Michael W. Higgins is the Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But it is – raw, awkward, suffused with shame.
On the cusp of Pope Francis’s visit to the Republic of Ireland this week for the World Meeting of Families – a periodic global gathering of Catholics to reflect on family issues – the Vatican finds itself, once again, confronting a barrage of criticism and intense anger following fresh eruptions of the long malaise: the great evil of sexual abuse by clerical personnel.
In just a matter of a week, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released its damning report chronicling the crimes of some 300 priests over 70 years involving more than 1,000 innocents; the besieged and befuddled Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, resisted submitting his resignation to the Holy See following a court judgment that he was complicit in a cover-up of sex abuse (even the Catholic Prime Minister of Australia and the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference felt compelled to press him publicly to do the right thing); American prelates found themselves scrambling to respond with a measure of moral gravitas in the wake of the revelations of sexual impropriety and abuse by the former cardinal archbishop of Washington, Ted McCarrick; the current Cardinal Archbishop of the U.S. capital, Donald Wuerl, has found it prudent to withdraw from the World Meeting of Families because of persistent rumours concerning his participation in cover-ups during his tenure as Bishop of Pittsburgh; and the English Benedictine public schools – Ampleforth in Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset, storied boarding schools for the elite – are facing fallout from a report of an inquiry detailing a sordid history of monkish abuse.
And in the midst of all this upheaval, Francis must fly to Ireland. Not the Ireland that greeted in a paroxysm of pious emotion Pope John Paul II several decades ago, but the new Ireland – often hostile to its Catholic heritage and disgusted with the spiritual and emotional blight that is the national consequence of ecclesiastical misrule.
There are many groups of dissident Catholics – their numbers are swelling – that are keen on providing an alternative forum to the church-approved agenda for the World Meeting, and the once quiescent, if not supine, secular media is openly anti-clerical in its editorials and reportage (this has been increasingly the case since the early 1990s, but has taken on an added ferocity of late).
Francis is not unaware of the travails besetting the once-proudly Catholic Ireland (he spent a few weeks studying English in the country with his fellow Jesuits in a more settled time), and he was sensitive during the preliminary planning of the World Meeting to the feisty and restive mood of the faithful; the country’s approval by referendum of gay marriage and its repeal of an amendment that gave equal weight to the mother and the fetus are viewed by many as markers of independence, repudiating the mores of the past and of the church that defined them.
But the new spate of scandals threatens to minimize his pastoral impact at the Dublin gathering. So he issued on Monday his Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God, in hopes not of derailing the anger and revulsion, but of contextualizing the crisis through a theological prism.
Francis makes it clear that as an ecclesial community, “we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.” Many Catholics will take offence that he speaks of the larger community of faith and its general responsibility for healing, accountability, remorse and repentance when, in fact, it is the clergy who are the responsible agents. The letter lacks the punch of his lacerating exhortations to the Roman Curia that have been a striking feature of his pontificate (not every chief executive berates his senior staff with such righteous fury), and its content is anodyne, boilerplate spirituality, devoid of the passion typical of the Bergoglio style.
His prophetic outrage is hobbled by his seeming reluctance to address the systemic pathologies involved, other than to denounce clericalism.
Contrast this with the blunt admission by the host of the World Meeting, the pugnacious Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who in his homily of last Sunday spoke the truth of broken power: “The anger is not just about abuse, but also about a church that was authoritarian, harsh, autocratic and self-protecting.”
This is the language of reforming zeal, and this is the time for it.