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.