Hard lessons of the McCarrick Affair

From the day it was announced that the Vatican would conduct an investigation into the career of former Washington cardinal-archbishop Theodore McCarrick (compelled to renounce his cardinalate and subsequently laicized for sexual abuse and the abuse of power), it seemed unlikely that the McCarrick Report would fully please anyone. That intuition hardened as two years passed without any report. During that period, I also came to the view that, whatever the report reported about details, it would not alter the basic outline of this tawdry tale: Theodore McCarrick is a narcissistic, pathological liar; pathological liars fool people; Theodore McCarrick fooled a lot of people.

The McCarrick Report did not, it turns out, please everyone, even as the world press weirdly turned it into an assault on John Paul II. But it certainly underscored that McCarrick was a singularly accomplished deceiver.

Among those he deceived were many highly intelligent people, more than a few holy people, and a lot of the progressive U.S. Catholic world, for whom he was both hero and fundraiser – much as the similarly disgraced Marcial Maciel deceived many traditionally inclined Catholics for decades. There is no safe haven on the spectrum of Catholic opinion where one’s perceptions and judgments are armor-plated against deceivers. For their wickedness is a manifestation of the work of the Great Deceiver, whom St. John described as “deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). It would be well to keep this common vulnerability to deception in mind in the future – and as some, alas, try to use the McCarrick Report as ammunition in various internecine Catholic struggles.

The shameful story of Theodore McCarrick illustrates more than the demonic power of deception, however. McCarrick’s deceptions operated within a cultural matrix that enabled him to avoid the consequences of his depredations for decades. That dysfunctional culture – a clerical caste system that is a betrayal of the integrity of the priesthood and episcopate – must be confronted and uprooted, as the Church purifies itself of the sin of clerical sexual abuse in order to get on with the mission of evangelization.

Theodore McCarrick knew the clerical caste system from the inside and used it assiduously. He used it, knowing that he would be unwittingly protected by decent men who simply could not imagine a priest or bishop behaving as he did. He used it, knowing the reluctance of seminarian-victims to jeopardize their hopes for priestly ordination by making his repulsive behavior known. He used it, knowing that many bishops deemed public “scandal” more damaging to the Church than sexual predation. He used it, knowing that other clergymen were ashamed of how they had strayed and had no stomach for confronting others, even after they had cooperated with God’s grace and returned to integrity of life. He used it, knowing that the New York presbyterate to which he belonged, and the American episcopate he sought (unsuccessfully) to dominate, often functioned as men’s clubs in which one simply did not call out the other members of the club, privately or publicly. He used it, knowing of the Vatican’s reluctance to take disciplinary action against cardinals.

As he gamed the system while climbing the hierarchical ladder, he also deployed his exceptional capacity for self-promotion. He was never really the all-powerful “kingmaker” he was thought to be. But he was quite willing to use that perception (which he cultivated) as protection, just as he used the equally bogus and self-promoting claim that he was some sort of secret Vatican diplomatic agent and was thus protected in Rome – a longstanding, auto-generated myth that the McCarrick Report demolishes, not least in regard to China.

The evangelical answer to the deep reform of the clerical caste system comes from the Lord himself: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church” (Matthew 18:15-17). That ethic of fraternal challenge and correction must be inculcated in future priests in seminaries. Bishops must insist upon it with their presbyterates, making clear that evangelical, fraternal correction extends to priests challenging the bishop when conscience and the good of the Church demand it.

And that ethic must be lived within the episcopate itself. Without it, “collegiality” is a hollow slogan that enables betrayals of Christ and Christ’s people, whom the pastors are called to protect from the Great Deceiver and his accomplices. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.