When the pope is given a cool, even combative, welcome in the Republic of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church is in trouble. The country had been – from its founding as the Irish Free State in the early 1920s after a violent break with the United Kingdom – deeply influenced by Catholic teaching in the framing of its laws and the management of its institutions. It is now solidly secular – and it has a list of hard questions to put to the Church.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, over 1 million people gathered to see him in Dublin’s Phoenix Park alone. Last week, in the same park, Pope Francis attracted an estimated 130,000 pilgrims, while demonstrators a few miles away angrily denounced him for doing too little to address – and blamed the Church in Ireland for perpetrating and covering up – abuses in chapels, Church-run care homes and Catholic orphanages. The demonstration, attended by some of those who were abused as children, was organised by Colm O’Gorman, raped by a priest as an adolescent only a year and a half after John Paul’s 1979 visit.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, or Taoiseach, expressed his hopes for a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Church, one “in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place.” Varadkar is the son of an Indian Hindu doctor and an Irish nurse, brought up Catholic, openly gay, and at 38 when entering office, the youngest Taoiseach in Irish history. This is a new Ireland, unrecognizable to many of an older generation there and in the diaspora who grew up in a devoutly religious, wholly white country.
In the matter of priestly abuse, Ireland now takes its place beside the other countries – the United States, Britain, Australia, Chile, Germany, France and many others – where investigations, often by journalists, have revealed decades of abuse by priests and nuns, cover-ups by superiors and steady denials. Pioneering work in this area was done by the Boston Globe – the major paper of a city with a traditionally strong Irish-American identity – whose investigations, dramatized in the 2015 film Spotlight, revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law, as Archbishop of Boston, had covered up systematic abuse of children over many years; Law resigned and apologized, but ended his career as a highly-placed Vatican official.
Yet the rule in the Church, no matter how shocking the revelations, seems to be same old, same old. In the United States on August 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report revealing that leaders of the state’s Roman Catholic Church covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over 70 years, involving more than 1,000 victims.
Much of that is history, if vividly present in many thousands of victims’ minds. But a new scandal threatens Pope Francis himself – and beyond him, the very fabric of the Catholic Church.
As he ended his Irish visit last Sunday, a fellow priest, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal nuncio to Washington, published a letter accusing his spiritual superior of hiding pedophilic abuse by the American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick – and then, as John Paul II did with Cardinal Law, promoting him within the Vatican. Questioned by journalists on the flight back from Ireland, Francis said people should read it and make up their own minds on its truth: “I will not say a single word.”
The letter contains few details and no proof. Viganò is a conservative in the Church, Francis a reformer. An allegation remains just that. But, if shown to have substance, Francis joins the list of senior prelates who have conspired to prevent justice being done, and to prevent possible crimes being investigated. Resignation would be the obvious option; if not, his papacy risks developing the waddle of a very lame duck indeed. And even if the letter does prove false, the Church’s authority and claims to holiness are now in a remorseless descent.
That a millennium-old religious behemoth should now be in an existential cul-de-sac because of the sexual criminality of its pastors – men said to have responded to a holy calling, trained and empowered to hear intimate confessions and to punish and pardon, guiding figures in the religious communities where they have been placed to serve – seems the subject of the most sensational fiction. Yet so it is.
Were the Vatican’s senior officials able to think in terms of the real world, instead of the ideal, they could, if honest, argue that the Catholic Church’s prohibition on sex of any kind is bound to produce secret, and often criminal, defiance. They might be able to countenance radical action, to “get ahead” of the gathering crisis. They could have a preferably young, fearlessly reformist pope elected, on a program of the greatest radicalism. He would excise the laws of celibacy and of sexual abstinence – arguing, as he rightly could, that both came into force centuries after the Church’s foundation. Women could become priests, bishops, cardinals, or pope. Gay priests would be required to be open about their sexuality, and could marry.
The Church would, of course, be split on this; but it is already splitting, while nothing substantial changes. Francis has inched towards acceptance of homosexuality, abortion and divorce – in doing so, aligning himself with the majority of Catholics in the West. He has thus enraged conservatives everywhere – especially in Africa, where the Church is growing. Relations between the conservatives and reformists are now often incendiary: whoever succeeds him as pope, and whenever that happens, the split will only widen.
A humane Church, recognizing the futility of enforced abstinence, would have to fight – over property (including the Vatican) and over charges of departing from the tradition of centuries. But it would emerge as an honest and a modern Church, which, unlike past popes and including the present one, goes beyond apologies and regret and seeks to make its way in the world as an institution no longer posing as sanctified, with nasty secrets festering everywhere and an institutional law which ensures they will continue to multiply.
As the Irish Prime Minister said, “wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing.” That “much” is way past apologies. A Church which has a great deal that is heroic in its past must cleave to that tradition. Only in that way can it avoid a continuing sleazy decline.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. His books include “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “The Power and the Story.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.