A week that captured the bedeviling complexity of Catholic life

A week that captured the bedeviling complexity of Catholic life

A week that captured the bedeviling complexity of Catholic life

September 25, 2019; Panelist Juan Carlos Cruz, survivors’ advocate from Chile, answers a question during the 2019-20 Notre Dame Forum: “Rebuild My Church’: Crisis and Response,” with a discussion on “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?” held at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. (Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame.)

Catholic life would be easier, of course, without complexity – if we could reach satisfying snap judgments without having to slow down to ponder facts that don’t quite fit, and without having to make a truckload of distinctions before arriving at conclusions.

News Analysis

SOUTH BEND – Few things can be said about Catholicism with absolute certainty, but here’s one: Both people and situations in the Church are almost always more complicated than they may seem.

Two developments this week brought that point home anew, one related to the sexual abuse crisis and the other to the death of an American churchman.

On Wednesday, I moderated a panel on the crisis at the University of Notre Dame that included veteran Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels; Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official and onetime director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child Protection; Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest who’s become a confidante of Pope Francis on the abuse issue; and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

RELATED: Notre Dame panel asks about abuse crisis: ‘Where are we now?’

Cruz’s comments were probably the most electric of the night, among other things because they opened a window onto the hurt and the anger that abuse generates. His passion for fellow survivors and for reform was palpable.

At one point, Cruz accused certain “conservative bishops,” specifically mentioning Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, American Cardinal Raymond Burke and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, of “weaponizing” the suffering of abuse victims for purposes of delivering ideological attacks on the pope.

The comment came in a moment in which Cruz was visibly emotional, tearing up and having difficulty continuing. In that instant, no one on the panel was inclined to challenge the substance of his claims – the higher calling in that setting seemed to be to listen because, in the words of Lori at another point during the evening, “Victims must be heard.”

That said, things are almost certainly more complicated than Cruz’s remark suggested.

Attentive observers would undoubtedly say that Viganò, Burke and Chaput don’t all represent the same position, even if each could broadly be described as “conservative.” Chaput, for instance, has never publicly called on Francis to resign, as Viganò has done, and in Philadelphia he’s worked hard to try to restore morale after a devastating grand jury report just months before he took over in 2011 accused his predecessors of failing to stop predators.

“As a bishop, the only honest way I can talk about the abuse tragedy is to start by apologizing for the failure of the Church and her leaders – apologizing to victims, and apologizing to the Catholic community,” Chaput said at the time.

The fact that a given prelate may embody controversial theological or political convictions on some issues, in other words, doesn’t automatically mean he’s in denial about the abuse crisis or, worse, cynically exploiting the suffering of victims to score points.

One level of complexity illustrated by Wednesday’s event is therefore that listening to victims, though essential, isn’t the end of the exercise. There’s also a critical discernment that has to go on about what one hears, because in reform efforts as in everything else, the devil is always in the details.

As for Levada, who died in Rome on Thursday at 83, his story proves that people are rarely the cookie-cutter stereotypes we sometimes make them out to be.

In terms of popular opinion, Levada was often made out to be a strong conservative and culture warrior, a reputation set in cement when Levada was the prime mover behind the decision to launch a Vatican doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for the leadership of American nuns, in 2009.

For sure, Levada was a champion of orthodoxy in the mold of his mentor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, under whom he briefly worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when the future pope took it over in 1981, and whom Levada would later serve as prefect of the congregation from 2005 to 2012.

However, Levada also proved remarkably flexible in several situations in which a truly unrelenting ideologue would have acted differently.

In 1997 as the Archbishop of San Francisco, for example, Levada won credit for ingenuity when a new ordinance required all contractors with the city to provide spousal benefits to employees in same-sex relationships, a requirement that theoretically put Catholic social service providers at risk.

Just when it seemed that an impasse was inevitable, Levada offered an alternative: Let employees designate any other person in their household for those benefits, he suggested, such as an elderly parent or a close friend. One theologian I quoted at the time called the move “Solomonic,” preserving the Church’s teaching while avoiding a shutdown of essential services and also expanding insurance coverage at the same time.

The lesson in this case is thus that if you allow them, people will often surprise you.

Catholic life would be easier, of course, without such complexity – if we could reach satisfying snap judgments without having to slow down to ponder facts that don’t quite fit, and without having to make a truckload of distinctions before arriving at conclusions.

Alas, that’s not quite the reality of the Church, and so the conversations begun this week will undoubtedly go on.

In the meantime, a final word is in order about Levada. He, at least, is beyond this bedeviling complexity now, after a life spent immersed in trying by his lights to serve the Church, so it seems appropriate to close by saying: Requiescat in pace.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr


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