Reeling from new claims of unfettered sexual abuse at the hands of priests and cover-ups by high-ranking officials, the Catholic Church is facing one of its most serious and divisive crises of the 21st century.
Last weekend, a former Vatican official, ex-papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, published an incendiary open letter calling for Francis to resign for willfully turning a blind eye to ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s decades of sexual abuse and harassment against junior seminarians under his authority. (McCarrick has also been accused of abusing two minors; Viganò does not make any mention of those cases and does not imply Francis knew about them.)
Viganò claims that Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had imposed sanctions against McCarrick, mandating that he carry out the remainder of his life in prayer and seclusion, only for Francis to lift the ban upon ascending to the papacy in 2013. During Francis’s papacy, McCarrick served as a trusted Vatican adviser and influential voice on both internal church appointments and global affairs.
Viganò’s letter contains serious charges. Fundamentally, it alleges that Francis was knowingly negligent in dealing with known abuse by a major Catholic figure. But reading between the lines, it’s also possible to see in Viganò’s letter a wider political concern: the accusation that Pope Francis’s liberal ideology and lax attitude toward homosexuality fostered a culture of sexual abuse, propped up by a gay lobby operating at the highest echelons of the Vatican.
Viganò’s open letter exists in a much wider political context, in which both Vatican officials and Catholic conservative intellectuals — two groups that have historically been protective of the church’s secrecy — are willing to use the latest round of abuse accusations as an opportunity to speak out against Pope Francis.
In the aftermath of both the McCarrick case and the Pennsylvania report implicating hundreds of priests in the abuse of more than 1,000 children over several decades, archconservatives like Viganò have painted the picture of a church dominated by a shadowy progressive gay lobby, ruled by networks of blackmail and sexual favors and willing to turn a blind eye to systemic abuse. The McCarrick case in particular — which, in a departure from many other abuse cases, predominanty involved allegations of sexual harassment of adults — has been a particular lightning rod for this kind of discourse.
While it’s important not to conflate the very real concerns about Pope Francis’s response to the child sex abuse crisis with mere Vatican partisanship, it’s also important to recognize that the current crisis at the top of the Catholic hierarchy also has a political dimension. As Massimo Faggioli, a professor at Villanova University and a frequent commentator on Catholic issues, told Vox last week, conservatives are using the scandal as an “opportunity to reform the Church from abuses as a counter-revolution … against the Church of Vatican II itself.” (Vatican II, which took place from 1962 to 1965, was a major church council that critics say moved the church in an undesirably “progressive” direction.)
Such dissent, he says, would not have been imaginable under a more traditional pope like John Paul II or Benedict XVI. But because of Francis’s perceived liberal agenda, conservative Catholics are seizing an opportunity to weaken what they see as a pro-Francis progressive bloc within the church hierarchy.
And perhaps most importantly, this politicking loses sight of the fact that thousands of people around the world were abused as children over the course of several decades by the priests in their communities, whom their parents and families trusted.
Conservatives have been wary of Francis’s papacy for a while
Since the beginning, Francis’s papacy has galvanized conservative ranks within the Vatican hierarchy. Francis’s perceived laxity when it comes to LGBTQ people, as well as divorced-and-remarried couples, has worried conservatives, who have often characterized him as a dictatorial reformer running roughshod over tradition in order to move the church unilaterally toward progressivism.
One of those conservatives was Viganò. Back in 2016, Viganò was dismissed from his post as papal nuncio (essentially an ambassador) after having brokered a meeting, without Francis’s knowledge or consent, between the pope and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk lionized for refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples.
While Viganò’s allegations about Francis’s knowledge of McCarrick’s harassment of other adults may indeed be accurate (Francis has refused to confirm or deny his claims), his letter is nevertheless rooted in the wider language of the Vatican culture wars. He not only accuses Francis of knowing about McCarrick, but also indicts more broadly “the homosexual networks present in the church,” which, he says, “must be eradicated.”
Viganò is far from the only Vatican insider to speak critically of Francis. Several of his longtime critics, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, have raised their concerns about Francis through other open letters. For instance, a group of four senior cardinals signed the dubia, a list of objections to Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which opened the door to granting divorced-and-remarried couples communion. In a statement in response to Viganò’s letter, Burke wrote, “The corruption and filth which have entered into the life of the Church must be purified at their roots,” and then called for a full investigation of the allegations.
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, told the Washington Post that he believed “we are a step away from schism.”
This current round of scandal is reviving discussion about gay and bisexual priests
Francis has long attracted ire from conservative critics for his relatively moderate stance toward homosexuality. While he has always formally maintained the Catholic doctrinal line that homosexual behavior is a sin, some of his more off-the-cuff remarks to journalists have suggested a personal reticence to render judgment. He famously asked a journalist on a press flight “who am I to judge” gay people, and may have told a gay survivor of clerical sex abuse that God loved him the way he was.
Viganò’s conflation of same-sex attraction, homosexual activity, sexual harassment of adults, and child abuse is common among some of Francis’s more conservative critics. Because most of the allegations about McCarrick are about his abuse of adults, and because it seems clear that McCarrick’s behavior toward adults was something of an open secret within the Vatican hierarchy (but not, it’s important to note, with minors), this case in particular has galvanized conservative discourse about gay and bisexual priests.
For example, in an email interview with Vox conducted shortly after the McCarrick scandal broke in July, American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher (a former Catholic, now a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church) stressed that progressive influence — and, in particular, gay influence — within the Vatican was central to the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
“The predatory culture is — or was at that time — so entrenched, and so ravenous,” he wrote, “that a young gay man who intends to live celibacy will be walking into a lion’s den. If he is drawn into sexual misconduct, he will likely be permanently compromised, because the tribe never forgets. That’s how this works.”
Dreher’s remarks are representative of a wider conservative stance on the sex abuse crisis, a stance that is largely inseparable from attitudes toward Francis’s papacy: A gay cabal (often, but not invariably, associated with the progressive wing of the church) is protecting its own — including abusers — and Francis is allowing this because of his progressive sympathies. (That said, Dreher has pointed out in a recent column that the “left-right framework is fairly useless as a guide to understanding matters” and noted that “conservative” cardinals, such as Bernard Law, have also been caught up in clerical sex abuse scandals.)
Dreher is right to point out that (consensual) sexual activity is more common among priests than the Vatican might like to admit. Within the Catholic Church, priests are supposed to be totally celibate, regardless of sexual orientation. Furthermore, same-sex attraction itself is not understood to be sinful — the Catholic Catechism, the church’s official teaching document, formally deems it “intrinsically disordered,” but acting on that attraction is considered sinful. Officially, even priests with a homosexual orientation who remain celibate are barred from ministry, something that contributes to the rhetorical conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality that many conservatives espouse.
According to research by Richard Sipe, however, it’s estimated that about half of all priests are sexually active at some point in their lives. He also suggests that up to 30 percent of Catholic priests are gay, and about half of these are sexually active.
Dreher’s portrait of an institution subject to systemic corruption based on sexuality, therefore, is not entirely unfair. In a profession as hierarchical, insular, and self-protective as Catholic ministry, this culture of sexual activity and secrecy can easily create toxic conditions under which professional advancement becomes linked to sexual involvement, even as participants resist coming forward out of threats to their own reputation, including the threat of being outed themselves.
In an email interview with Vox last month, Miguel Diaz, former ambassador to the Holy See and a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, argued that a lack of clarity within the Vatican hierarchy about the relationship between homosexuality, abuse, and pedophilia has clouded the Vatican’s ability to meaningfully reform after the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
“What we need is nothing less than for church leaders to enact actions and promote policies more consistent with a healthier, psychologically well-informed, and theologically sound approach to human sexuality,” he told Vox. “The elephants in the room, namely, heterosexism and homophobia, and how these cultural systems relate to … the abuse of ministerial power must be dismantled for the sake of all.”
This is an intensification of a long-running conservative opposition to Francis
Conservative opposition to Pope Francis has been brewing for years.
While conservative critics of Francis have criticized a number of his “progressive” policies, including his implied tolerance for LGBTQ people and his critiques of capitalism, most conservative opposition to Francis up to now has been based on his handling of divorced-and-remarried couples.
Under Catholic teaching, divorce is not permitted, and Catholics who remarry after divorce are therefore understood to be in a state of sin that precludes their ability to take communion. However, Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, contained a footnote suggesting that it was up to individual parish priests to make a decision on whether or not remarried couples in their parish should be allowed to take communion.
To Francis’s critics, this was an underhanded way of changing the church’s practice on divorce and remarriage while leaving its official policy intact. A group of conservative cardinals and clergy submitted a list of dubia, or doubts, to Francis in late 2016 as a form of public protest; he has yet to respond to them.
However, the sex abuse crisis has opened up Francis to new channels of attack.
Until this point, Francis’s legacy on the clerical sex abuse scandal has been fairly positive. Francis has met with abuse victims worldwide and frequently spoken of the necessity of the church atoning for its past. He did attract negative press last year for dismissing accusations against a Chilean bishop accused of participating in an abuse cover-up as “calumny.” Ultimately, though, he apologized for his remarks and pressured the entire Chilean bishopric to resign.
However, the allegations against him — that he knowingly lifted sanctions on McCarrick, whose abuse of adults (although, again, not children) was common knowledge — represent an unprecedented level of seriousness. While Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was accused of having once overseen the transfer of a German pedophile priest into therapy, the alleged incident happened in the 1980s, well before Benedict became pope.
The pope can’t just “resign” — at least not easily
Right now, however, Francis must face a more immediate goal: how and whether to address Viganò’s accusations. While Viganò called upon Francis to resign — an incredibly incendiary and rare statement to make about a sitting pope — it’s unclear how likely this would be, even if Viganò’s allegations were found to be true.
These days, CEOs, university presidents, and public figures resign from their posts as a way to take responsibility for negligence or wrongdoing that occurred on their watch. Papal resignation, though, is exceedingly rare — popes are believed to be chosen by God to serve for the duration of their lives. Before Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, resigned in 2013 for reasons that have never fully been made public (he cited ill health, although many Vatican-watchers have doubted this, given that Benedict remains in decent health now), the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, and only a handful of popes have done so before him.
For Francis to resign so quickly after Benedict, therefore, would set a discomfiting new precedent for the Catholic Church: that the papacy is no longer an automatic lifelong role, which could, in turn, weaken the Catholic tradition that the pontiff is, fundamentally, chosen by God.
Given the seriousness of that precedent, a resignation is unlikely. But that doesn’t mean that Francis’s political enemies won’t see in this scandal an opportunity to pressure his allies into resignation, nor that they won’t see his weakness as an opportunity to advocate against what they see as his dangerous “progressivism” more generally.
The church infighting distracts from the bigger issue: dealing with generations of abuse
Meanwhile, few solutions have been proposed to rectify the abuse of countless children and adults over the course of several decades. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a charter in 2002 that mandates that all allegations of abuse from 2002 on be handed over to law enforcement. Church officials throughout the country say this process has been successful in addressing more recent cases.
Still, there have been few codified, centralized efforts at addressing the legacy of the scale of abuse prior to that. Likewise, Francis’s recent 2,000-word apology for the church’s history of sex abuse contained few concrete policy solutions, which has frustrated some advocates. Marie Collins, an Irish clerical abuse survivor, recently told the Catholic website Crux that she felt the church lacked transparency and clarity in dealing with the crisis.
“The only thing that will restore respect,” she said, “is to see those men properly dealt with by the Church in an open and clear manner, and to have consequences for their actions that are strong and public. They need to prove that the Church is serious in cutting [abuse] out of the Church.”
In his book To Change the Church, published in March, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made the case that, even before this latest round of sex abuse revelations, Francis’s divisive papacy threatened to seriously damage the unity of the church. The current battle between “progressive” and “traditionalist” Catholics, though, threatens not only to further weaken any sense of unity, but to alienate rank-and-file believers, while miring the church’s response to a crisis of sexual abuse in destructive political partisanship.
Ultimately, this church infighting between “liberal” and “conservative” camps may hinder it from the wider goal of protecting children and helping survivors heal by acknowledging abuse and repairing negligence. As clerical abuse survivor Peter Isley told the New York Times, “This is infighting between curia factions that are exploiting the abuse crisis and victims of clergy sexual abuse as leverage in the struggle for church power. The sexual abuse crisis is not about whether a bishop is a liberal or a conservative. It is about protecting children.”