During the Catholic Church’s synod on the family in Rome in 2015, a rough-and-tumble affair in which Pope Francis pushed the assembled bishops to liberalize Catholic teaching on remarriage and divorce, one of the attendees, by the pope’s own invitation, was the retired Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
Danneels was a natural pick in one sense: One of the church’s prominent liberals, he had been part of a circle that supported Jorge Bergoglio in the run-up to his election as Francis, and in a synodal fight with conservative bishops, the pope needed all the allies he could get.
In another sense, though, Danneels was a wildly inappropriate choice, because at the conclusion of his career he was caught on tape trying to persuade a young victim of sex abuse not to go public with allegations against the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium. For Pope Francis, who talked a good game about disciplining bishops for covering up sex abuse, hauling a cover-up artist out of retirement for a synod on the family was a statement that ideological loyalties mattered more to him than personal misconduct: Sex abuse might be bad, but what really mattered was being on the correct side of the Catholic civil war.
The Danneels case is useful context for thinking about the bomb that went off on an already cratered Catholic landscape over the weekend, when the former papal nuncio in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published a “testimony” accusing a raft of high Vatican officials of longstanding knowledge of the sexual crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Viganò’s document, extraordinary in both content and tone, claims that after years of failed U.S. attempts to get Rome to take action, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, placed the already retired McCarrick under some form of sanctions — moving him out of his residence, restricting contact with seminarians, limiting public appearances. It further claims that despite being told that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Francis removed those sanctions, raised McCarrick’s profile and relied on him for advice about major appointments. Oh, and it calls on Francis to resign.
As yet none of the Vatican figures named in the document have stepped forward to either confirm or deny the meat of Viganò’s account. Francis himself offered only a deflecting comment on his flight back from post-Catholic Ireland. However, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., already embattled over sex abuse cover-ups in his own past, has issued a statement denying that Viganò ever communicated directly with him about restrictions on his predecessor.
Meanwhile, the pope’s defenders have pointed to Viganò’s own anti-Francis conservatism (manifest in some of his sweeping claims) as reasons to disbelieve his charges, while noting that McCarrick appeared at many events, including with Benedict himself, in the period when he was supposedly under sanctions.
But at the same time evidence in favor of Viganò’s account is trickling out — including a claim of confirmation from people close to Benedict himself. And given the distracted and ineffectual way that the last pope ran the church, it’s very easy to imagine a distracted and ineffectual attempt to restrict McCarrick being subverted and ignored by the cardinal and his allies in the hierarchy.
In which case it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which Francis didn’t technically “lift” those sanctions so much as acted in ignorance of them, or of their seriousness. He might have been given some knowledge, by Viganò and others, of the allegations against McCarrick but either assumed they couldn’t be that bad (at this point the cardinal mostly stood accused of imposing himself on seminarians, not teenage minors) or else chose to believe a denial from the accused cardinal himself. Why? In part because of perceived self-interest: Francis needed allies, McCarrick was sympathetic to the pope’s planned liberalizing push, and the pope wanted his help reshaping the ranks of American bishops.
In this scenario Francis would be guilty of self-deception and incuriosity but not as nakedly culpable as Viganò implies. And if it’s easy to imagine this scenario because of the Danneels example, it’s also easy to imagine because that’s how things have proceeded consistently in the church since the sex abuse scandals broke: If a given predator or enabler is “on side” for either conservatives or liberals, he will find defenders and protectors for as long as events and revelations permit.
That’s a major reason that John Paul II refused to investigate Father Marcel Maciel, the wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — because the Legionaries were conservative, and apparently a great success, and that was all that mattered. It’s why many conservative Catholics unwisely defended John Paul II-appointed prelates like Boston’s Bernard Law in the early 2000s. It’s why a notorious traditionalist priest, Father Carlos Urrutigoity, could find a welcome from conservative bishops in Pennsylvania and then Paraguay, despite a trail of abuse allegations.
Now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years, and all’s fair in the Catholic civil war.
But the inevitable, even providential irony is that this sort of team thinking never leads to theological victory but only to exposure, shame, disaster. Indeed, the lesson of these bitter decades is that any faction hoping to lead Roman Catholicism out of crisis should begin with purges within its own ranks, with intolerance for any hint of corruption.
Francis, alas for everyone, did the opposite. Elected by cardinals eager for a cleanup at the Vatican, he wanted to be a theological change agent instead — which led him to tolerate the corrupt Roman old guard (whose names fill Viganò’s letter) and to rehabilitate liberal figures like Danneels, McCarrick and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (a dubious figure with a predator among his underlings and a scandal at his seminary) who deserved the sidelines if not a penitent’s cell.
Now those allies may be the ruin of his pontificate. But this doesn’t mean that the pope should resign — not even if Viganò is fully vindicated. One papal resignation per millennium is more than enough. That cop-out should not be easily available to pontiffs confronted with scandals, including scandals of their own making, any more than it should be available to fathers.
Instead the faithful should press Francis to fulfill the paternal obligations at which he has failed to date, to purge the corruption he has tolerated and to supply Catholicism with what it has lacked these many years: a leader willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the “filth” in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist