When news of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s letter first broke during August of 2018, it felt emotionally crushing. As converts to the Catholic Church in 2005, it was particularly challenging for our family to stomach the allegations. Since learning more of these crimes of abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church, I’ve been dealing with the same reactions as many of my fellow Catholics: alternating feelings of shock, anger, and embarrassment for the immoral and criminal behavior of some of our clergy and leadership. Where do we begin? It may be helpful to endeavor to try to take six lessons away from this moral and institutional crisis, as we try to make sense out of all of the ramifications for our lives and our Church.
First, I suggest historical context is a good place to begin. Unfortunately, this is not altogether a new problem for the Catholic Church. In the 11thcentury, for example, Saint Peter Damian wrote the following.
Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin. Listen, I say, and be shrewd enough to understand that all of you alike are deserving of death, that is, not only those who do such things, but also they who approve those who practice them.
The next related passage was purportedly written by Basil the Great within an early compilation of canon law known as the Decretum Gratiani. Its recognition today, however, seems to stem more from references made by Saint Peter Damian within his own writings rather than this original compilation or collection of canon law. As a consequence, this quote is often misattributed to Saint Peter Damian rather than Basil the Great.
Any cleric or monk who seduces young men or boys, or who is apprehended in kissing or in any shameful situation, shall be publically flogged and shall lose his clerical tonsure. Thus shorn, he shall be disgraced by spitting into his face, bound in iron chains, wasted by six months of close confinement, and for three days each week put on barley bread given him toward evening. Following this period, he shall spend a further six months living in a small segregated courtyard in the custody of a spiritual elder, kept busy with manual labor and prayer, subjugated to vigils and prayers, forced to walk at all times in the company of two spiritual brothers, never again allowed to associate with young men for purposes of improper conversation or advice…
Second, we need to bear in mind that the Scriptural warnings concerning this kind of immoral behavior are as severe as any found in the Bible. The New Testament seems to foreshadow this particular evil within the Church with the following passages from Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:2.
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Between the preceding stern warnings and passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:27, concerning the eating of the bread and drinking “of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” or the warning concerning the “stricter standard” regarding the teacher as found in James 3:1, it is impossible to deny that both holy Scripture and sacred tradition concretely warn of the fruits of this kind of sexual immorality. For those ministers who would dare lead Christ’s precious sheep astray, it would likely have been better for them, like Judas, if they had never been born. This level of seriousness and sternness needs to be more visible within the Church, infusing its responses.
Third, the closer the Church moves to embracing the world, the worse things become within the Church. The dimension of stark severity as described in the preceding paragraph, for instance, seems strangely absent within today’s modern Church: replaced often with dimensions of popular psychology, environmentalism, or echoes of the Sexual Revolution. Voices such as Father James Martin, the at-large editor of the once great America, The National Catholic Weekly, seem bent on moving the Catholic Church to an altogether different place—e.g. expressing “reverence” for homosexual unions and even the encouraging of transgenderism. Unflinching orthodoxy, on the other hand, sees clearly that each act of abuse like those that took place in Pennsylvania, represents an act remarkably similar to Judas’ betrayal of Christ, actions that attack and disrespect not only the living person of our Savior, but also His followers, and the Gospel itself.
Bishop Fulton Sheen, a particularly inspiring communicator for Christ’s Church, puts it this way in Radio Replies, Volume 1.
If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the closer the Church moves to joining with the world, the worse things become. It seems that we have exchanged being the salt of the earth for the…flour, but where does this leave us today? I suggest that we first must acknowledge that something is seriously wrong with the structure and spirit of any church in which these crimes could be tolerated and overlooked for so long. I heard the disquieting news recently that Pope Francis may be prepared to call for a change to our Catechism to reflect the perceived immoral nature of the death penalty—and even more baffling pronouncements concerning a belief now that life sentences are tantamount to torture. Yet, so far as I have heard, the relatively small section devoted to sexual abuse (CCC 2389) does not appear to be headed for any similar expansion or revision. As David Vermont reminds readers in a Catholic365 article from 2014 entitled "Pope Francis: Infallibility Doesn’t Make Him Right," “…infallibility doesn’t mean the Pope is right, it just means that he can’t be wrong. There’s a difference.” In other words, we are not bound to necessarily follow every statement or sentiment expressed by our pontiff; only ex cathedra teachings fall into this category. The pope’s decisions, then, are not necessarily always in the best interest of the Church.
Fourth, given the numbers and historical context of this present darkness holding watch over the Church, Catholics must demand that the Church’s own published instructions be more closely followed concerning the matter of homosexual priests. Below is an excerpt from “On Priesthood and Those with Homosexual Tendencies, Instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education.”
From the time of the Second Vatican Council until today, various documents of the Magisterium, and especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have confirmed the teaching of the Church on homosexuality. The Catechism distinguishes between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies.
Regarding acts, it teaches that Sacred Scripture presents them as grave sins. The Tradition has constantly considered them as intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law. Consequently, under no circumstance can they be approved.
Deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are found in a number of men and women, are also objectively disordered and, for those same people, often constitute a trial. Such persons must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. They are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter.8
In the light of such teaching, this dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture."
Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies…
The above does not serve as an excuse, of course, for rudeness or disrespect towards those who identify as homosexual, but it does highlight the importance of clearly conveying that positions of ministry within the Catholic Church should not be extended to those who harbor same sex attraction. If this had only been adhered to earlier, a huge amount of grief and pain might have been altogether averted.
Fifth, Saint Paul’s teachings convey a particularly important message for the today’s world. While too many within Anglican and Catholic traditions object to what they perceive as the rigidity of Pauline Theology concerning matters such as homosexuality, they do so only at their own spiritual peril. If one is tempted to disregard or discount the teachings of Saint Paul, it would be wise to reflect first upon his astonishing journey from Saul to Paul. Has ever a more dramatic conversion been conveyed than what happened on that road to Damascus? We have a persecutor of Christians who became one persecuted for Christ. If we believe that God is omniscient, then we must accept that miraculous interventions such as the conversion of Saint Paul are for specific, God-ordained missions. Since he was chosen by God in such a profound way, we would be exceedingly foolish to discount his words as no longer being applicable. There’s a reason that the famous sculpture of Saint Paul looks down from the Vatican’s colonnades; his voice is never to be forgotten within the Church.
Sixth, the latest abuse controversy should not so discourage and anger us so as we leave the Church to endeavor to form or discover that perfect church. After all, as long as any church contains human beings, it’s bound to also contain sin, and, therefore, it is imperfect at the outset. One way to reflect on it is to think globally, yet act locally. That is, few of us have any chance of affecting fundamental change or cleansing within the Church, but we all have more power within our spheres of influence. We need to understand the larger issues, yet endeavor to keep our mindset upon what is good and pure. In other words, we’re not going to achieve salvation through a life of anger alone. Just and righteous anger can be directed in meaningful ways, but it is not necessarily a sustainable spiritual mindset for most of us. In a poem I wrote called “Viganò’s Tears,” I remind readers in the final stanza that priests, bishops, and popes will come and go, but that Christ is eternal; our love of the Church is a reflection of our love for Christ and His love for us. Don’t ever let the unending noise of the world make you forget this truth.
In conclusion, the six lessons offered above help us to see the current situation more clearly: a continuation of attacks upon the Church made possible by the sins and moral weaknesses of men. If I were to endeavor to offer more specific advice for moving forward, it would be to safeguard all vulnerable populations as if our spiritual lives depend upon it; take a one strike, you are out approach to abuse. Embrace the cleansing quality of light and transparency in all of these affairs and take meaningful steps towards reconciliation and forgiveness with those victims the Church has wounded so deeply. Perhaps some of the wisest commentary concerning this spiritual crisis is found within Archbishop Alexander Sample’s recent pastoral letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Portland. In this important letter, Archbishop Sample outlines four recommendations that include: increasing accountability of bishops in clear and meaningful ways, initiating an outside investigation, bringing investigation to bear not only upon the perpetrators, but also those in authority who knew but failed to act, and ensuring that new reports of concern are never again whitewashed or ignored. These recommendations of accountability, if enacted, would take us far along the road of healing, reconciliation, and justice, because what we need today is unflinching orthodoxy; neither false promises nor meaningless sound bites will deliver us from this present darkness.