Let me ask you to do the impossible, tear your mind away from the Kavanaugh affair for a moment, and cast your eyes from the new Rome to the old one — from the American Empire’s judicial wars to the similar mix of scandal, polarization, and intrigue in the Roman Catholic Church.
The pontificate of Francis and the presidency of Donald Trump have been odd mirrors of one another for a while — populist leaders, institutional crises, norm violations, #metoo scandals, leaks and whistle-blowers and cries of “fake news” and more. And as the Trump era has moved toward its Kavanaugh crescendo, the Catholic drama has also escalated, with the church’s doctrinal conflict and its sex abuse scandal converging in a single destabilizing crisis.
This month the crux of the drama is the Synod on Young People, a meeting of bishops in Rome that like prior synods in the Francis era is a chance for the pope to prod some alteration of church teaching on sexuality through a process stage-managed to give the appearance of consensus.
No such consensus was evident in the prior two synods, in which the contested issue was divorce and remarriage, but the pope forged ahead with an ambiguous revision of church teaching, currently half-digested around the Catholic world. This time, thanks to his appointments there are fewer bishops in opposition, and the synod’s endgame is probably some ambiguously liberalizing statement on homosexuality, contraception or both.
The promise of such change would normally guarantee the pontiff a wave of favorable media coverage. But glowing profiles of Francis are no longer easy to write, because the pope is now besieged by sexual scandal and his initial response was in a style familiar from Trump-era American politics — a mix of stonewalling, scapegoating and literal demonization.
[Hear Ross debate Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt each week on “The Argument,” the new Opinion podcast from The New York Times.]
The most notable of his accusers, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, charged the pope and many prominent cardinals with having knowledge of the crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and allowing him to maintain honor and influence nonetheless. Viganò’s allegations were flavored with conservative theological grievances, but their broad outline has held up under scrutiny, and the Vatican has finally been forced to promise, as of this weekend, a "thorough study of the entire documentation present in the Archives of the Dicasteries and Offices of the Holy See regarding the former Cardinal McCarrick." Whether this is a real investigation or a P.R. move remains to be seen, but it's a welcome change from the initial response, which consisted of sermons from Francis in which the pope likened himself to a silent, blameless Christ and claimed that the Great Accuser, the Devil, was at work in allegations against bishops.
If so, Lucifer seems to have a lot to work with, including a newfound scrutiny of the pope’s tenure in Argentina, where victims are accusing him of chilly indifference to clerical sex abuse. The story is getting particular attention in Germany, home of many of Francis’ allies in the hierarchy; the newsmagazine Der Spiegel has a cover package that casts a cold eye on the pope, with harsh quotes from Argentines suggesting that “he protected for years rapists and abusers.”
To Francis’s allies much of the scandal is dismissed as a plot by his enemies, an attempted coup by frustrated conservatives.
But if so it’s the most ineffectual coup imaginable, with no actual plan for changing the direction of his pontificate. Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review likened Viganò’s bombshell to the failed putsch by Turkish officers against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which led nowhere because none of the higher-ups could execute a plan. So it is among the church’s conservative cardinals: To talk with anti-Francis churchmen is to encounter not Machiavellian plots but despair and bafflement and impotence.
Which the pope senses, seemingly, because his response to the scandals has been to refuse obvious adaptations — there have been no further resignations in his corruption-tainted inner circle, no Roman investigation of the American church despite the specific request for one from the American bishops — while plunging ahead boldly on other fronts. So far the current sex abuse agony has been punctuated by a papal revision of church teaching on the death penalty and a dramatic, high-risk deal with the Communist government in Beijing; this month’s synod may provide further doctrinal punctuation. No scandal is big enough, apparently, to derail the pope’s ambitions to leave the church permanently changed.
But this approach guarantees that the scandals will keep coming. As the bishops met in Rome, there was a story stateside about a group of American donors funding investigations into sexual and financial improprieties among the College of Cardinals, trying to expose the other red-hatted McCarricks before the next papal conclave rolls around.
This effort was quickly attacked as a right-wing witch-hunt, animated by an un-Catholic sense of the church as a contested political space. Which is a fair critique — except that the pope himself is the one driving the church to that point, by treating traditional piety as a roadblock to his efforts, by demonizing whistle-blowers in an age of awful scandal, and generally behaving less like a pastor than an ideologue in white.
The truth is that Francis can pre-empt the right-wing partisans with a Roman housecleaning, an American investigation, an accounting for both his own record and his predecessors’ failures. Perhaps all this will happen. The alternative, silence and stonewalling, promises a church permanently in flames.