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The Catholic Church is facing its most serious crisis in 500 years. In these last few months, a new wave of clerical sexual abuse revelations left the world in shock. From Australia to Chile to Germany to the United States, horrifying reports revealed thousands of cases of child molestation by members of the clergy. One U.S. grand jury report documented 1,000 children abused by 300 priests in the state of Pennsylvania alone over seven decades.
The new wave of revelations in 2018 was disturbing not only because it exposed the persistence of abuse but also because it implicated high level church officials in the abuse and its cover-up. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned from the College of Cardinals in July when credible accusations came to light that he had sexually abused a minor and harassed seminarians he supervised. The McCarrick revelations were particularly troubling because the former archbishop had played a leadership role in the Catholic Church’s response to the last U.S. clerical sexual abuse scandal in 2002. In late August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal diplomat, published a letter accusing Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick’s sexual abuses for years and helping to cover them up. Viganò concluded by calling on the pope to resign.
The Viganò letter, and the scandal itself, have sent shockwaves through a foundation that was already cracked. The church is bitterly divided between progressive and conservative wings. This split is particularly pronounced in the United States, where highly mobilized, neo-traditionalist Catholics took up Vigano’s call for Francis’ resignation. This branch of the church already feared that Francis presented a progressive threat to church teachings on marriage and sexuality. The letter seemed to vindicate such distrust by accusing the current papacy and its supporters in the church of complacency towards what Viganò called a “pro-gay ideology” and “homosexual networks” among the clergy. In Viganò’s opinion, this was the cause of the abuse crisis. Church progressives, meanwhile, have defended Francis against the allegations, but without the resolve of those who are demanding his resignation—in part because they too view his general record on the sexual abuse crisis as weak.
In desperate need of institutional reform and facing growing political, theological, and geopolitical rifts, the church has not experienced so great a crisis since the Protestant Reformation. Unlike that of the sixteenth century, the current situation probably won’t result in a schism or the establishment of new churches. But to understand the magnitude and complexity of what is now taking place, we have to look that far back, and to so significant a rupture.
Like the Reformation, the current crisis unfolds against a backdrop of pervasive institutional corruption. Then and now, the institutional church, specifically the papacy, had pushed back against key reform proposals in the decades before the crisis broke.
In the early fifteenth century, following a period of schism, a series of councils convened to unify the Catholic Church. They proposed a system whereby a council of representatives of the local churches would provide a check on papal power and corruption. But the papacy was swift to declare this doctrine, known as conciliarism, incompatible with Catholicism. This reversal was one factor that made possible the corruption in church leadership that Martin Luther saw while visiting Rome in 1510. The popes of the Renaissance encouraged reform, but never reform that extended to the papacy.
In the years after the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965, the papacy once again pushed back against reforms. Vatican II had an enormous impact on the culture and theology of the church, including changing the language of the mass from Latin to the vernacular and including laypeople and young people more in the life of the church. Yet it had very little success in reforming the institutional structure of the church and papacy. Although the proposals coming from the bishops at Vatican II for radical changes in the Roman Curia (the central government of the church) were carefully listened to by Paul VI (himself a creature of the Roman Curia), he ultimately decided to withdraw the agenda from Vatican II.
The sex abuse crisis today stems in large part from 50 years of a papal office rejecting any proposal for decentralizing or modernizing a Roman Curia whose structure has changed little since its foundation in 1588, in the period immediately following the Council of Trent. It remains a career system without real accountability, not only when it comes to the abuse crisis, but also in terms of the governance and pastoral leadership of local churches entrusted to bishops. The Curia is also seriously underfunded and understaffed for the duties it is supposed to carry out, including the selection, vetting, appointment, and supervision of an episcopate that today consists of more than 5,000 Catholic bishops around the world.
Through measures such as the decentralization of the marriage annulment process and a new set of procedures for Bishops’ Synods—all part of this pontificate’s push towards a more “synodal,” less clerical and Rome-dependent church—Pope Francis has visibly tried to change course and allow for more decentralization of the church: it remains to be seen if it is too late. So far, the world episcopate has been unwilling to take up the pope’s offer. The most visible change has been Francis’ decision to create more cardinals (compared to the past) from the so-called global South. But this is not a change that can or will affect the central government of the church in Rome in the short term.
The brittleness that results from a papacy and church resistant to institutional reform make theological disputes all the more dangerous. In Luther’s time, the dispute centered on the role of Scripture in the theological life of Christians. Today, Catholics are divided over the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Consider first the views of many traditionalist Catholics, especially laypeople and clergy in the United States who gravitate toward magazines such as First Things, the Catholic media conglomerate EWTN, traditionalist blogs, and Catholic lobbying groups such as the Napa Institute. They tend to see the abuse crisis as a product of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which they believe contributed to the normalization of LGBT culture within the clergy, among other developments. This wing of the church believes that the abuse crisis will only recede if the church holds the line against any attempt to update the official teaching on sexual issues—especially on homosexuality. For many traditionalists, effective enforcement of this teaching would mean cracking down on homosexuality among the clergy, including gay clergy who are celibate and chaste.
The liberal-progressive side of the church, including Francis-appointed U.S. cardinals such as Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark, generally affirms Catholic teaching on sexuality but advocates a more pragmatic approach to issues such as the situations of gay, divorced, and remarried Catholics, contraception, and pre-marital cohabitation. This group sees the silencing and covering up of the abuses as a toxic result of the hypocrisy of the institutional church, which until recently had denied the need to update the language of its teachings while silently being aware of the huge gap between said teachings and modern culture.
As during the Protestant Reformation, the theological divide has extended beyond the clergy to the laity and the common faithful in the pew. The debates are not over obscure doctrinal questions for specialists, but issues such as sexuality, which are part of lay people’s everyday lives.
The same is true of the political divides within the church, both in the sixteenth century and today. The Protestant Reformation was the beginning of a process of political nationalization, where the faithful became subjects not only of the church, but also of nations. The rise of the nation state marked the decline of the Roman Catholic political doctrine that held the church’s (specifically the pope’s) legitimacy supreme over that of imperial rulers.
The Catholic crisis today is about deeper political rifts within the church over the correct teaching on social-political issues.
In a similar way, the Catholic crisis today is about deeper political rifts within the church over the correct teaching on social-political issues. Where conservative-traditionalist Catholics tend to oppose to any legislation decriminalizing abortion, progressives usually favor decriminalization coupled with measures that offer women alternatives designed to limit the number of abortions as much as possible. Conservatives tend to oppose universal access to health care and favor the unrestricted right to bear arms for civilians, while progressives favor the former and push for gun control. The two camps also have opposing views on the death penalty and on Francis’ recent change to the Catechism declaring capital punishment “inadmissible.” In general, conservatives favor shrinking government, while progressives see government services and public authorities as essential to promote the common good in civil society. These political rifts between the two Catholic camps have never been deeper in modern times, especially in the Western world.
Like the Reformation, which led to the religious breakup of the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, today’s crisis has geopolitical dimensions. Pope Francis has, for the first time, turned the gaze of the papacy away from Europe and North America and toward the global South, especially Asia. In September 2018, for example, Francis managed to reach an historic agreement with the government of China to reunite the official and unofficial church there—a move many U.S. Catholics view with great suspicion. Many of the pope’s critics in the West, and particularly the United States, see the abuse crisis not only as a moral-theological failure, but also as the Catholic Church’s failure to remain the soul of the West. It is not a coincidence that former White House strategist and Breitbart News Chair Steve Bannon is helping build up the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a right-wing Roman Catholic institute in Italy whose founder describes it as an “academy for the Judeo-Christian West.”
Given these divides, is a new rupture on the horizon for the Vatican? A formal schism in the Catholic Church is, although not impossible, unlikely in the short term. The potential members of a schismatic Catholic sect are located in areas of the world such as the United States, where the church has significant financial resources and assets, plus a wide array of independent Catholic institutions that operate largely outside the hierarchy of the church. A schism would set off a cascade of contentious claims as to who owns what—and who owes what, as the church pays damages to victims of sexual abuse.
A more likely possibility is that the Roman Catholic Church ends up with a structure similar to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Some individual Orthodox churches have very strong national identities. Nationalism often influences the theology of these churches and the system of global allegiances between them and the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is “first among equals” and center of Orthodox unity. This could be a long-term solution for an overstretched papacy, especially one headed by a Latin American pope with a tenuous grip on the Catholic churches that built the world of Christendom in Europe and North America. The Vatican cannot and should not abandon the globalization of Catholicism, but the process could come at a steep cost to its internal unity.
For now, what’s most likely to happen is a deepening of the church’s preexisting, unofficial divide. Catholics will remain formally obedient to one pope and one episcopal hierarchy. At the same time, neo-traditionalist Catholic groups—with their own parishes and seminaries—will continue on a different course from the rest of the church. Theirs will be a “long march”: an attempt to return Roman Catholicism and Catholic theology to a model that predates Vatican II, and even predates the twentieth century. It would be a great irony of church history if, once the Vatican heals the wound in China, a new and deeper wound opens up in the West.