The Roman Farce

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Pope Francis is conducting his extraordinary summit with cardinals on the problem of sexual abuse in the Church. And we can expect it will go nowhere.

The summit is happening in light of two events outside of it. The first was Pope Francis’s recent laicization of the former cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, a man who was notorious for his sexual abuse of seminarians and other priests, while at the same time he was the public-relations face of the Church’s response to sexual abuse and cover-up in the early 2000s. McCarrick was finally publicly exposed when an investigation into his abuse of a minor became public last year.

The second is the publication of a sensationalist book by sociologist Frédéric Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican, which claims to document the sexual hypocrisy at the top of the Roman Catholic Church. The book is fascinating because it relies on scores of interviews with cardinals and is written in a loose, gossipy style. Some of the pope’s trusted confidantes were sources for the book. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

These two events also reveal the problems inherent to Pope Francis’s summit. The laicization of McCarrick is held up as a victory of accountability, even justice, but actually amounts to a public-relations move. McCarrick was not afforded the normal forms of defense given to men in his position. And far from solving the McCarrick issue, his laicization avoids the main question: How did McCarrick rise to his position while “everyone knew” of his sordid reputation? Why was he able to maneuver around the restrictions put on him by Benedict XVI? Why did Francis make him an informal adviser in his anxious desire to reshape the American episcopate? And how is it that his associates (co-conspirators?) continue to rise in the Church? Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who lived and worked with McCarrick for years (and claims to have noticed nothing unusual), was recently appointed cardinal camerlengo, who will govern the Vatican during the next interregnum.

Francis’s preferred bishops have also been promoting their own line on the abuse crisis at the summit. In their eyes, the problem is not rampant immorality, a network of moral blackmail, and moral conspiracy but what they call “clericalism.” The term is used in two senses. The first, the one that makes it plausible to some as a problem, is the idea that bishops and priests protect each other. That’s true. But what Francis’s men mean by clericalism is the idea of a Church where a hierarchical priesthood plays a role in safeguarding the Church’s traditional doctrine. They believe that this conception of the priesthood, as having real moral responsibility for handing on the faith as they received it, makes priests irresponsible. It is in this way that they transmute the failure of bishops to exercise authority to remove abusive priests into a problem of “excessive authority.” And thus sexual immorality is blamed, not just on moral and doctrinal conservatives, but on moral and doctrinal conservatism itself.

Then there is the matter of the book, which replicates the same error. Martel’s methodology for determining whether certain churchmen are gay is to stereotype them. Churchmen whom he deems to oppose homosexuality too much are deemed homosexual themselves. This logic does not apply, however, to Pope Francis, who has occasionally urged gay men to leave the priesthood or not enter it at all. Francis is held up as a hero to Martel. But the influence of Francis’s inner circle is evident in the choice of targets.

Martel meets with the German conservative cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and insinuates that the cardinal’s “perfumed voice” gives him away as a homosexual. Pope Benedict XVI is deemed a homosexual because he likes opera. The traditionalist cardinal Raymond Leo Burke is deemed homosexual or even transsexual because he prefers the Church’s most elaborate vestments. Just as the Vatican summit limits its scope to avoid addressing the culture of abuse in seminaries, so Martel avoids discussing the documented abuse at the seminary of the so-called “vice pope,” Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga.

Martel’s preferred story is one of moral hypocrisy. That may be a real moral problem for some churchmen. But because this is Martel’s bias, he is incapable of looking at the crisis through the lens of moral indifference, moral lassitude, and moral cronyism, which are the major factors in the crisis of sexual abuse and predation in the Church.

That Martel was helped in this sordid endeavor of cover-up and baseless accusation by the pope’s closest advisers should be a source of immense scandal to those in the Church and outside it. He likes opera. He must be gay. He likes vestments. Must be gay. He has a pleasant voice. Gay. This is the kind of moral enlightenment that Pope Francis’s allies have brought to the Church? The only stereotype that Martel doesn’t use is the one about men who engage in constant salacious sexual gossip and speculation, as it would indict all his sources.

The book is trash. The supposed justice meted to McCarrick amounts to a cover-up. The pope’s summit is trash and a coverup. These men do not fear the justice of God or men. All their training in theology, and their great insight about man’s depravity, is the schoolyard taunt “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.” To hell with them all.

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