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Commentary: The Catholic Church needs a 'Come to Jesus' moment — literally

Pope Francis holds his General Weekly Audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Giulio Origlia/Getty Images)

As a non-Catholic, I have attempted to refrain from public commentary on the church's handling of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the entire world. Obviously, the alleged sexual abuse itself is a subject of fair public commentary, as well as the actions of the church hierarchy in protecting abusive priests.

However, I don't really know enough about the internal politics of the church to comment intelligently about the way the church has publicly responded to the controversy, which has now reached all the way up to Pope Francis himself.

After watching the execrable statements issued yesterday by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, combined with Pope Francis' tone-deaf refusal to comment even a "single word" on allegations that he personally covered up for a sexual predator, it is impossible to ignore the institutional rot and arrogance that has reached the highest levels of the church.

The latest controversy surrounds the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Over the course of June and July, the church took a number of disciplinary actions against McCarrick, after a church tribunal discovered credible evidence that McCarrick had engaged in sexual abuse of at least one teenage boy, a charge that McCarrick denies.

The controversy would likely have died there if not for the actions of Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former chief Vatican diplomat in the United States. Vigano issued a scathing indictment this week of the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy, accusing the church of effectively having been taken over by a mafia-like collection of high-ranking church officials who are determined to reverse church teaching on homosexuality and coddle predatory behavior amongst homosexual priests.

The overall anti-homosexual theme of Vigano's testimony explains why the media has paid less attention to it than the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, even though it contains a much more explosive allegation; namely, that the current pope (Francis) knew about McCarrick's behavior, and furthermore overturned discipline that was imposed on McCarrick by the prior pope (Benedict). According to Vigano, Francis directly defied the discipline Benedict imposed on McCarrick and made him a "trusted counselor."

Vigano's letter is lengthy and contains an exhaustive bill of particulars, but among the other charges he raised, he claimed that McCarrick "orchestrated" the installation of a cardinal named Blase Cupich over the archdiocese in Chicago. Cupich was alleged to be one of the Cardinals who was part of the pro-homosexual cabal in the Catholic hierarchy who was responsible for sheltering abusive priests.

Now let me state this right up front: I don't know if any of these charges are true or not. Until a few days ago, I had never even heard the names Theodore McCarrick or Blase Cupich, and it is entirely possible that they are good and honorable men whose character has been unjustly maligned by someone who has an axe to grind.

All that having been said, the charges raised by Vigano do not occur in a vacuum. They have instead been raised at a time when the last several years have seen almost monthly bombshell allegations against the church's handling of sexually predatory priests, culminating most recently with a state grand jury report that accused six Pennsylvania dioceses of breathtaking abuses.

Within this backdrop, as an institution, the Roman Catholic Church has to know the importance of not appearing flippant or dismissive of allegations, even if they are untrue. As many priests and bishops have noted publicly, faithful Catholics deserve better than they have gotten from their church leadership lately, and the bare minimum expectation has to be that church leaders would at least give the appearance of taking this issue seriously.

So how did Pope Francis respond? By blithely telling journalists to do their jobs reporting on the story and flatly stating, "I won't say a word about it."

As if this were not bad enough, Cupich sallied forth yesterday to make the situation much worse by declaring that the pope did not have time to go down the "rabbit hole" of dealing with sexual abuse allegations because he had more important work to do, like protecting the environment. For good measure, Cupich followed this up by proclaiming that people who are criticizing Francis' handling of the scandal are likely doing so because they hate Latinos.

(Note: It is questionable whether Francis even is Latino; he was born in Argentina to parents who were Italian immigrants. By this definition, John McCain was a "Latino" by virtue of having been born in Panama. Either way, Cupich's remarks are comically idiotic.)

Depending on your perspective as to the gravity of various environmental issues, you could raise a good faith argument that a number of organizations should not get overly involved in rehabilitating victims of sexual abuse and should instead stick to fighting for the environment. Organizations like, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Sierra Club.

Admittedly, I'm not an expert in Catholic theology, but it seems facially obvious to me that the Roman Catholic Church should not be one of those organizations, either in terms of their organizational expertise or their stated central mission. The fact that a high-ranking church official like Cupich can make straight-faced comments to the contrary without any apparent fear of rebuke from the pope suggests strongly that the church has drifted so far from its original purpose that nothing less than wholesale organizational changes can save the church's witness in the world.

I am not anti-Catholic. As it happens, I visited a Catholic mass this Sunday for the first time in many years because I've become what you might call Catholic-curious of late. Prior to the start of mass, the priests read a statement from the local bishop about the grand jury report that I thought struck the exact right note of conciliation and serious reflection. Although I realize that the church is comprised of human beings, and that human beings are imperfect and make mistakes (sometimes grave ones), I believe that the Catholic church can be (and often is) a force for good in the world. And I think it is obvious that there are good priests and parishes left in the world, and I feel for the anguish they must feel watching this unfold.

I also realize that Catholics have a point in viewing Donatism as a heresy: the validity of the Catholic doctrine is not dependent on the personal holiness of their priests or anyone else in church leadership.

However, the recent debacle does bear upon the merits of one of the central claims of Roman Catholicism: the claim that the church is the bride of Christ on earth and is empowered to speak with the authority of Christ to the faithful.

The idea that church leadership is human and makes mistakes is, to me, not inconsistent with this claim. However, when a man like Cupich can claim that the pope's work on "the environment" should take precedence over investigating allegations of widespread sexual abuse in the highest levels of the church, and no one in authority corrects him, even devoted Catholics will start to ask some serious questions. Questions about whether a body so obviously riddled with arrogance and indifference to the suffering of children entrusted to her care can really claim the mantle of Christ's representative on earth.

I do not hold the belief that churches have to completely divorce themselves from politics. That having been said, it is clear that the root of the problem here is relatively obvious: If men like Cupich really and truly believe that advancing left-wing political causes like environmental activism are truly more important than, you know, encouraging adherence to the actual teachings of Jesus, then they must be replaced.

And, by the way, I would say this if Cupich had said that it was more important for the pope to focus on making sure everyone gets a tax cut: the partisan leanings of Cupich aren't the problem. The problem is that when any church believes that any mission other than elevating Jesus is the priority, then disaster and corruption is sure to follow. And there's only one way for a church to reverse that trend.

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