Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the Roman Catholic Church, Peter’s barque, is not only in rough seas, but taking on water, with the imminent possibility of capsizing.
After all, the turmoil generated by the release of the grand jury report in Pennsylvania, the aftershocks of the Chile abuse cover-up, the scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s immoral and allegedly illegal behaviour, and the festering pain and resentment in Catholic Ireland, were more than enough for the Roman pontiff to handle in a summer of unprecedented heat. And then a retired prelate with a grudge popped up.
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Carlo Maria Vigano is no ordinary disgruntled Vatican careerist. He has credentials: administrative, diplomatic, consigliere to the major players in Vatican governance. But by releasing his Testimony, better yet screed or jeremiad, while the Pope, his ultimate superior, was abroad doing what a pope should be doing, he has shifted media attention away from Francis’s priorities and placed it directly on Francis himself.
And this is precisely where Francis’s adversaries want it to be. Archbishop Vigano exploits the current upheaval around hierarchical accountability for clerical sex abuse by identifying various senior bishops and cardinals as complicit with papal inaction, furthering their own ambitions at the cost of truth, all implicated in a coven of secrecy and intrigue.
He accuses his boss of deceit, and with a particularly nasty flourish of vituperative rhetoric calls on him to resign along with all the other prelates involved in protecting Theodore McCarrick.
To date, Francis has responded in his characteristic way: avoid the bait, allow for free expression of opinion, trust that discernment and prudence will see through the intentions of his critics, remain centred in his prayer. Very Ignatian.
But his strategy might not work this time. By eliding the sex abuse imbroglio with the credibility of Francis’s pontificate, Archbishop Vigano has raised the ante. This isn’t simply a cri de coeur by a former bishop-diplomat enraged by Vatican corruption; it isn’t simply his revanche for past demotions. It is his j’accuse. And he has backup. Big time.
And so, the dividing line is no longer between conservatives and progressives on matters of pastoral and doctrinal emphasis, it is no longer around disagreement on how to handle the persistent toxin of clerical sex abuse. It is now firmly fixed on Francis himself. He is the lightning rod of division. The pope, in exercising his Petrine ministry, is the principle of unity; in Archbishop Vigano’s mind, and in the minds of those who share his obscurantist convictions, this pope is now the principle of disunity. Something has to give.
Dissatisfaction with the Bergoglio pontificate has been fermenting for some time: anxiety over perceived moral laxity on issues of family life, gay Catholics, reception of communion by divorced Catholics without benefit of annulment, the priority of mercy over legality as a spiritual imperative, governance structures that support rather than neuter synodality and collegiality, prioritizing the environment over in-house ecclesiastical matters, appointing like-minded bishops and sidelining the favoured ones of the previous popes. But by aligning the sex abuse eruptions – and they are far from over – with the pontiff himself, Archbishop Vigano has skillfully blurred the distinction: The pope they consider doctrinally suspect is now the pope implicated in hierarchical duplicity.
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But his lay critics massively underestimate him. There is work still to be done and he won’t be cowed. He has his mission as Pope and he won’t be swayed. That work specifically is tackling the curse of clericalism – the root cause of our institutional pathology. Along with his immediate predecessors, his reactionary detractors, and his supportive episcopal colleagues, they have all identified clericalism as the culprit.
To scour the church of clericalism requires more than righteous denunciation, the invidious scapegoating of gays, the marginalization of free thinkers. It involves the gutting of the seminary system.
The way we select, train, and semi-cloister priests-in-the-making indisputably nurtures that sense of separateness, exceptional calling, all-male ethos and gender exclusivity that fuels the clerical culture.
By demolishing the seminary, we can put in place new structures that foster mature growth and genuine inclusivity. The seminary was once an instrument of reform, addressing widespread problems like clerical concubinage and illiteracy, but now it is long past its best use date.
Such as this is the kind of radical change the Catholic Church needs if it is to tackle the systemic evil that is clericalism. Removing this pope, or discrediting his personal authority, is hardly an enlightened option. This is the only way to keep Peter’s barque afloat.