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Credit, Where It’s Due

Like most everyone else, I have spent the last several weeks almost entirely at home, except for the occasional trip out for various sorts of supplies. When the weather permits, I can escape the basement utility room that serves as my temporary home office and go outside. I have been blessed in my confinement. I have a yard, a healthy family to share it with, and a garden to potter about in. Still, on rainy days when the kids are bouncing off the walls and the house seems even smaller than it is, I have more than once felt like I was among the refugees trapped in the opening scenes of Casablanca as I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

The pandemic isn’t the only thing that has us waiting these days. The release of the Vatican’s long-promised McCarrick Report has been “imminent” – in varying interpretations of that word – for at least five months now. There were rumors that it was on the verge of release last month, but the blossoming pandemic seems to have put the kibosh on that.

Some saw the delay in a cynical light. Rome was using the pandemic as an excuse to punt on a report it would rather not have to release, or so the argument goes. Then again, releasing the McCarrick Report just as the whole world was descending into social and economic deep-freeze, and with the media’s attention consumed elsewhere, could have been interpreted just as cynically as punting. Whatever Rome’s reasons – cynical, wholesome, of otherwise – we wait.

Waiting patiently (or impatiently, as the case may be) has been part of this crisis in our Church for decades. It is an interesting subject for spiritual reflection to ponder the tension between zeal for genuine reform, on the one hand, and patience with the frustrating pace of renewal on the other. A great deal of damage has been done to the Church by those who were impatient for reform, and a lot of evil has befallen the Church because the faithful were too timid or complacent or deferential.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this tension between action and patience – and the blessings and pitfalls of each. It has brought to mind three particular groups of people and organizations, whose actions have sometimes been, taken in isolation, very damaging to the Church. But the actions of these same groups have often, over the long term, been a strong force moving the Church in the right direction. I’m thinking of the media, the lawyers, and the victims’ advocacy groups.

Anyone who remembers 2002, knows the pivotal role the media (especially print media) played in uncovering the abuse – and the cover-up of abuse – in the United States, especially in Boston. The movie “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. It showed the tenacity of the investigative reporters at the Boston Globe, finally giving a voice to the victims of clerical sexual abuse.

But 30 years earlier, when Jason Berry was writing articles exposing the predations of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe for the local paper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it wasn’t so obvious to the public that the journalist was the one telling the truth, let alone the hero of the story.

I’ve never been shy about criticizing the National Catholic Reporter, but that publication deserves credit for covering clerical sexual abuse back when many Catholics saw such coverage as an attack on the Church.

The media gets a lot of things about the Catholic Church wrong. Some journalists simply have an axe to grind. Some are agenda-driven or despise the Church. Some loathe celibacy, or the Church’s defense of the unborn, or her “homophobia” and “misogyny.” All the usual caveats apply. Still, it is undeniable that, aggressive, tenacious, and sometimes (yes) even vicious media coverage, has pushed the institutional Church to address profound problems it was too often content to ignore or deny

And then there are the lawyers. Some attorneys have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars suing the Catholic Church. As Peter Steinfels showed (definitively, in my mind) last summer in Commonweal, attorneys general are not above using the abuse crisis as a political tool or to whip up a frenzy of resentment against the Catholic Church. Driving dioceses into bankruptcy for crimes committed by long-dead priests and covered up by long-dead bishops is not obviously just. But is there any doubt that the fear of financial calamity has been a powerful motivator for a generation (or more) of bishops who seemed to care more about their institutional legacy – the patrimony of the faithful – than about the safety of the souls (and bodies) of the faithful?

And then there are the victims’ advocacy groups – Bishop Accountability, Spirit Fire, SNAP – the list is long. Some of these people have been thorns in bishops’ sides for decades and decades. Some of them have been a font of grace and healing. Most of them have been both. Here, too, like in most of the Church, we find a mixed bag: saints and crackpots, activists and heretics, survivors and zealots, and people who just want to help or are looking for a helping hand. Many of these groups have been the only source of solidarity for people who were once abused, dismissed and cast away.

The point here is not simply to show that there’s a mix of good and bad in all of us. That’s trite at best, Manichean at worst. Rather, the point is that if we really take seriously the truth that all things work for good for those who love God, two things are sure: we ought to be very, very grateful . . . and incredibly humble.

Even as we wait.

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.