Sick of the Scandals? Here’s what I plan to do (Part II)

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 25, 2019

Yesterday I announced that I’m finished reporting on the scandals in the Catholic Church. The question naturally arises: then what will I do?

(Before I answer that question, let me pause just a moment to thank the many people who have sent me supportive and complimentary messages. I’m grateful for your kind words and for your prayers. And friends, please don’t think that I’m depressed about my own situation. Quite the contrary. I’ve wrestled with this decision for some weeks, but having made it, I’m feeling immensely relieved.)

Here’s the problem: I’m in the business of writing and commenting on news about the Catholic world. If I don’t write about the scandal—the news that is in the headlines everywhere else—what will I write about? The bake sale at St. Dymphna’s?

Unfortunately, many “official” organs of the Catholic Church have chosen that route. Diocesan publications studiously avoid mention of the scandals, and when a discouraging word is finally heard, it comes in the form of a dry, lawyerly statement from the chancery. The diocesan paper is much more likely to feature the pastor who is top performer in his Friday-night bowling league than his associate who was arrested at a rest area on the interstate. The “official” Catholic media—the outlets that are subsidized, directly or indirectly, by bishops—carefully protect the institution.

On the other extreme, secular outlets are delighted to attack the Church, to focus exclusively on the scandals, to use every opportunity to denigrate the faith. The liberal media anxiously promote any theory that suggests the scandal is a natural outgrowth of orthodox Catholic belief.

In this unhealthy, unbalanced situation, I have tried to establish a sane middle ground, explaining that the scandals actually reflect a failure to live out the principles of Catholic belief. Taking advantage of my independence from ecclesiastical oversight, I have sought to face the truth squarely, to be critical of individuals and especially of impostures, while remaining loyal to the Church I love. I have done this not just because it is my job, but also because, having spent countless hours praying on the question, I recognize the work as my vocation.

However, as I explained yesterday, I cannot properly carry out that vocation—I cannot provide a healthy perspective on Catholic affairs—if I am forever mired in the details of one scandal after another. You might say that I am suffering from exhaustion with the subject, or from something like combat fatigue, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s something more to my decision: a growing realization that I cannot promote the welfare of the Church while I myself am absorbed by the study of corruption. At this point, the faithful Catholics who have been battered for years by news of one scandal after another don’t really need another ugly revelation to convince them that something is profoundly wrong. They know that much. They need hope; they need to know how we might escape from this quagmire.

Trust me: my departure from the scene will not cause a dearth of revelations about problems in the Church. In recent years a number of other independent Catholic journalists have joined the fray, and if I am stepping back from the day-to-day grind of investigation, they are enthusiastically pursuing it. More important, government prosecutors have taken an active interest in the subject, and—whether we like it or not—the American hierarchy will be facing subpoenas, peppered with questions that they will not be allowed to ignore.

Yes, there will be plenty of headlines. But will the stories be accurate? Inexperienced reporters and overambitious prosecutors do not always distinguish between accusation and proof, between fact and opinion, between evidence and speculation. I’ll be reading the stories, and I’ll try to help readers separate accurate reporting from innuendo. I don’t plan to report on the scandal, but when others produce significant stories, I’ll offer my perspective. (It’s the reporting that I can’t take any more, not the commentary.)

When I refer to “significant stories,” I mean to indicate that I won’t feel an obligation to comment on each new accusation or indictment or even conviction, or every new set of episcopal policies and procedures. A “significant” development would be one that breaks the familiar, depressing pattern. For instance:

  • if the Vatican ever discloses the results of the investigation in the McCarrick scandal;
  • if either the Vatican or the US bishops produce documentary evidence to confirm or deny the charges made by Archbishop Vigano;
  • if a bishop closes down a parish that has become openly defiant of Church teachings, and/or undertakes remedial work at a church whose pastor left in disgrace;
  • if a prelate steps down before his case reaches the mass media;
  • —or best of all,
  • if bishops begin calling each other to account.

While waiting for those significant developments, I propose to focus my own attention on those Catholics who are working actively for reform, both within the Church and in society at large. I wish that I could offer some sweeping proposal for instant reform: some program that would eliminate the corruption. But I have no miracles up my sleeve.

Of this much I am quite sure: The leadership in reform will come from the Catholic laity. Somehow our bishops must be shocked out of their complacency, compelled to recognize the crisis, convinced to purge the corruption from within their own ranks. And somehow we, the loyal Catholic laity, must do the shocking, the compelling, the convincing, the demanding.

How will we do it? I don’t know. But I’ve spent 25 years studying how the Church got into this mess, and now I’d like to explore how we might get out.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: St. George - Aug. 05, 2019 2:11 PM ET USA

    Phil, you are a certain, sane voice in a world of chaos. It is your direct presentation and clear articulation of the truth that I find so steadying. We need, it seems, more not less. I am a little comforted in your decision hearing that you have prayed much. I too will pray, but the question remains: What ought we do? Is the Sunday-Catholic population beyond reach and further stories will not help? Or, should one focus instead on restoration of true faith? Fire alarm vs water throwing.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jul. 30, 2019 2:50 PM ET USA

    I’ve been following you since CWN and often look to your articles for a solid Catholic perspective. I understand and agree with your Part 1 statements and am happy to read in Part 2 that you are not going away but simply changing your emphasis and perspective. As Dr. Jeff steps back from the forefront and you make changes, I fear a void in Catholic news coverage. On the other hand, as you.and he have pointed out, new leadership is waiting to fill in the gap. Thanks for 25 years of excellent work

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jul. 28, 2019 3:06 PM ET USA

    Phil, I'm sure there are others we can turn to for accurate and competent reporting/commentary on the scandals, but I'm not sure who. In the days and weeks ahead, perhaps you can recommend some reliable journalists.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Jul. 26, 2019 9:53 PM ET USA

    Through all of this I have relied on your sane middle ground. I totally agree with jlw509... but if anybody can find a way to help us all pull the Church out of this quagmire, you can. 'We expect to obtain everything promised us by Jesus in spite of all our wretchedness, for Jesus is our hope.'

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jul. 26, 2019 10:58 AM ET USA

    The strategy of the bishops is to wait and wait and wait until the laity get tired of this scandal and everything reverts to normal. With God's grace, they will not outlast us. I have been looking for the right lay-led movement to restore some order in the church. When you find it please let us know so we can join in.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jul. 26, 2019 10:29 AM ET USA

    God used Babylon to chastise the Jews, and he is using both the anti-Catholic secular forces and a corrupt Church hierarchy to chastise us. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, the laity, for our failure to cooperate with God's super-abundant graces. Our current situation is God saying "Thy will be done" to us, since we have failed to say "Thy will be done" to Him. The only way we will get out of this mess is by turning back to Him, and I am trying to start with myself.

  • Posted by: jlw5094538 - Jul. 25, 2019 11:25 PM ET USA

    I've relied on your obstinate honesty, your hard-knock experience & sterling judgment which, frankly, I tend to trust more than my own. I've felt I needed you to just keep on keeping on, no matter what. But--- no. Please do what you need to do. So many of us owe you a heart's-debt. It's a wonder you're in your right mind and still Catholic after all these years. Courage! The Holy Spirit will guide your comings and goings, and He will maintain your soul in peace for your sake --and ours.

  • Posted by: FredC - Jul. 25, 2019 6:44 PM ET USA

    I suggest that you compare the dioceses that have many vocations to those that have few. You might include scandals, the seminaries, and the orthodoxy of the bishop.