The presidency held by a cruel bigot. Many evangelical leaders parasitic on his power. The current and previous pope, along with a generation of bishops, implicated in the coverup of sexual abuse. Moral authority pulverized into dust.
This is the cynic’s finest hour.
The unlikely symbol of this spiritual collapse is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom I knew through a Catholic/Evangelical dialogue hosted by Georgetown University. For a non-Catholic like me, he was the model of a priest — at least the affable, humorous, ethnic priest from a 1940s movie. Think Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” — but revealed as a sexual predator.
I am often (probably too often) moved to outrage. But here it is tinged with despair. Does every example, every icon, really need to fall? Does idealism, already prone and bleeding, really require this extra kick in the head?
It is hard to imagine the compounded horror of being exploited and violated by someone in spiritual authority. It is a betrayal at the deepest level — a form of cruelty compounded by blasphemy. It is the closest I can imagine to an unforgivable sin.
The Catholic Church, in many places, is in a scandal of insufficient outrage. Some of its leaders have lost the ability to distinguish between a foible and an abomination. It is also a scandal of lost purpose. It shows what happens when an institution serves itself rather than its defining mission. This is the surest way to destroy what you seek to defend.
The 11-page letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that sparked the current Catholic crisis reveals the complexity of Vatican politics, which puts Washington, D.C., to shame. Clearly, Vigano is on one side of a global power struggle, and his tone often dips into tirade. But his accusations are simple: that the pope knew of credible charges against McCarrick as of June 2013 and did nothing, and that many church leaders knew of the charges much earlier and did little.
What penalty for those who conspired against justice and protected the guilty? It will be difficult to determine, because there doesn’t seem to be any universally respected source of authority left in the Catholic Church from which all would accept a verdict. And the judgment of a pope, by definition, is self-judgment.
But here is some unsolicited advice for pastors and prelates facing similar situations. The most powerful reform that could be made is to involve lay women in every level of examination and judgment. The Catholic Church may retain an all-male clergy, but, clearly, an all-male clergy cannot be trusted to regulate and police itself. Can you imagine a meeting including parish mothers and women leaders in which the protection of a predator priest was proposed? I can’t either.
Whether the Vatican and other religious authorities realize it or not, the #MeToo movement may prove the most influential social trend of our time. Institutions that treat women with dignity and welcome them as equals are ultimately more humane and just for everyone. And there is no religious exemption.
When religious institutions are corrupt, there are at least two paths of reform.
The first is the way of St. Francis of Assisi. He reacted to the ecclesiastical and social corruption of his time by renouncing his father’s wealth, stripping off his clothes and living a life of poverty and service. He touched lepers, cared for animals, tried to mediate a crusade and introduced gentleness and love into the harsh 13th century. At one personal turning point, he heard God saying, “Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.” And he did, by returning to the example of Christianity’s founder, but staying within the established church.
Another path of reform is the way of Martin Luther. He was a monk who decried the horrible clerical abuses of the 16th century, translated the Bible into German, married a former nun, insisted that God’s grace did not require the mediation of priests and eventually followed his beliefs outside the boundaries of the established church. Luther was supremely arrogant, badly anti-Semitic and essentially created the modern idea of personal conscience.
Francis or Luther? In either case, Christian reformers start with an advantage. The founder of their faith was also a radical religious reformer — an opponent of complacent religious leaders, a tough critic of hypocrisy and a defender of children. And he calls his followers to restore a house in ruins.
Michael Gerson is at firstname.lastname@example.org.