On August 25th Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States, published a devastating document. It referred to the wide-ranging disclosures of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church which have rocked America in the last few weeks, and accused Pope Francis himself of being complicit in the extensive cover-up that has been revealed. Archbishop Viganò did not hesitate to call upon Francis to resign. His letter put the coping-stone on the crisis provoked by the sex-abuse revelations.
In fact his accusations would have come as little surprise to readers of my book The Dictator Pope, published earlier this year. In this I pointed out that Francis has failed to deliver on the “zero tolerance” policy that he promised on sexual abuse, that he has protected clerical sex offenders, and that he has a habit of surrounding himself with morally weak people because of the hold this gives him over them. Moreover, these traits can be traced back throughout his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he showed a notable indifference to accusations of sexual wrongdoing among his clergy and failed to act when cases were brought to his attention.
What is significant about the furor stirred up by Archbishop Viganò is the way it has divided Catholics. It has not revealed two parties, of corrupt clergy on the one side and those who want to see a clean-up on the other. It has divided Catholics into the conservatives, who want Francis out, and the liberals, who are aghast at the blow to his image and the program he represents. A statement of the latter point of view is Timothy Egan's article “The Catholic Church is Sick with Sex” in a recent New York Times piece. He begins his argument: “If you read Viganò's full 11-page letter, you see what's really driving him and his ultraconservative cabal – an abhorrence of gay Catholics and a desire to return to the Dark Ages,” and he goes on to attack the Church's whole historical stance on sexual morality, including priestly celibacy. For Egan, as for the other liberal Catholics who have rushed to the Pope's defense, Francis is the man who is changing the Church's attitudes to sex, and in particular they are looking to him for a reversal of the traditional condemnation of homosexuality.
We need to look at the doctrinal argument behind this view, of which Egan provides a characteristic expression. “The Church's backward teachings,” he says, “dictated by nominally celibate and hypocritical men, have no connection to the words of Jesus,” who “never said anything about whom you could love [his euphemism for “whom you could have sexual relations with”]. Nothing about homosexuals.” By this argument, the Church ought to discard all the elements of the moral code on which no pronouncement of Christ's happens to be recorded. One should point out that, if this is what Christ meant, he failed to make the fact clear to his followers. The early Christians were distinguished by a strict and ascetic sexual morality. For the first two centuries, the Church excommunicated adulterers and fornicators and refused to re-admit even the penitent to communion. When in the third century Pope Callistus began re-admitting repentant adulterers, one of his clergy, Hippolytus, was so shocked at this laxity that he initiated a schism against him.
With regard to homosexuality, the Church preserved the ethics of Judaism, in which sodomy was an abomination and one of the four sins crying to heaven for vengeance. St Paul taught, in very explicit terms, that no active or passive sodomite could enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and Christians after him were distinguished by their abhorrence of sodomy, in a society that tolerated it.
This was the basis of the moral code that Christendom followed in the 16 centuries from the conversion of the Roman Empire, and it remained the norm in ordinary society until fairly recently. Western society accepted the assumptions that chastity was a virtue, that self-restraint was necessary in sexual relations, that divorce was a grave blow to the sanctity of the family, and that perversions such as homosexuality were an abominable vice. The picture changed from the 1960s onward, as Christianity began to lose its hold on secular thinking, and the Sexual Revolution came upon us. Chastity and self-restraint lost their status as virtues, sex was hailed as an inalienable right, and homosexuality was promoted as alternative life-style.
Not surprisingly, the tendency of many members of the various Christian denominations was to give up the attempt to hold to Christian principles over such things as divorce and homosexuality and to accept the standards of the society around them. In the Anglican Communion this party has had its way completely. The liberal school of thought, which Timothy Egan represents, is keen that the Catholic Church should follow the same path, and in Pope Francis, over the last five and a half years, they have found the leader they were looking for.
Without getting involved in the relevant arguments, one should at least relate this program to the expectations that the Church had of Francis when he was elected. We may begin by admitting that the group who first put forward Bergoglio's candidacy probably did want him to usher a sexual revolution in the Church. As I detail in The Dictator Pope, these were the “St Gallen Mafia” (the description is that of their leader himself, Cardinal Danneels), a group of cardinals who had been meeting secretly for years at St Gallen with a program of pressing for a liberal pope. Most of these were indeed looking for a relaxation in sexual ethics, while Danneels himself had been exposed as covering up clerical sexual abuse of children – a record which did not prevent him from being a leading figure in the 2013 Conclave, or from appearing on the balcony of St Peter's beside the Pope once his candidate had been elected.
However, those were not the ideas of the vast majority of the cardinals who voted for Bergoglio. When they met in 2013, it was in a situation of crisis caused by the abdication of Benedict XVI, and they were looking for reform in three specific areas: (1) the Vatican finances, which had been a sink of iniquity ever since the illegal activities of Archbishop Marcinkus thirty years before, (2) the Roman Curia, and (3) the crisis of clerical sexual corruption. As far as the last was concerned, it is believed that a secret report submitted to Pope Benedict four months earlier, revealing the existence of a homosexual network among the Vatican clergy, was the last straw in causing Benedict to resign, so as to allow a younger and stronger man to come in and clear the morass.
As I have shown in my book, Pope Francis has failed to deliver reform on any of the three points mentioned, and as far as the last goes he has in fact shown himself a major part of the problem. Archbishop Viganò reveals that before 2013 Pope Benedict had secretly suspended Cardinal McCarrick after discovering a long train of offenses of molesting young men and under-age boys. Francis however, on being elected pope, and in full knowledge of the facts, restored McCarrick to favor and made him his chief adviser on American Church appointments, including those of the most prominent figures now being pointed out as protectors of abusing clergy.
Instead of the moral cleanser that the cardinals thought they were electing, Pope Francis is now being praised by liberals as the man who is discarding retrograde Church attitudes on sexual ethics. The situation is as if the security guard engaged to protect an apartment block suddenly disclosed himself as a champion of squatters' rights. Francis sits before us saying, “Fooled you!” and the response of Timothy Egan and his friends is a burst of applause.
We need to be clear about the nature of battle that is now being waged: it is about whether the Church is to uphold traditional Christian teaching in sexual ethics (as Egan expresses it, “return to the Dark Ages”) or adapt to the spirit of “anything goes” (so long as it isn't air-conditioning or burning fossil fuels) of which Francis has made himself the spokesman. To those who take the latter side, it matters nothing if the Pope is exposed as a cynical protector of the sexually corrupt. The party who are accusing him, they say, are those who want to “plunge the church back into a medieval mind-set on sexuality.” Looking at the disclosures of clerical abuse that have exploded in the last few years, and especially in the last few weeks, we could well sympathize with Egan's judgment that “The Catholic Church is Sick with Sex.” What we are wondering is, how much sicker is it going to get?