Fiddling while America – and Rome – Burn?

The famous political philosopher Leo Strauss is reported to have once said that modern political theorists are worse than the ancient Roman emperor Nero. Because contrary to the old saying, they know neither that they are fiddling nor that Rome is burning.

The U.S. bishops held their annual June meeting in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago and, to judge from reports, largely spent their time together discussing current politics and changes to a voters’ guide for the Fall midterm elections.

In Rome, just last week, Fr. Antonio Spadaro S.J., editor of the semi-official Vatican publication La Civiltà Cattolica, along with Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian chosen by Pope Francis personally to be editor of the Argentinean edition of L’Osservatore Romano, released another long essay attacking an American religious phenomenon: “The Prosperity Gospel: Dangerous and Different.”

Unlike their previous effort, which argued that collaboration between conservative evangelicals and Catholics was an “ecumenism of hate,” this article drew little attention. Which is no surprise.

Though peddlers of the prosperity gospel have connections to President Trump – who seems to be the real target of the essay – few familiar with religion in the United States would regard that slice of our varied faith groups as particularly prominent. In fact, among most religious people, both Left and Right, it’s regarded as a kind of eccentric Christian sect.

Meanwhile, an international threat to the Church is emerging, in several countries simultaneously, a crisis of confidence in Catholic leadership and the Church Herself that could make these other concerns, which are after all rather peripheral to the Church’s life and mission, seem mere fiddling.

In America, many people have been shocked by revelations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most prominent U.S. Catholic prelates over the past two decades and the public face of the Church after the 2002 exposure of the priestly abuse crisis, was himself an abuser.

At first, stories emerged of his relationships with adult men, two of whom received monetary settlements from the Metuchen and Newark dioceses, where McCarrick had served as bishop and archbishop. Those stories confirmed what had been widely rumored for many years, that “Uncle Ted” had made a practice of pressuring seminarians and others into sexual situations.

But now a man has come forward with stories of abuse by McCarrick that began when he was eleven. And no doubt there are many further eruptions to come, to judge from what we already know.

This has led to further disclosures by others who were abused by priests and bishops, some in shocking fashion, and the sickening fact that virtually no one in a position of authority took action, especially where bishops were involved. If you can stomach the details, which are sometimes outright blasphemous and literally diabolical, you can get an idea of the nature of the problem hereherehere, and particularly here.


It’s no surprise that a wave of outrage is building in America just now, even among faithful Catholics. To judge by many of the people with whom I’m in contact on a regular basis and who know these matters quite well, we may well be just at the beginning of another wave of soul-searching in the Church, this time not so much over complaints about priests, but about bishops who should have done something about other bishops and people in positions of authority.

We saw how mishandling of similar charges about the past in Chile soured the pope’s trip to that country earlier this year. Two Chilean cardinals, one on the pope’s own handpicked council of nine, are implicated in the cover-ups and perhaps the misinformation that was passed along to Francis. Just yesterday, Chilean authorities announced that they are investigating 158 members of the Church who are suspected of being abusers or of having covered up abuse.

Another of the pope’s top advisors Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga of Honduras has been accused of financial corruption. But potentially even more serious is that his subordinate, Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle, who runs the archdiocese during Maradiaga’s many long absences, has had to resign after revelations of multiple instances of sexual abuse of seminarians, similar to McCarrick’s.

But the McCarrick case is unusual in that we have a sitting cardinal now judged by proper authorities to have committed offenses over many years who remains a cardinal. Pope Francis has to do something about this – and about those who enabled McCarrick.

Because despite denials, many American bishops received complaints about McCarrick and did nothing about them. Rome itself had to have been informed about the payouts for earlier abuses (we know that a lay delegation went to Rome to try to stop McCarrick’s appointment to Washington precisely because of his known sexual proclivities).

Even The Washington Post, previously uninterested in the rumors about McCarrick, has observed: “Many church-watchers think this is a make-or-break moment for Francis because of McCarrick’s stature and the fact that Catholic clerical sex-abuse crises are exploding in Chile and Honduras.”

Our friend Phil Lawler wrote an essential essay, which appeared yesterday on the First Things website. Inquiring into how McCarrick was able to abuse children and adults for so long, he says, is an important question to protect future victims, but:

is less critical than the question of how his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks continued, even while rumors about homosexual activities swirled around him. Why was McCarrick named archbishop of Washington, and given a cardinal’s red hat? Why was he allowed to promote his protégés, to serve special diplomatic assignments for the Vatican, to influence the selection of bishops and even of a Roman Pontiff, after his beach-house antics had become a matter of common knowledge?

Finding out how this was possible is going to call for some painful self-examination, both here and in Rome itself. But the alternative is business as usual. And that business is now in danger of bankruptcy.


*Image: Satan Sowing Darnel by Pieter Jalhea Furnius, c. 1571 [The Met, NYC] The engraving is from a series, The Parable of the Sower and the Seed.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.