Quick Hits: Catching up on comments about the Synod, the scandal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2018

Most Catholic journalists have been busy recently, reflecting on the new spate of scandals. And since I’ve been writing a book on the subject (more on that soon; its publication is imminent), I’ve had trouble keeping abreast on the latest commentary. But several recent articles are in the can’t-miss category.


Christopher Altieri, writing in the Catholic Herald, sees the resignation of Cardinal Wuerl falling into a pattern of actions by Pope Francis:

There seem to be three basic steps: (1) ignore criticism and impugn critics’ motives; (2) when that becomes impracticable make a big show of doing something, without actually doing much of anything; (3) if necessary, remove a high-profile figure, but not really.

The Pope accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation, you see, but then appointed the cardinal as administrator of the DC archdiocese. So he’s still on the scene, still in the driver’s seat (and, unless I’ve missed something, still a member of the powerful Congregation for Bishops). Moreover, in accepting the cardinal’s resignation, the Pope went out of his way to comment on his “nobility,” and spoke of his pride in the outgoing prelate. So what message is being sent here? Certainly not that the cardinal has been forced out in disgrace. Rather, that the Pope has made a move to pacify critics.


Altieri comes back—this time in Catholic World Report, with a somewhat similar point about the Pope’s move to laicize two Chilean bishops. There is little doubt that the bishops deserve the penalty, he writes. But the Pope took this action without an explanation, without a canonical trial, without what we Americans would describe as due process. The problem, Altieri notes, is that while the end result may be just, the process was opaque, and thus falls short of the standard that “justice must be seen to be done.” I might add that this sort of exercise of seemingly arbitrary papal power could be damaging to ecumenical relations; Orthodox bishops, already leery of Roman authority, would see it as one more reason to fear alliance with the Holy See.


Father Raymond de Souza also earns two mentions here. First for a National Catholic Register column dissecting Cardinal Ouellet’s remarkable response to the Vigano testimony. Like other commentators, Father de Souza notes that the Ouellet letter actually confirms the main substance of the Vigano complaints. But Father de Souza then goes on to observe that if the Ouellet letter represents the Vatican’s strategy in response to Vigano (a plausible suggestion, since it is the first public statement from a ranking Vatican official), it suggests that Pope Francis has chosen the approach that he used with the Chilean bishops.

In Chile, where many bishops had warned the Pope against the Barros appointment, the Pontiff allowed the entire hierarchy to resign in order to turn down the heat. As a consequence, as Father de Souza points out, “the credibility of the Church [in Chile] has been lost for at least a generation.” The American bishops have ample reason to be worried about that precedent. If the Vatican balks at a serious independent investigation of the McCarrick scandal, this time it will be the American bishops whose credibility suffers—for the sake of preserving the status quo in Rome.


Father de Souza came back with another pointed column in the Register, this time about the “culture of clerical mendacity.” Reflecting on Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation, he observes that the priests of the Washington archdiocese had lost confidence in the cardinal. “His priests did not believe him.” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case:

Priests, in fact, have much experience of their bishops not telling the whole truth. Or speaking in a manner, while technically truthful, that is aimed more at obscuring rather than revealing. Or, on occasion, telling lies, plain and simple.

Let me add here that priests are not alone in noticing their bishops’ lack of candor; the laity too are well acquainted with the phenomenon—which is, in fact, one of the main themes of my forthcoming book.


But this is not the time to promote my own work—although I can’t resist mentioning a piece by Rod Dreher, in which he remarks:

Few if any Catholic journalists know as much about the abuse scandal as Philip Lawler. I don’t know a single one who is less likely to be bamboozled by Vatican B.S. as Phil.

Finally, going back a bit further toward the beginning of October, Wall Street Journal subscribers enjoyed Bill McGurn’s piece on “Oscar Wilde’s Catholicism,” in which the columnist remarks that while the Catholic Church opens her doors to sinners, the enforcers of the new secular orthodoxy show no such tolerance toward those who defend the Church’s teachings, particularly on the question of homosexuality. McGurn notes that the mass media have not taken much interest in the McCarrick scandal, in contrast with “the vitriol direct at John Nienstedt,” who was forced to resign as Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis because of less serious charges. The difference? Archbishop Nienstedt had supported a referendum effort to bar same-sex marriage. McGurn concludes:

When it comes to rooting out heresy and dissent, what the Inquisition once accomplished with torture and dungeons today’s media does far more efficiently with relentless promotion of voices and ideas it wants amplified, and equally relentless neglect of voices and ideas it wants ignored.

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: feedback - Oct. 18, 2018 7:28 AM ET USA

    Speaking of noticing the bishops' lack of candor, on the weekend following his infamous "rabbit hole" interview, cdl Cupich ordered all parishes of the archdiocese of Chicago to read his statement in which he falsely accused NBC of "manipulating" the released footage of that interview. When that didn't work, and actually backfired, he finally issued an apology for being "insensitive to victims of abuse" in his remarks.