The McCarrick Report and the De Facto Atheism of the Church

November 11, 2020
Best of Larry Chapp
A discussion of the McCarrick report and its relationship to the de facto athetism of the Church

Several people have asked me to comment on the recently released McCarrick report and so I thought I would offer the following brief comments.  I will return to my series on Vatican II and will have a new blog post on the Conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae by the end of the week.  So stay tuned….

As I have mentioned before, when I was in the seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s (Emmitsburg, Maryland) from 1981-85 I knew several seminarians from the diocese of Metuchen during the time that McCarrick was bishop there.  In fact, one of them was my roommate for a year.  And he and others told me that McCarrick had a habit of inviting seminarians to his beach home at the Jersey shore for little weekend parties wherein McCarrick was constantly drunk and was very prone to groping people inappropriately while drunk and that he routinely selected one of the seminarians to share a bed with him for the night.  Therefore, to say that it was an open secret that McCarrick was a pervert is a gross understatement.  Because it was no secret at all.  Everyone knew about these “rumors” and everybody joked about it.  Indeed, even one of the seminary professors, a priest, upon hearing that McCarrick was going to visit the seminary warned many of us to stay away from “Bishop Howdy Doody” as he called him.  

I eventually left the seminary and moved on with my career as an academic, but I always kept one eye on the rise of McCarrick to high office.  And when he was made Archbishop of Washington, and then later a Cardinal, I just could not fathom, in my naivete, why somebody had not blown the whistle on the guy.  I could not get my mind around how such a manifest sexual deviant and drunken ecclesiastical party boy, had gotten so far.  And I worried that the entire thing was a train wreck waiting to happen – – a fear that was deepened when in 2002 Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, off-camera after I had filmed a segment with him on priestly sex abuse, told me that they were investigating a leading American Cardinal for sexually inappropriate behavior with adults.  I said to him “You mean McCarrick.”  He just grinned from ear to ear, leaned back in his chair and replied, “have a safe trip home Dr. Chapp.”  But nothing ever came of their investigation and so I can only surmise that they ran into the same problem that everyone else had. Namely, that you could not get anyone to go on the record and that McCarrick was being protected by some powerful American prelates who were masters of deflection.

Well, the train wreck did eventually happen and now we have the long delayed “McCarrick Report” which will, most likely, be interpreted through the lens of the various ideological rip currents in the Church.  Liberals will seize the opportunity to criticize Pope John Paul and exonerate Pope Francis with an eye toward delegitimizing John Paul’s papacy as the “last gasp” of the reactionary Church.  Conservatives will see the entire affair as just further evidence of the existence of a “lavender mafia” in the Church that needs to be eliminated by implementing even stricter protocols for weeding out homosexual seminarians.  Less ideologically inclined folks will lean toward an analysis heavy on criticism of the Church’s clerical culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, and its sclerotic bureaucratic  apparatus – – an apparatus that has an inbuilt tendency to chart a trajectory through safe waters and to avoid at all costs any boat rocking by whistleblowers.

There is an element of truth in many of these approaches. It pains me to say it but Saint Pope John Paul II made some egregious mistakes in these matters and his negligence allowed the rise of McCarrick to prominence.  Nor was this a one-off mistake since he also did it with others – – most notably Marcial Maciel.  I think John Paul is a saint and he remains one of my heroes.  But he was human and flawed and does bear a great deal of blame here.  He seems to have had more than a tin ear for this issue.  It is better described as a deaf ear, which is deeply disappointing. Likewise, there are indeed a lot of homosexuals, both celibate and not-so-celibate, in the clerical ranks.  And with all due respect to those good priests who are homosexual but chastely so, the presence of such a critical mass of homosexuals in the clergy has created a large subculture of sexually active gay priests who cover for each other and whose epicurean lifestyle is a scandal.  On that latter point, McCarrick and Bishop Bransfield are “exhibits A and B.”  Finally, there is, of course, a need to institute new protocols for greater accountability and transparency in the Church in order, at the very least, to bring justice to the victims of sexual abuse.

However, even after taking all of that into account, I also think such analyses fall short of the mark because they do not analyze the actions that were taken with regard to McCarrick by his fellow prelates through the lens of a performative reduction.  And by that I mean that our tendency is to analyze such things too abstractly and our questioning never rises to the level of asking the concrete question of what the performative actions of the prelates in question tells us about what it is they truly believe – – or, as the case may be, what they do NOT believe.  Because if we know one thing for certain after the revelations of massive priestly sexual abuse and its cover up, it is that this is not a problem peculiar to either liberals or conservatives and it cuts across the ideological spectrum like a hot, searing, scalpel that lacerates to the bone.  Nor is it reducible to the inaction of a single pope or popes, who failed to “govern” the Church with due diligence.  Nor is this an issue that is largely a matter of “bad policies” that can be fixed with “charters” and absurd “Virtus training programs” for lay people who, for crying out loud, are not the core of the problem. In fact, the presence of Virtus training programs is actually a symptom of the problem insofar as it represents nothing more than a nod to the lawyers and insurance companies.  It is also a cynical exercise in deflection.  Cynical, because they don’t really think it will work (nor do I think that they care if it does or does not).  And “deflection” because it is merely an attempt to foster the illusion that “something is being done.”

My claim is actually more shocking – – some would even say “dark”. My claim is that the concrete actions taken with regard to McCarrick in particular, and the entire sexual abuse issue in general, tells us that many (most?) of our priests and bishops are de facto atheists.  They may overtly give public statements of faith, perform the Sacraments, kneel dutifully before the Blessed Sacrament, bless boats and homes and pets, all the while being “men without chests” as C.S. Lewis puts it. I would further add the following: most lay people in the American Church today are also de facto atheists who, therefore, swim in the same cultural soup of cultivated spiritual mediocrity.  “My parish is bored” says the young curate in The Diary of a Country Priest, which was Bernanos’s way of saying that nobody really believed anymore.  Because the boredom being described in the novel, and against which the non self-aware holiness of the curate is in contrast, is not the everyday boredom one feels at eating the same leftovers three days in a row or doing the same tasks every day, but rather is the deeper existential boredom of acedia.  And as the novel makes clear, it is a spiritual rot, a form of atheism, that pervaded the entirety of the French Church, both lay and clerical.  

Isn’t all of this rather judgmental you might ask?  Well… perhaps.  But in reality I think it closer to the truth to say that this claim of mine represents not a judgmental finger-wagging at those “others” whose faith does not rise to the purity of my own, but rather represents an extrapolation from my own de facto atheism.  I sense it in others connaturally since I have already experienced it in my own attenuated modern soul.  Ours is not an age of faith.  Our cultural horizon rarely stretches further than the local Vape shop and focuses our attention almost exclusively on the pursuit of worldly ends.  And many of those worldly ends are perfectly fine, but our cultural tendency is to stop there.  Like the old Irishman I once met at a pub in Galway who marked his whisky bottle with his ring in order remind himself, as he put it, to drink “thus far and no further”.  And just as with his pursuit of sobriety, our stopping short at perfectly legitimate worldly ends, without ever pressing further into the “deep waters” of supernatural faith, is our Lockean hangover wherein we deem such deeper pursuits to be fraught with the dangers of an inebriated fanaticism that is best nipped in the bud.  

Nor am I talking here about something akin to Newman’s distinction between notional and real assent. Because my claim is that even our notional assent is deeply lacking even “notional” levels of conviction and is riddled with the kinds of doubts that paralyze any growth in the spiritual life and which lead, as Augusto del Noce points out, to the accommodating compromises we have all made with our bourgeois culture of well-being.  And as del Noce further notes, at the core of our culture today – – a culture that affects and afflicts believers as well, in almost equal measure to the non-believers – – is a nihilistic soul the likes of which the world has never seen before. We live in an era of metaphysical negation which is marked by a degraded reductionistic naturalism that considers all previous ages to our own to have been mere infantile and adolescent stages of intellectual growth, but which we have now surpassed as we have moved into the “adulthood” of science and secular atheism.  From Feuerbach and Auguste Comte through Freud and on up to Noam Chomsky this narrative of “progression” from our infancy in myth to our adulthood in reductionistic nihilism is the coin of our secular, atheistic realm.  

And to think that that cultural tide hasn’t also swamped the Church in the storm surge of the modern hurricane is sociologically naïve in the extreme. Karl Barth once observed that Vatican II opened the windows of the Church to let in fresh air, and a hurricane blew in instead.  I am a big defender of Vatican II, as my next blog post will make clear, but if the Council can be faulted for anything it is precisely, ironically, in its false reading of the signs of the times.  And in its overly simplistic – – indeed amateurish – – sociological analysis of our times it seemed oblivious to the fact that if the Church could “go out” to the world then the world could, in its turn, come into the Church, and not in a good way.  The Council overestimated the vitality of the Church’s faith life – – an overestimation that is proven by the fact that that same Church came unraveled immediately after the Council – – and underestimated the toxic nature of modernity for any kind of genuine faith. And the tragedy is that it isn’t as if it did not have fair warning, as many of its deepest thinkers, from Claudel, to Guardini, to Bernanos made it clear that all was not as good as it seemed exteriorly.

Nevertheless, there are, of course, still pockets of holiness and true belief in the Church.  In my analysis here I am speaking in obvious generalities and am attempting to delineate broad trends and widespread attitudes.  I am attempting to engage in a performative reduction wherein I submit the current malaise in the Church to a concrete analysis of what the internal logic of that malaise implies.  And from where I sit it implies a deep crisis of faith.  And I am not talking here of a general lukewarmness such as the Church has historically, from time to time, fallen into.  In this regard I am echoing the analysis of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict who has also identified a deep crisis of faith as the chief cause of the sexual abuse problem.  

Viewed in this light, the sexual abuse problem in general, and the “McCarrick affair” in particular, cannot be dealt with in isolation from all of the other symptoms of this crisis of faith that afflicts the Church in the West.  To take one example – – an example that bears directly on the abuse crisis – – the practice of mandatory celibacy in the Western Church has become profoundly problematic, as one might expect in a Church besotted with a secularizing unbelief.  We are all of us sexual beings, and our natural instinct is to seek an overt expression of that reality through physical, sexual intercourse.  This instinct is a powerful one, instilled in us by the Creator, but also radically distorted by sin.  Thus, any decision in favor of celibacy, particularly among the young, is going to present enormous challenges (especially in our pornified culture) and will be possible only to the extent that there is a deep faith present which is open to the movement of Christ’s transformative and elevating grace.  And any attempt to live this life without faith, grace, and a deep prayer life, will eventuate in a white-knuckled repression that breeds frustrated resentment and the seeking out of surrogate material pleasures such as booze, food, trips, and vapid entertainments at best, and pornography and sexual relationships at worst.  Furthermore, without faith, celibacy just creates a clerical class of professional bachelors often locked in a depressive and lonely isolation devoid of any form of chaste intimacy.  And if you add into that witch’s brew of factors the sad fact that a certain statistically significant subset of men are drawn to the seminary precisely because they are emotionally immature and psychosexually dysfunctional, then you have the seeds of a crisis on your hands. What you end up with are priests who are desperately seeking intimacy and who do so with minors who are just vulnerable enough to be pliant.  Or you hire a dominatrix and make a porno movie on your Church’s altar.

I support mandatory celibacy and do not make these remarks in order to argue for its elimination.  A married clergy does not alleviate all of these issues, as all of the pertinent evidence makes clear, and brings as well a new set of different, but related problems.  And there is just as big of a crisis in marriage in the Church as there is among the celibate clergy.  It should be noted in this regard that there is more sexual abuse of minors at school at the hands of married teachers, and in households at the hands of married relatives and even parents, than among priests in a rectory.  This crisis in marriage, evident to any priest who hears confessions, is yet another symptom of the crisis of faith as couples enter into the Sacrament with a purely secular notion of marriage as nothing more than a civil, contractual arrangement that can be broken at will when the relational bargain the contract enacts is deemed to be “unfulfilled”.  The explosion of annulments in the United States is not, therefore, an abuse of the process where a wink and a nod are given to divorce and remarriage by another name, but a real acknowledgment of precisely the crisis I am talking about.  Finally, despite the ham-handed manner in which it has been carried forward, I think the Pope’s “concessions” in Amoris Laetitia on issues relating to divorce and remarriage are, at the very least, yet another indication that we have a problem and that the Pope knows it. And so we really need to stop the polemics with regard to Amoris because no less a light than Pope Benedict also noted that the Church is faced with a huge crisis here – – a crisis of faith among those seeking marriage in the Church – – and that the Church had to do a better job of recognizing this fact.

And so as I read the summaries of the McCarrick report and skim through its many pages my overall reaction is a mixture of anger (as I said at the beginning, everyone knew.  EVERYONE), sadness (for McCarrick’s victims, some of whom were my friends, and for the Church) and disappointment that the deeper issue that what really afflicts the Church is a deep, deep loss of faith was never addressed.  I get that the report was not meant to delve into such deeper issues, and yet … damn it, it should have since without it the entire report just becomes a cataloging of failures without a point.  This is, after all, a document of the Church and not the cold analysis of a corporation inquiring after why its market share has gone down.

And don’t tell me that the reason why it ignores deeper spiritual causes is that it is just trying to ascertain facts in order to better develop policies to avoid such things in the future.  Because that is the whole dadgum point I am making:  we will most definitely not avoid such things in the future if our focus is purely forensic, mechanical, and clinical.  There is no “policy” change that will make the sins caused by unbelief go away.  Personnel is policy and in this case we are talking about sins committed by faithless men, who were aided and protected by other faithless men, in a Church (in this case the American Catholic Church) grown cold in the faith owing to its flaccid bargain with bourgeois modernity.

Furthermore, even on the level of a purely forensic analysis of the facts, the report is open to the charge that it is trying to paint the problem as something that was done in the past, with Pope Francis exonerated of any wrong doing, and so we should just all move along now since “there is nothing to see here.”  It is like an automobile accident that has been cleared from the street, with the cops telling us we can stop our rubbernecking now as we slow down to stare at the bits of glass remaining on the road.  I just find it interesting that the main culprits identified in this report are either dead or very old. The report contains a wealth of detail and does shed light on how this all came about. Nevertheless, it really does read like an attempt to just move us along and to put the matter behind us. There just doesn’t seem to be any seriousness in the report on the level of a real theological and spiritual analysis of how the powers that be in the Church came to enable child rapists. And the very lack of such an analysis screams out that the Church still doesn’t get it and is further evidence of my thesis.  Because only a Church that doesn’t really believe anything anymore would treat the spiritual causes of the crisis as a triviality not worth discussing and as something that would be “distracting” from our “real, empirical analysis of causes.”

Raping children is a sin. Enabling and covering up for people who rape children is also a sin.  And they are sins of such magnitude that one is safe in assuming that no one who possesses a genuine faith would commit them.  These are the actions, the sins, of faithless men.  So the deeper, unaddressed question is: how did the Church come to be dominated by such men? And until that is answered no amount of policy changes will suffice. One reader of this blog, John Miner, has pointed out succinctly and with great insight the following, which is a wonderful summary of where we need to go. Therefore I will give him the last word:

“It is clear that Garrigou-Lagrange’s (and many before him incl. Aquinas) opinion that a man should be in the illuminative way prior to being ordained a priest, and in the unitive way prior to being a bishop has been either cast aside or ignored in the first place. How is it possible for any man to confront the challenges of the priesthood without first striving for spiritual perfection?”

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