Roots of Catholic anger

George Weigel

After a month out of the country, working in Rome at Synod-2018 and helping mark the 40th anniversary of John Paul II’s election at events in Brussels and Warsaw, I came home to find Catholic anger over the latest phase of the abuse crisis unabated and intensified in some quarters. That this crisis is not acknowledged for what it is by the highest authorities in Rome is a subject for another reflection at another time. The question today is: What are the roots of today’s Catholic anger and disgust?

Part of the answer to that, surely, is exhaustion. Why must we go through this again? Wasn’t the Long Lent of 2002 enough? Weren’t things fixed then?

Those whose anger is stoked by these understandable questions might have a look at a recent and thoughtful article by Kenneth Woodward in Commonweal. Woodward understands that ripping the cover off the serial sexual predations of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, triggered a gag-reflex among the Catholic laity that seems to have been bred out of at least some Catholic clergy, both here in the United States and in Rome. But the longtime religion editor of Newsweek also identifies another factor in today’s Catholic rage that ought to cause all of us to pause and think for a moment. Writing about the Pennsylvania grand jury report that sent Catholic anger through the roof this summer, my friend Woodward made a crucial point:

“…the way Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented the report — and the way it was often described in the press — made it easy to assume that the grand jury had unearthed three hundred new clerical abusers, when in fact most of the abuse covered in the report occurred in the last century and roughly eight out of ten of the alleged abusers are dead. It was easy to overlook the good news in an otherwise disheartening report — namely, that since the U.S. bishops established stringent new procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse in 2003, only two priests from the seven dioceses studied have been accused.”

The “narrative” of an ongoing, widespread, and unaddressed rape culture in the Catholic Church in the United States is false. There are still abusive Catholic clergy in America; they must be rooted out and dismissed from the ministry. There are still bishops who don’t get it and they, too, must go. But as one state attorney general after another finds political hay to be made by investigating the Catholic past, it is essential that Catholics understand that a lot of the awfulness that is going to keep coming out — both in terms of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops — was in the past. Effective anger today will focus on the present. And it will not be limited to local situations but will include the obtuseness (and worse) of officials in Rome.

Digging deeper, one hits another question: Why were so many Catholics, who don’t believe much else they read in the papers or see on TV, so ready to believe the misrepresentations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with pent-up Catholic anger with clerical narcissism.

A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.

At the same time, it must be remembered that most priests and bishops in the United States are not narcissists: rather, they’re men with a deep sense of vocation who know they’re earthen vessels through whom flows unmerited but superabundant divine grace. Those men deserve our support, affection, and gratitude as they, like the rest of us, deal with the fallout of this season of humiliation and purification.

As for the narcissists, they need help — and disciplining.

Featured photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

COMING UP: Shifting tectonic plates in Eastern Christianity

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ROME. While Synod-2018 was trying to grasp the polyhedron-like character of “synodality” and wrestling with the differences among sexual inclination, sexual orientation, and sexual attraction, tectonic plates were shifting beneath the surface of world Christianity. Like similar shifts in geology, which can produce tsunamis and earthquakes, dramatic movement in the underlying structures of ecclesiastical life can lead to great historical consequences. The recent decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church — which would mean its independence from the Russian Orthodox Moscow patriarchate — would be precisely such a dramatic, tectonic shift; perhaps the greatest in Eastern Christianity since Constantinople and Rome formally severed full communion in 1054.

This is, then, a Very Big Deal. That it got virtually no attention during Synod-2018, either inside the Synod hall or in the Synod’s “Off-Broadway” conversations, says something (not altogether edifying) about the self-absorption of Catholicism as it continues its seemingly endless wrestling with the ethics of human love, the exercise of authority in the Church, and a raft of sexual and financial scandals. But one Synod father was paying close attention to what was afoot 2,300 kilometers northeast of here, and that was the ever-more-impressive Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches that are Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with Rome.

Many commentators, including your scribe, have looked at what may be the impending independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in terms of its potential to derail Vladimir Putin’s attempts to re-create a simulacrum of the old Soviet Union in the name of a historic “Russian space” (Russkie mir). Others, your scribe again included, have speculated on what Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly would mean for ecumenical relations. Vatican ecumenists have bet most if not all their chips on Russian Orthodoxy as the “lead Church” in Eastern Christianity. That position would become even more untenable if Russian Orthodoxy loses a considerable proportion of its parishes and congregants to an independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy recognized as such by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, first among equals in the Orthodox world.

It was Major-Archbishop Shevchuk, however, who put all this in its most appropriate context when, during the Synod, he gave an interview to my friends John Allen and Ines San Martin of Crux. There, he described any impending Ukrainian Orthodoxy autocephaly as a matter of a people reclaiming its spiritual and historical heritage, which had been hijacked for centuries by Muscovite claims to be the sole heir of that legacy. What was happening, the major-archbishop said, was the exercise of a people’s right to “have its own interpretation of its religious past, present, and future…the right to have its own voice.”

Shevchuk also foresaw major ecumenical implications, as a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy might enter into a more fruitful, if challenging, dialogue with both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and with the center of the Catholic Church’s unity in Rome. As the major-archbishop put it, a realized autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy would “mark a new period in the history of the Universal Church. I don’t believe it will be an easy period, but definitely interesting and also an impulse of the Holy Spirit.

Major-Archbishop Shevchuk was appropriately concerned about Moscow’s immediate response to an independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy, for Russian Orthodoxy “thinks in geopolitical categories” and speaks “the language of threats, blackmail, and…ultimatums.” That is simply realism, given the vitriol that has recently poured out of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which has broken communion with Constantinople, refuses to pray for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in its liturgy, and blames the move toward Ukrainian autocephaly on the White House, the Vatican, the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, and other bogeymen. I do wonder, however, if the major-archbishop might not agree that, in the long view, this will be good for Russian Orthodoxy.

Why? Because it could help liberate that Church from its historic role of chaplain to the czar-of-the-day. Because such a liberation might encourage a recovery of the vast spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy piety and theology, now being suffocated by political games and power plays. And because it might, over time, accelerate what we should all be praying and working for: the genuine reconversion of Russia, which could be a spiritual powerhouse but won’t be, so long as the Gospel is mortgaged to state power.