Father Michael Kelly SJ is the CEO of UCAN Services in La Croix, March 2019
One of the most engaging if highly contested books of the late 20th Century was that of the historian Barbara Tuchman – the March of Folly. The book addresses “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” as one reviewer put it.
In the book Tuchman examines the demise of institutions and governments from Troy to the failure of the United States of America in Vietnam and examines the Medieval and Renaissance Church and its corruption that led to the Protestant Reformation.
In each instance there was no circuit breaker for reality to enter and avoid inevitable disaster. Tuchman shows how imperial powers in the pursuit of their best self-interest have acted in ways that contributed to their own undoing. Hubris, corporate narcissism and blindness to the need for reform and ways to avert disaster have had full play.
A paradox: why do human beings create the circumstances for their own demise. The Greeks wrote tragedies about it.
The Jews told us about it from the first pages of Genesis. There – the first three chapters of Genesis – the capacity for humans to overreach themselves and play God are plain to see an the consequence is a calamitous “fall” for humanity.
Augustine wrote extensively about it in his musings on evil in his Confessions and City of God.
And today we have a living instance as we witness the scrambling ways the Church of Rome tries to address an issue that promises to render it, its authority structure and public credibility asunder. And to top it all, we appear to have a pope sitting above it all and doing little more than sitting on his hands.
I have some personal issues to address in this conundrum. One of the contentious dramas that has engulfed the Church is the conviction on five counts of child abuse of Cardinal George Pell.
I have known the man for 35 years. I have never liked or admired him. I have actually suffered at his hand – not sexually but through his well attested ability in manipulation, power abuse and what should be plainly called lying.
I’ve got over it all – it happened 25 years ago – but it left me with a lasting conviction about the man and his moral caliber. I don’t like him but I had never seriously thought his moral depravity extended to abusing children.
When he was convicted, I was completely stunned. And I knew he’d been convicted within 30 minutes of the jury verdict being delivered in early December in Melbourne.
But when it all became public in February, I was deeply puzzled why on earth I went into a spiral of demoralization and despondency. I didn’t like or admire Pell. I thought him to be not a fit and proper person for the roles he was in. Why on earth was I melancholic at the outcome of the judgement?
I think now that my response was actually quite self-centered and what it reflected of me to myself was how human (in the unappealing sense) I really am.
I think the legal result for Pell was an affront to my hubris and self-interest and showed me up to myself for what I am because I felt humiliated to be a Catholic, indeed one of its public representatives as an ordained priest.
And then to watch what appears to be the lame response to the crisis in Australia but also in France to a cardinal convicted of covering up sex abuse just left me wondering what on earth am I part of?
Then I got thinking and praying. And in my prayer, I recognized that I share a heritage and an experience with the present pope that led me to some conclusions about how he is handling this challenge and how I might too.
He would not be experiencing this time of shame and humiliation as a reversal but as a privileged moment to grow closer to Christ, not just for him but the whole church.
Papa Bergoglio would be saying to himself if this is a time of reversal and collapse, bring it on. Why? Because it’s the only way God will have a say and things will change. The pope’s constant reference to being poor like Christ, being crucified like Christ is exactly where he is in this crisis and has been for some time.
And to find out where Jorge Mario Bergoglio is in this, we all need to recognize what his shaping spiritual experiences have been.
It’s there in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that have shaped this pope and Ignatius was no stranger to humiliation and actually saw it as the most opportune moment for meeting the real Christ.
And just look at the pope’s behavior. He’s owning the humiliation.
The first thing is he’s letting the law take its course. This puts his apparent inaction in its context: there’s no way he can reform an abusive institution that the Church is now seen to be by simply expecting it to do something it’s manifestly failed to do: run its own affairs.
The pope’s answer: get out of the way, let the law have its way, don’t do what happened in the past – bring people like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston (immortalized in the movie Spotlight) to Rome, hide them there and protect him.
He’s got out of the way with Cardinals Pell and Barbarin and some in the U.S.. The next one will be one that worked for him in Argentina.
The pope’s view: just get out of the way and this pope is. If Cardinal Pell’s appeal is kicked out, then he can act as he did with Mr. McCarrick in the USA. Same with Cardinal Barbarin.
The other thing that’s going on by acting this way is to further undermine the monarchical culture of the Church were “Father (the pope) knows best” and where everyone has looked to Rome to change things that should be changed by locals taking responsibility at the local level.
Pope Francis can’t and shouldn’t do anything else. Church leadership is at last learning it’s accountable in ways not protected by the “omertà” of the institution.
The thing that protected the church was the “command and control” culture in the leadership that just grew and grew and grew till very recently and anyone who challenged it became its victim.
This pope seems quite happy to see the Church humiliated. It’s the only way the learning and experience will sink in and produce change.
The Catholic Church is a 1.3 billion people organization with six or eight thousand bishops, hundreds of thousands of priests and often run by careerists. You can’t change that sort of show by fiat.
This pope is a reformer. But he’s also a subverter most of all. That’s why he’s hated by careerists who see him as a threat to their cherished ambitions!
Many years ago, an old priest said to me when sex abuse first appeared in public in the 1980s: “The hierarchy won’t take the problem seriously till a cardinal is convicted.”
It was an early lesson for me in the reach and contours of clericalism. It was a lesson that made sense then and makes so much more sense now.
The implosion born of subversion is well underway. We might yet become a church of the poor where the poor feel at home.
Father Michael Kelly SJ is the CEO of UCAN Services.