope Francis cannot be trusted; the cardinals and bishops are most of them suspect, along with many priests and religious. No reform will be sweeping enough to address the problems and none appears even to be contemplated. The hierarchy can be expected to circle the wagons, occasionally casting out one of their own in an attempt to save themselves, but there is no saving the present structure. The institutional Church may continue for some time, but the soul has gone out of it. There is an apt description of the last days of the Roman Empire in Evelyn Waugh’s “St. Helena” that now applies to the institutional Church: “All the tiny mechanisms of power regularly revolved, like a watch still ticking on the wrist of a dead man.”
The time has come for us to remember that no formal structure defines or contains the Faith in Christ Jesus. Our human institutions can never be more than provisional arrangements that try, in their fallible way, to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And when they themselves become crooked and lead us further into the wilderness, then it is only Our Lord Himself that can lead us back onto the straight path.
In many ways, the institutional Church was patterned after the Roman Empire. Its worldwide network of dioceses and bishops paralleled the regiones and reges – regions and local rulers – of the empire. And the local bishop, like the local rex, owed his office and allegiance to Rome. The Pope, along with being the Vicar of Christ, was also the universal ruler of a vast administrative structure. The particular nature of that structure is not a doctrine of the Faith given us by Christ and unalterable. It has changed through the centuries and will doubtless continue to change.
The trappings of the hierarchy, the wealth of the Vatican bank, the Holy See’s diplomatic corps, the papal household, the dicasteries of the Curia – none of these things are essential to us as disciples of Christ. So long as these structures help to safeguard and perpetuate the Faith, their maintenance can be justified. But when they defeat the purposes for which they were created, they must be torn down and something new, something pure, erected in their place.
Rome is infamous for the careerism and recurrent money corruption of the Vatican insiders. Like any power structure, it attracts the ambitious, the greedy, the power-hungry. And like any power structure, it is susceptible to the intrigues of blackmailers and opportunists. Humble men do not aspire to high office. It has often been the case that the papacy has become the province of those who are more vain than virtuous, more intent upon power than piety. The occasional saint happens to sit upon the throne of Peter, but perhaps it is time we took away the throne, for it more attracts the man who would be king than the servant who would be saint.
As for the present, we appear to be very much on our own. Like St. Antony in the desert, we must learn to stand on the pillar of our Faith. As the land dries up around us and the winds of the world howl through the ruins of the once mighty structures we thought would stand forever, we must remain unmoved. And really, all that is being cleared away by time is what must be cleared away so that we may see that which is truly eternal in all its pristine beauty. We can lament corruption, but we should welcome its demise. The temple must be cleared.