In August, the Catholic journalist Rocco Palmo reported rumors that the United States Catholic bishops would delay the release of their much-anticipated pastoral letter on racism, which had been slated for publication during their annual gathering in November, and that the meeting would focus exclusively on addressing the sexual abuse crisis within the church. These rumors came on the heels of the report of a Pennsylvania grand jury on sexual abuse by priests in four dioceses in the state, as well as its covering up by the bishops, and the removal from public ministry of the retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Only days later, the former Vatican nuncio to the United States Carlo Maria Viganò released a letter claiming that the Vatican had long known of allegations that McCarrick had years earlier sexually assaulted seminarians (although not the claim that he had sexually abused a teenager, the allegation over which he was sanctioned by Pope Francis and which only emerged this January). Viganò further alleged that despite knowing these allegations, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick as a trusted adviser.
Although it remains unclear whether or not the U.S. bishops will in fact publish the pastoral letter on racism, the possibility that its release will be delayed highlights a tragic consequence of the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church: the crisis hinders the church’s ability to serve as a witness of the Gospel to the world, both because it requires the church to focus its energies inward by investigating and removing abusive and conspiring priests and prelates, and because it undermines the credibility of the church’s witness. A similar dynamic is behind the calls to delay or postpone the upcoming synod of bishops focused on the faith of young people.
Without denying that it must be a top priority to address allegations of sexual abuse and reform the institutions that enable it, I believe it would be a mistake for the church to set aside major initiatives like the racism pastoral or the synod on youth. Rooting out this evil from the church will be a long and arduous process that cannot be completed at one annual conference, and the church cannot indefinitely put on hold its ministry to a world desperately in need of the Gospel. Indeed, listening to the concerns of young people, one of the aims of the upcoming synod, ought to be central to the church’s response to the crisis.
That being said, the bishops must be aware of how the ongoing sexual abuse crisis undermines the credibility of the church and its teaching, not least its social teaching. As the synod of bishops in 1971 said in the document Justitia in Mundo, “[A]nyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes” (#40). Pope Paul VI made a similar point in his 1974 apostolic exhortation Evangelium Nuntiandi, “Modern man [sic] listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (#41, citing an earlier address). The sexual abuse crisis undermines the church’s witness because it makes painfully clear the ways in which the church has failed to witness to Christ’s love to its most vulnerable members, and how its leaders have put the church’s reputation and clerical privileges ahead of justice.
How can the church continue to carry out its witness to the Gospel, including the church’s social teaching, while mindful of the ways its credibility has been shattered? I offer three ideas I believe would be helpful, but not exhaustive:
Humility. In proclaiming its social teaching, the church must humbly recognize its own failure and that of its members to live up to the ideals it teaches. In his recent book Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump, Steven P. Millies insightfully points out how in the aftermath of the revelations of widespread sexual abuse and its covering up in 2002, many bishops in the United States took a strident attitude toward “culture war” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and ramped up lobbying efforts at the national and state levels on these and similar issues. As Millies explains, these bishops seemed to think that the church could recover its moral authority in the wake of the scandal by attempting to serve as the moral conscience of a society that had lost its way. Yet this strategy did not take adequate consideration of how damaged the church’s credibility had become, not to mention the church’s own failure to convince the faithful to practice what it teaches. A humbler approach should not mean watering down the church’s teaching, but rather abandoning the presumption that it will be accepted as a moral authority in a pluralistic society.
Accompaniment. One of the greatest failures of the church in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis was its failure to clearly take the side of the victims. For decades the testimony of abuse victims was ignored or disbelieved, and abusive priests were reassigned from one parish to another with no regard for the threat to potential victims. Once the cascade of allegations began in 2002, in many cases bishops seemed more concerned with mitigating legal and financial liability than seeking justice for the victims. One way for the church to begin to restore its credibility is to reverse this and to clearly stand beside the victims of abuse, to exercise what Pope Francis has called accompaniment. The church’s social witness must include the accompaniment of both the victims of injustice in the broader society, such as the poor, immigrants, and Muslims, but also the victims of the church’s own injustices.
Transparency. The theologian and economist Daniel Finn has argued that the church should put greater emphasis on the importance of transparency in its social teaching. Transparency, in this case, refers to the responsibility of governments and corporations to provide information to the public about their deliberations, financial records, and the outcomes of any actions taken. Transparency fosters participation and accountability and helps combat corruption. But the church itself must operate in a more transparent way if it is to restore the credibility of its witness. First of all, local dioceses and the Vatican must be transparent about priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and about how their bishops have dealt with these allegations. The church should also implement a transparent process for investigating and disciplining abusers and their enablers. But the church’s credibility also depends on implementing more financial transparency, for example, for both dioceses and the Vatican. In recent years the Vatican has been rocked by a number of financial scandals, and in some cases dirty money and sexual abuse intertwine; for example, Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, used donations to Vatican officials to help cover up allegations of sexual abuse.
It will not be easy for the Catholic Church to restore its credibility as it deals with the sexual abuse crisis, and it is practically certain that many church leaders will act unwisely and compound the problems already faced by the church. Nevertheless, the church should not abandon its social witness, or postpone it until the abuse crisis is resolved. Rather, the church must re-think how it engages in this witness, cognizant of its diminished credibility but confident in the power of the Gospel to transform the world.