One month into 2023, it seems there are fewer comforting pages of Church history to balance out the increasing number of shameful ones. The past five years of Francis’s decade-long pontificate have presented no shortage of difficulties tied to the abuse crisis—from his disastrous trip to Chile in January 2018 to last month’s revelations about Jesuit artist and alleged serial abuser Marko Rupnik. The recent deaths of Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell have brought to light further reminders of the unpleasant past; their records on the abuse crisis and Vatican governance are, in different ways, problematic, controversial, and unlikely to be settled anytime soon. In the United States, a paradigmatic example of the difficulty of reckoning with the past—at both the individual and collective level—was the case of disgraced archbishop and one-time icon of Vatican II Catholicism Rembert Weakland, who died in August 2022.
What seems like a never-ending state of crisis has also paralyzed the Church's ability to reckon with the troubling parts of its past. It’s a good thing we’ve moved beyond the cavalier attitudes at Vatican II, when, for example, the council fathers approved this passage in Nostra Aetate, urging all “to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” Now, there is no way to forget the past, since it’s always right here in front of us.
Of course, the personal behavior of today’s Church leaders isn’t less holy than that of those who came before—especially those from relatively long ago. There have been worse times: the early turn of Christians from persecuted to persecutors; the age of the papal “pornocracy” at the end of the first millennium (see especially Pope John XII); the epidemic of both petty and heinous crimes committed by clergy in the early modern period; the collusion of bishops and cardinals with dictators and war criminals.
But the public perception of the Church today is that it is more corrupt than in the past. The sex-abuse scandal has much to do with that, but ironically, the scandal is also another attempt by the post–Vatican II Church to grapple with the troubling things that came before—beginning with efforts by the council and then Paul VI to re-examine the past in order to advance in ecumenical and interreligious relations. An important, if incomplete and somehow apologetical attempt, was also made during the preparation and celebration of the Great Jubilee of 2000. In his own way, John Paul II tried to shape the Jubilee as a moment of conversion and examination of conscience for the Church with the speech he gave to the cardinals gathered for the extraordinary consistory of June 13, 1994: “A metanoia, that is, a discernment about the historical shortcomings and negligence of the members of the church with regard to the demands of the Gospel.” This theme was further expanded in the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente of November 10, 1994, and led to the penitential celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica of March 12, 2000.
In a sense, however, that attempt at metanoia has failed—and we should remember this now that the preparation of the Jubilee of 2025 is underway. The abuse crisis has done more than sweep away the triumphalism of the Jubilee of 2000. It has also revealed just how inadequately (almost embarrassingly so) the Church handled its “purification of memory,” considering what happened soon after: the protection given at both the institutional and local levels to Cardinal Bernard Law, Fr. Marcial Maciel, and other notorious abusers and enablers; and the wasteland that grew between Catholic theology and the institutional Church.
In another sense, the outrage sparked by the abuse crisis and the ecclesial crisis more generally are signs of an ongoing metanoia. If we judge the Church and Christianity as profoundly different from what the Gospels led us to expect, we do so precisely because we refuse to ignore those expectations. That is why we feel the scandal of their denial. If we were able to regard the Church outside this horizon of expectation, the scandal would actually end.
Still, the Church’s memory problem negatively affects the chances of an ecclesial metanoia. The time will soon come to articulate a hermeneutics of the Church’s past. This will have to include what was overlooked in Vatican II, the post–Vatican II Church of Paul VI, and John Paul II’s requests of forgiveness. (Benedict XVI did not believe in the fruitfulness of these mea culpas until the abuse crisis brought him around.)
Pope Francis has hinted at something like the need to re-examine history in light of the abuse scandal. In his December 21, 2018, address to the Roman Curia, at the end of a year that began with the catastrophic visit to Chile and Peru and that also included the McCarrick case, Francis talked about the need for an adequate hermeneutic of history: “Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take any case seriously. It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience—we need to judge the past with a hermeneutics of the past—or spiritual and human myopia, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due.”
Yet this still isn’t happening. It is probably the only way to give the “synodal process” a chance. But the Church maintains a defensive posture—defending its authority as well as its tradition, including defending Vatican II from the attacks of traditionalists. Church politics dominates the conversation at the highest level: the focus on Pope Francis’s pontificate, his possible resignation, and the maneuvers for the next conclave. (See the manifesto written and circulated anonymously last year by Cardinal George Pell, in which he blasted Francis.)
Nearly twenty years ago, in his 2004 Candlemas Lecture at Boston College titled “Pilgrims. The Uncertain Journey of American Catholics,” Paul Elie said:
It is my view that the scandal will inform the pilgrimage of today’s American Catholics the way the Second Vatican Council did the pilgrimage of the generation before ours. The leader of the bishops’ conference recently characterized the priestly sexual abuse scandal as "history." So it is, but not in the sense he meant. It is not past; it is a provocation and a point of departure.
Where are we in this pilgrimage? The globalization of the abuse crisis is not in the past; the situation Elie described for U.S. Catholics has also become globalized. The scandal informs the pilgrimage of all of the world’s Catholics the way the Second Vatican Council did the pilgrimage of that generation’s Catholics. Moreover, in the latest phase of the Church’s scandals, there hasn’t been much attention given to how the Roman Curia—and thus the pope—has handled particular cases. This has somehow changed the meaning of the symbolic center of the Church along the path of that pilgrimage. A certain Catholic romance with Rome still holds, but the attachment of Catholics to that place and its history changes dramatically according to their opinion of who happens to be pope at a particular time.
Similar to a post-civil war period, the mix of scandal and culture-war mentality has created a divided memory, with opposing sides viewing the other as criminal. This phenomenon is visible both within the Church and outside of it. And it means that parties on either end of the ideological spectrum each see something in the institutional Church that they can decry as the enemy.
During the Cold War, it was said that to be a Kremlinologist you just needed to be a criminologist. It’s unfortunate that these days the study of the Church has been reduced to “Vaticanology,” and that Vaticanology is in danger of becoming criminology. This is not the “Church of mercy” that Pope Francis has been talking about for the past ten years.