The long awaited McCarrick Report – or to give it its full, gloriously bureaucratic title, the Report of the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 – 2017) – contains no smoking gun that explains McCarrick’s rise through the hierarchy and his gaudy, globe-trotting, post-retirement career. Nor does it contain any evidence that, in climbing the ecclesiastical greasy pole, Theodore McCarrick bribed anyone. Some will undoubtedly conclude from this that the two-year long probe led by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State is another Vatican exercise in damage control.
But the vast amount of documentation supporting the report, and even the lengthy period of its preparation, tell against that suspicion, however reasonable it might seem in light of other Vatican scandals. Moreover, if it’s read carefully and without preconceptions, the McCarrick Report is a lengthy confession of massive institutional system failure, in which a dysfunctional clerical culture played the dominant role. That may be a less satisfying “answer” to the puzzle of Theodore McCarrick than a dramatic, documented revelation of papal perfidy, or evidence of a different kind of financial scandal – the de facto purchase of a cardinalate – at the higher altitudes of the Roman Curia. But forty years of experience tells me that the system-failure explanation is likely to be true.
“Clericalism” is such a punching bag in the Church today that it’s important to define the term carefully.
By “clerical culture” I mean a culture in which the sacramental and natural fraternity of priests and bishops is debased into a caste system in which the protection of the caste and the maintenance of its superior status in the Church is the prime imperative. In such a caste system, the lower clerical castes do not question or challenge the upper clerical castes, while the upper castes enforce caste discipline. In this sense of the term, Theodore McCarrick (for all his legendary, hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie) was as “clerical” as clerical gets. He was a product of the clerical caste system; he understood its mores and mechanisms; and for decades he used it to cover his depredations and advance his career.
He was not without skills; he was an intelligent man and a gifted linguist who worked at a ferocious pace. But he was also a narcissistic predator and pathological liar whose Uncle Ted demeanor could mask his ferocious ambition, his relentless self-promotion and sycophancy to superiors, and, of course, his depredations and abuse of lower members of the caste or caste-aspirants. He was a past master at gaining the trust of others, including Pope John Paul II, and then betraying that trust.
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