Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Washington D.C. with President George W. Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts (dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

The report published by the Vatican last November on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick can be viewed as a sign of our ecclesial times. In laying out the history of McCarrick’s behavior and shedding light on how it was countenanced, even enabled, by fellow hierarchs throughout the Church, it was another reminder of the danger of according unwarranted esteem to high-level clergy. For centuries, from Augustine to Vatican II, the official profiles of bishops and cardinals constituted something of a literary genre unto itself: the so-called speculum episcopi, portraits of the episcopal elite in which succeeding generations of prospective Church leaders could see themselves. They were presented as models to emulate, forebears to be guided and inspired by. Of course, that “mirror of a bishop” is an idealization, but as a metaphor it plays better than the figurative mugshots within the pages of the McCarrick report.

Perhaps because it was published amid the turmoil following Donald Trump’s loss to Joseph Biden in the 2020 election—a moment not only of political but also of ecclesial crisis in the United States—the McCarrick report has not received the degree of analysis I believe it deserves. Its publication represents a milestone: a dedicated attempt by the institutional Church to investigate a high-profile serial sex abuser, a prominent, long-serving Church leader who for decades wielded significant influence far beyond the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. But the report is also the history of a career, a very particular kind of clerical résumé, that should be evaluated as evidence of the evolution of the “occupational/professional” model of the episcopal leader over the past few centuries.

Reading the report in this way is not just essential to understanding how it was possible for someone like McCarrick to flourish within the system. It’s also vital in assessing the limits of institutional mechanisms like the “metropolitan model” put forth by Pope Francis in the 2019 motu proprio, Vos estis. Is it possible for one to think, after reading the McCarrick report, that assigning the metropolitan bishop to police the behavior of bishops within an ecclesiastic province is really a viable approach? Six months after the McCarrick report and two years after Vos estis, it seems like an appropriate question to ask. 


When the revelations about McCarrick came to light in June of 2018, it marked a significant shift in the public perception of the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. Now there was not only a high-profile cleric abusing young men, but there was also the realization that for decades he’d been allowed to persist in his behavior by other high-level officials at the Vatican, a development that necessarily called into question the actions of the men who served as popes during that time: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Given that the story broke during his papacy, Francis has found himself at the center of the scandal, and thus a target of his critics—no matter the ample evidence that his predecessors were more involved in accommodating, or at least overseeing, McCarrick’s rise through the episcopal ranks.   

The “golden age” of nepotism in papal Rome came to a close only with the formal decision of Pope Innocent XII in 1692 to eliminate the position of “cardinal nephew”—usually a member of the pope’s family.

It’s true that in the years during which the McCarrick scandal came to light, there have also been multiple, high-profile investigations of sexually abusive behavior by powerful individuals in other religious communities and institutions, all around the world. The scope has widened from Catholic dioceses and parishes to non-Catholic churches and lay Catholic movements, among others, owing in part to greater public awareness of the plight of abuse victims, children and adult alike, spurred by #MeToo and similar movements. Still, there’s a specifically Catholic element to focus on: the episcopal hierarchy’s utter failure in handling abuse allegations, whether through negligence or through active efforts to silence victims and hide the truth—from the public, and from Church and secular authorities. Catholic bishops face a crisis of authority and reputation unlike at any time since the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s condemnation of the systemic corruption then ravaging the Catholic Church.

There is no simple way the papacy can divert responsibility or blame. After all, it’s been a long time since emperors and kings appointed bishops; now, almost all are directly appointed by the pope. There are exceptions, of course. Some cathedral chapters in German-speaking Europe retain the ancient right of electing bishops, though the pope must confirm those choices. Eastern Rite Catholic churches hold synodal elections, the results of which are subject to papal “assent.” Diplomatic arrangements old (such as with the Diocese of Strasbourg) and new (with China, since 2018) give governments the power to participate in the selection of a bishop. But for centuries now, the Holy See has done all it can to give popes as much freedom as possible in appointing bishops. Yes, that has created headaches for popes who have to deal with bishops appointed by their predecessors—appointments they might not have made themselves. But more significantly, it has over time also cemented a kind of institutional career system for episcopal hierarchs, a system with its own complicated history, inseparable from the history of the social and economic elite of Europe.

How does this help in understanding the institutional role in the abuse crisis? An article on the McCarrick case provides a helpful starting point. In “How McCarricks Happen,” Stephen Bullivant (a professor of theology and sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University, London) and Giovanni Sadewo (a research fellow in social-network analysis at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne) analyze the relative influence of bishops, with particular attention to that wielded by McCarrick. They do so by focusing on the idea of “network centrality” within the English-Welsh and American episcopates. According to the authors, McCarrick was at the center of a very powerful constellation of U.S. bishops, some retired but many still in office, and this allowed him to get away with what he was doing for so long. It’s a provocative way of looking at things, and it could be useful in assessing how network structures throughout the Catholic Church could impact (or limit) the usefulness of the metropolitan model in ending institutional cover-up of clerical sex abuse.

At the same time, Bullivant and Sadewo’s theory of network centrality may not be a precise fit with the Catholic hierarchical structure, which has a number of what might be considered peculiar characteristics. Their theory reflects a tendency to seek a single root cause for how the structure of an ecclesial culture might enable sexual abuse, or encourage negligence and coverup, when there may be a range of factors. A related shortcoming is that the network model is limited only to clergy, when in fact it would be helpful to consider the lay presence within or alongside such networks as well. It also doesn’t sufficiently take into account the vertical dimension of Catholic ecclesial networks—the fact that all the bishops in McCarrick’s network were appointed by a pope in a process shaped by other pope-appointed Church officials in a way that was either formally top-down (the apostolic nuncio) or informally top-down (other channels of influence and alliances that take shape well before promotion to the episcopate and generate much less of a paper trail).

So, as is almost always the case in making a contemporary assessment of the institutional Church, some Church history is helpful—especially since systems and mechanisms of patronage in the twenty-first century owe a debt to those established in early modern history.  


One of the ways the Council of Trent (1545–1563) responded to the Reformation’s denunciation of corruption among the hierarchy was to impose a prohibition on nepotism (Session XXV, Canon 1 for the reform of the Church). But it was a fairly toothless injunction. The “golden age” of nepotism in papal Rome came to a close only with the formal decision of Pope Innocent XII in 1692 to eliminate the position of “cardinal nephew”—usually a member of the pope’s family. (Though it was abolished, it nevertheless served as something of a prototype for the Cardinal Secretary of State, a position that has since become the second-most powerful in the Vatican, after the pope.) Still, the mechanisms for consolidating clerical and ecclesiastical power, and for governing access to it, remained operative. They were established to ensure the creation of cardinals in a way that would bring stability to a system that was unstable by design: to prevent a hereditary monarchy, the papal monarchy was elective. Thus the model of the pope–cardinal nephew pair at the top was replicated down through the levels of the Church, ensuring the creation of episcopal elites throughout the Catholic world, but especially in Europe.

Yet even then, the pope–cardinal nephew pair was not the only thing that counted. Becoming a cardinal or bishop also required a vast and complicated network of patron-client relationships, consisting not only of clerics but also of powerful laypeople. Further, building a clerical career required the forging of various kinds of alliances. These included alliances of group solidarity among fellow clergy, as well as alliances of relational solidarity (family bloodlines, shared city or region of origin, education at the same school, membership in the same religious order). There was also the category of artificial solidarity—the kind of alliance created via sponsorship or, on the flipside, emerging out of corrupt relationships built on extortion and conspiracy. Finally, there were alliances of horizontal solidarity, including friendships and relationships among peers. 

In the discourse over clericalism and corruption in the context of the abuse crisis, the moral failures of individuals are often highlighted, while the dynamics of the system to which those individuals belong don’t get nearly enough attention. Networking has never just been about acquiring power; it’s also essential in exercising power—for popes, for cardinals, and for bishops. To get a sense of the importance of networking in the exercise of power, consider what happens when an important diocese receives a new bishop, but the emeritus chooses to remain in the diocese. The former has nothing close to the kind of network (locally, nationally, or in Rome) that the latter has, having built it over many years while in charge. This situation has been exacerbated somewhat by the relatively new (post–Vatican II) norm that bishops present their resignation on reaching the age of seventy-five. More and more, this has led to overlaps of episcopal regimes as retired bishops remain on the scene after their successors are in place. What’s more, with the precedent established by Benedict XVI when he resigned in 2013, there are some bishops emeriti who have deliberately adopted his style of exerting continued influence after they officially step down. 

Networking has never just been about acquiring power; it’s also essential in exercising power—for popes, for cardinals, and for bishops.

The importance of networks in exercising power was also seen in the patrimonial character of how prelates in early modern Europe managed relationships. They would build an informal clientele with the purpose of amassing a number of “benefices”—ecclesiastical positions that could be had only if the right price was paid, in a business operation that was itself formal and institutionalized. This is what helped transform mere ecclesial income into secular fortune. This practice no longer continues—or at least, not in the same way. If wealth is no longer so overtly drained from peripheral churches and redirected toward Rome, the flow of money still rides on deeply ingrained practices in ecclesiastic circles, where unspoken agreements involving clerical and non-clerical actors govern financial arrangements. This is one of the reasons it’s often difficult to find a “smoking gun” when poring over documents in ecclesiastical archives. Much as matter disappears into a black hole, evidence of patronage is often rendered invisible just by the sheer institutional mass of the Church.

These practices continued in various forms well after the age of institutional nepotism between 1538 and 1692. But the patron-client dynamic was not exclusive to Catholicism. Nor was it limited to papal Rome. Patronage networks played a lesser but still important role in other European courts, where the rules of the game were more or less the same and the aim was entrée into the social and political elite. 

When the Catholic Church abolished the nepotism system at the end of the seventeenth century, it was making a bid to become more “modern” than the European societies in which it operated. But this had some unintended and unfortunate consequences. The slow merging of the old quasi-feudal system with a more modern, recognizably administrative one—based on formalized institutional career and organizational structures that in the abstract would foster an impartial and impersonal bureaucratic model of service—was accompanied by the increasing value placed on personal merits, virtues, and skills. In short, “job performance” and merit became part of the criteria, even as vestiges of the feudal system remained. It is this ultimately awkward melding of systems that’s at the heart of the current crisis in the Catholic episcopate.   

One more look at the history helps us understand why this is so. Since the early modern period, with that gradual merging of feudal and administrative systems, there was also a steady expansion of the duties of bishops. With the centralization and bureaucratization of ecclesiastical power, episcopal roles and responsibilities came to resemble those of the civil magistrates of the early centuries of Christianity. A bishop was now something like the defensor civitatis, the defender of the community both in its religious and civil sense, with all the political-diplomatic duties and relationships inherent to it.


But as the centuries passed, the considerable social status bishops might have once been likely to acquire became less of a sure thing. The stratification of roles—prelates in Rome, diocesan bishops with local political and secular power, and an “episcopal proletariat” of working bishops outside the patronage system—gave way to a system in which none is a prince and all are more like low- to mid-level bureaucrats. They possess administrative power, but in so doing are also subject to auditing, accountability, and scrutiny: from the papacy, from other ecclesial and lay stakeholders, and from external secular entities like civil authorities and the press. This is especially the case in Western countries, where it’s becoming harder to find clerics willing to become bishops. All this is a far cry from the speculum episcopi: the ideal image of episcopal ministry has been transformed from prince to prudent and competent employee, one who now has the added responsibility of publicly accounting for the failures of his predecessors and colleagues on sexual abuse and corruption. The prediction made by eighteenth-century political theorist of the French Revolution Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (himself a member of the clergy) has come to pass: the clergy are not an order, but a profession. 

For all of this, however, continuities with the system that existed in early modern history remain. The “backbone” is still there, with the pope ultimately deciding who becomes part of the episcopate. The centralization and bureaucratization we see today is not the result of an abrupt transformation since the early modern period; rather, we’ve arrived here through an evolutionary process, with signs of those prior systems still visible. But the secularization of the last century has also led to the decline of powerful, non-clerical social networks that might once have helped hold bishops to account, leaving the episcopacy to police itself and serve as its own agent of reform. The curial system of consistorial, collegial government, with informal assignments of tasks and duties, has given way to a more managerial dynamic where efficiency and verification are emphasized. What the abuse crisis revealed is the tension between these persisting social mechanisms and the newer ones of merit and accountability. This is one of the reasons why the scandal has been so cataclysmic in the English-speaking world, where notions of accountability and managerial performance are part of the cultural environment in which the Catholic Church operates. 

As we know, “apostolic” is one of the four notes of the Church (along with “one,” “holy,” and “Catholic”). Without the episcopacy, there is no Catholic Church. This was underscored by the constitution Lumen gentium of Vatican II, which teaches that “bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.” But the way bishops are selected, chosen, and appointed, and the way their ministry is still structured, largely according to the model of small-scale monarchy of divine right—this is not divinely instituted.

Thus, change can happen. What’s more, it has to. But what are the options? The Church cannot choose a path of reform limited only to appointing bishops thought to have a “good heart” and then hoping for the best. At the same time, it can’t simply destroy the existing model in hopes of the long-dreamt “post-episcopal” Catholic Church magically coming into being and (even less of a likelihood) being adopted globally. The system is in serious crisis, but it’s a crisis to which centuries’ worth of shifting and complicated networking dynamics have led. We need bishops, and we need reform. It can be dispiriting to think how long it might be before the work of dismantling, reimagining, and building anew is complete. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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Published in the May 2021 issue: View Contents
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