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The Catholic Church is embroiled in a hell of its own making

November 15, 2018

In ancient Rome, the gates of hell were always open - a wise rendering of the inferno. “The gates of hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way,” the poet Virgil’s oracle tells his hero Aeneas, “But to return, and view the cheerful skies - in this the task and mighty labor lies.” For most, the effort of escape was too extreme - though an exemplary soul, such as Aeneas, could sometimes make it back to the land of the living, if they possessed appropriate courage and willpower.

How little the Eternal City changes. Contemporary Rome now finds itself embroiled in a hell much of its own making, and its gates are wide open - if anyone has the moral fortitude to simply walk out.

The events at this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore haven’t given much cause for confidence. The main subject of the convention was set to be the sex-abuse crisis, which has roiled the church anew since this summer’s revelations concerning Pennsylvania and disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The bishops had planned to vote on “concrete measures to respond to the abuse crisis,” but Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the conference president, was informed the night before the meeting that the Vatican had decreed there would be no such vote.

Instead, the Vatican directed American bishops to await the worldwide meeting of church leaders set for February in Rome. Why? Some have speculated it saw “canonical problems” in the text; others have suggested that the proposals themselves were somehow deficient. If the trouble with the bishops’ resolutions were obvious and objective, they certainly didn’t seem so to several American bishops, who continued agitating for the reforms even after the ruling was handed down.

Maybe they realized that the effect of the sudden intervention was to instantaneously deflate a moment that some lay Catholics had dared look forward to. “Don’t stagnate [the reform process], or slow it down,” Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board monitoring bishops’ progress on the sex-abuse crisis, warned, adding that, if the process were to be dragged out and delayed, “I fear for the future of our church.”

Fear is as rational a response as any at this point. While some American bishops seethed over the abrupt defanging of their meeting, others defended the actions of their colleagues over the past decades and bristled at the notion of creating so much as a third-party reporting mechanism for bishops suspected of abuse. Still, at least the Americans were addressing the problem itself, rightly or wrongly. The Vatican has remained airily removed since the eruption of disturbing revelations over the summer, with Rome’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, taking time after DiNardo’s announcement to warn bishops against “a temptation on the part of some to relinquish responsibility for reform to others from ourselves, as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves.”

With Rome at odds with America’s bishops over whether and when to address the crisis concretely, strong trust within the institution was already strained. But what has been inflicted on the trust of ordinary Catholics by this bizarre episode is worse.

Since the exposure of the sex-abuse crisis in Boston in 2002, the church has promised to enact real, actionable reforms to not only halt but also resolve the sex-abuse crisis - and some of those efforts have been indisputably successful. But 2002 still did its damage, and what Catholics got by on day-to-day was their own faith that the church to which they entrust themselves was working diligently to bring sexual abuses to a stop and to root out and expel those responsible for aiding and abetting sexual exploitation. What this summer showed us was that prelates responsible for the protection of abusive priests - such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl - were still in positions of high renown, and that at least one - McCarrick - had been allowed to enjoy stations of rank despite a long pattern of well-known, credible allegations of sexual abuse. It wasn’t just that such actions were terrible that left Catholics reeling; it was the fact that the church had promised everything was being done to stop those exact offenses from happening again.

The wind-up and collapse of this convention of bishops feel similar, and it’s dispiriting for the same reasons. Asking people for their trust is asking them to put their hearts on the line - to suspend cynicism and doubt and suspicion and a thousand other justified, well-earned barriers to faith, and to just believe. This is an exhaustible capacity. It has been drawn upon constantly since 2002, and now, again, the lay faithful are being asked to simply trust that, come a few months from now, things will finally be set aright - for real, this time.

It’s a lot of hope to demand of a community immersed in the darkness of this crisis, with little to be encouraged by in the political feuds and obscure backbiting of the clergy. “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light,” John Milton wrote in “Paradise Lost.” If some of the lay faithful don’t make it through as the scandal grinds on, it will have been their shepherds who abandoned them along the way.

Bruenig is an opinion columnist at the Washington Post.

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