Related: Catholic issues

Engaging the Church in Crisis


Cardinal Wuerl(Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the dedication of the Payden Academic Center, June 2016)

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has written to priests to tell them that he will soon be on his way to Rome to ask Pope Francis to accept the resignation he submitted in 2015 when he turned 75.  Pope Francis should accept the resignation without delay.  I say this with sadness; Cardinal Wuerl has been a good leader for this Archdiocese, and he has always been generous toward Trinity and me.  But in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on the devastating cases of child sex abuse by priests in Pittsburgh, some of which occurred during his years as the bishop there, and the revelations in the report of Bishop Wuerl’s role in failing to deal with the abusive priests effectively, Cardinal Wuerl’s credibility has been severely damaged.  Compounded by the scandal of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive misconduct, leadership change becomes imperative and inevitable, not so much as an admission of culpability but more as a statement of accountability and atonement by the Church leadership for the horrors that ordained clergy perpetrated upon vulnerable children and young adults for so many years.

I have no illusions that this impending leadership change in the  Washington Archdiocese will settle the massive crisis that the sex abuse scandal has created for the Roman Catholic Church.  Not at all.  Pope Francis must do far more than swap out diocesan leaders if he wants to guide the Church forward to a new era of trust, confidence in leadership and effectiveness in promoting the moral and spiritual goals of the Catholic faith in human society.  And while the Pope’s impending meetings with leading bishops from the U.S. and worldwide are necessary, such meetings are hardly sufficient to assuage the demands among lay and clerical members of the Church for more sincere expressions of atonement for the crimes of priests, along with a genuine commitment to significant change in Church governance structures.

The tendency of Church leaders to speak only to themselves is part of the problem right now.  That problem has a name:  clericalism.  The problem of clericalism is a cultural disposition to reinforce both the spiritual authority and temporal power of ordained men, conferring on them certain privileges including an expectation that they are beyond reproach by mere lay persons.  Clericalism creates a climate for the abuse of power, which has contributed to the criminal acts of abuse and the errors of judgment that protected so many abusive priests.  With so much discussion of the problem of clericalism swirling around the sex abuse scandal, including a condemnation of clericalism by Pope Francis, himself, it’s been ironic that in the weeks since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Cardinal Wuerl has written at least four times to priests but has not addressed the laity more generally nor the many lay leaders of the ministries in the Archdiocese of Washington.  While it is true that Cardinal Wuerl has asked the parishes to participate in a six-week “Season of Healing,” there is a general sentiment that this is not specific enough, and that lay people want an opportunity for more direct discussion about the future of Church governance.

Pope Francis did write to all of the People of God with a tone of anguish about the crisis, but with few specifics beyond calling on everyone to engage in penitential acts of prayer and fasting, which did not sit well with some critics who felt the Pope missed the point and was even trying to deflect real accountability.  We are all struggling to make sense of what is happening, but at a time when we need real guidance and support to help the people we are working with to understand the situation, we are on the outside of the stained glass curtain trying to see what’s going on inside among the many cracks in the facade.  We only know what we are reading in the newspapers, and that is quite devastating.

Clericalism is also fueling the internecine warfare within the hierarchy that has been going on for years, now erupting in a messy display of vituperative accusation unleashed in a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador (papal nuncio) to the U.S.  Nobody should confuse Vigano’s message with any genuine desire to atone for the crimes of priestly sex abuse of children.  The “testimony” gives voice to the fight-to-the-death struggle for control between the rightwing and progressive wings of the Catholic hierarchy, with the rightwing supported generously by equally extreme and wealthy Catholic lay donors whose media outlets and think tanks have been working overtime to undermine Pope Francis and his progressive leadership.  The Vigano message is also deeply homophobic and simply wrong in so many of its statements.  John Gehring of Faith in Public Life has an excellent analysis of the Vigano matter in his essay, “The Politicization of the Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis.”

Rejecting the Vigano thesis does not mean we should step back from holding the Pope and bishops accountable for the sex abuse crisis.  We must be firm in rejecting the rightwing interpretation of the problem as rooted in more liberal philosophies even as we must be equally firm in insisting that those responsible for crimes of child abuse must be removed from the Church, and those responsible for protecting the perpetrators must step down from leadership positions.

But beyond all of that, what’s the solution to this ugly mess?  While there are many good commentaries on the crisis and potential long-term solutions, I think the immediate actions should include:

  • Lay persons must be part of the solution at every step, and lay persons must be included in ALL discussions going forward about how to create effective solutions.  No more letters should issue to priests only; lay people must be included as equal partners and obvious stakeholders for the future of the Church.  And the hierarchy should not just tell lay people to pray and fast, or show up on Sunday to hear a letter from the bishop read from the pulpit or a homily on the issues.  The problems need discussion at the tables of serious convenings and dialogues around the country.
  • When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meet for their regular annual meeting in November, they should make the meeting open to lay persons, perhaps through a selection process of course, but the bishops should not meet in isolation from lay voices and insights.
  • WOMEN!  Women, in particular, must be invited, included and heard.  Religious women, married women, mothers, single women, women who are deeply engaged with the actual work of the Church on the ground, with the people who need the ministries of the Church so very much.  Women have long done the work of the Church, but too often have been relegated to the sidelines of any serious leadership conversations.  Enough with that!  Abandoning the clerical culture means that women will be welcome and heard in all of the important discussions about the future of the Church.

Should priests be able to marry?  Should women be eligible for ordination?  Should the practice of the secret conclave to elect the pope be more open?  Should laity have a say in who gets appointed as a bishop?  Should popes have term limits?  So many questions swirl about the future of the Church.  I will address some of these in future blogs.  For now, however, we must find a way forward, together, believing that the faith is ultimately far stronger than the sins of men, and that a new Church with a more open, more hopeful future can emerge from this era of so much pain and anguish.

In all of this, we must keep as our central concern the children and victims of clergy sex abuse, and the parents and loved ones who have also suffered with them.  No crime can be worse than harming a child for self-gratification, and to read the Pennsylvania grand jury report is to take an excursion through the darkest, most tortured places in hell.  These crimes make a mockery of everything the Church teaches about the dignity of human life.  To restore credibility, the Church leadership must offer profound atonement, demonstrate real understanding of the extent of the damage this crisis has wrought, and be open to new forms of organization to sustain the faith for the future.

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5 Responses to Engaging the Church in Crisis

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Pope and Bishops at the Clergy Sex Abuse Summit | President's Office - Trinity Washington University

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: