This is not an easy short essay to write. It's a big idea packed into a few hundred words, so pardon any quick maneuvers or missed steps. But there are some important connections about sex and the Church that ought to be written about, and that should remain in our minds as we deal with whatever pot is in the process of boiling over next.The real surprise about Cardinal McCarrick
Cardinal McCarrick's lechery has apparently been an open secret for a long time. It's good that it's all been made public now. Everyone's talking about accountability, as they should, because sure as hell there are plenty of other cases just like this waiting to explode. And not just in the Church, as the past year has shown, but everywhere. Failure to account for moral failings early on always breeds more of the same, until eventually something ruptures that can't be contained.
Rod Dreher has been prolific and insightful on this. His "Uncle Ted & The Grand Inquisitor
" is worth reading on the power structures that make this sort of thing even possible—basically, through fear and misdirection.
The real surprise about Cardinal McCarrick that no one's talking about, however, is that no amount of conviction—or collaboration—on the part of victims, journalists, other priests, laymen, etc., was enough to upset the apple cart. It's not just that power structures blocked valiant efforts to expose the truth (although they did). We wring our hands and say "How could this be?" and it scratches an itch that we all have. But in the end we know, when we look carefully at ourselves, that sexual failings run deep in our culture, and often in ways that cut out our own legs from underneath of us when we need them to stand up the most.Victims are victims twice over
I don't mean to say the victims were to blame. Only that the victims were victims twice over. Enough men in a seminary being "cuddled" by their formators enough times should incite an angry mob that can't easily be put down. I was in a seminary at a time when that was beginning to be true. I've watched men speak out about abuses of power, sexual or otherwise, albeit sometimes awkwardly and with trepidation. And some who've spoken out have told me about the positive effects their testimony had on rectifying a bad situation.
When victims don't instinctively confront immoral personal abuse, it might be that the power they're facing is too overwhelming. This is most likely the case when an enemy is foreign, something that mere dissociation can't fix. But if a power isn't foreign, if dissociation is still a possible remedy—as in the case of seminarians and seminary formators—another likely reason is that the instinct to confront has already been dulled. That is to say, victims might already be conditioned to believe that confrontation is futile.
And in fact, Western culture in the late twentieth century did dull many instincts—about the connections between sex and human fulfillment, and austerity and practical wisdom. Sex and creature comforts became nearly free, and the moral considerations they used to entail vanished. The eighties and nineties were remarkably "affluent" in this respect. Cardinal McCarrick's victims were also the victims of a fatal cultural anthropology that misrepresented their human dignity and agency. It's the same one that explains decades of silence surrounding sexual abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Some of that loss is being restored through a culture of "mindfulness," but it's akin to trying to rebuild a magnificent, intricate Gothic cathedral from the smashed, broken pieces of an old one. There's at least something to look at and feel good about, but it's not very nice and it lacks cohesion and form.And Me TooMe Too
is the spire of that edifice; it's been a rallying point for a largely positive, popular climate of accountability. But it's also been co-opted for optics and witch hunts. It will crumble soon because it's not stable or well enough designed. A more sturdy (but admittedly less useful) version of the Me Too movement might attempt to collect reports of misguided sexual anthropologies foisted upon young people—sometimes even by abusers who would otherwise harass or assault.
Again, our legs are cut out when we need them the most.
We're not all abusers ("There but for the grace of God..." for some more than others). But foisting anthropologies is a big job, and one we all participate in. It has innocuous beginnings, like making simple concessions in the face of a well-formed conscience, or rationalizing lesser evils over achievable goods. Or maybe it's spurred by more inchoate ideas, like habitually overeating, or drinking just a little too much, or perusing social media instead of responsibly finishing work, or allowing news or editorial comments to overwhelm better judgement. If confessors and homilists are to be taken seriously, it's part and parcel of a culture of addiction—attention, sex, consumerism—that's endemic to Christians as much as anyone else.
If we're surprised that Cardinal McCarrick's victims and well-meaning others couldn't force that abuse to public attention, how much more surprised should we be by other "domestic" cases, where the problem is not imposed from outside but is simply accepted as inevitable? By any count, there's a huge discrepancy between pornography consumers (many who no doubt wish they weren't) and self-admitted addiction. There are droves of Facebook users who spend the bulk of their few offline moments complaining about what social media is doing to them and to the world, but who refuse to stop using it, even for a while. In each case, real accountability also lacks for a variety of reasons. Porn is a yawner, and social media at least affords a common talking point for those whose analog social skills have atrophied.
Millennials are brewing "mindful" responses to these conundrums: NoFap
, the Time Well Spent movement
, and others. But they're not enough, and they'll ultimately fail for the same reasons Me Too will.Dostoevsky versus self-help Catholicism
Rod Dreher points to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor as a personification of the Church's present dilemma. By the same token, then, the key to solving the problem is understanding, as the Underground Man concludes, that we've been "alone without books
" for too long. And that the books we do have are the wrong ones
—self-help, focused on "doing it better" and "being smarter." Self-help isn't enough to lift our culture, Catholic or otherwise, from where it's ended up. Being "better" or "smarter" wouldn't have been enough to expose Cardinal McCarrick years ago, and it won't expose the next abuse or the one after it.
What the Church and the world need, and what books (literally or figuratively) provide, are not simply ideas but also the space to work with them. Recovering a truly Catholic anthropology will not happen without a significant, painful rebirth, and without immersing ourselves into an incarnate society that emphasizes personal encounters over proxied ones—where ideas cannot
be fleeting but need to persist.
In that respect, the Church—marred by scandal, doubt, and disbelief—is the only possible place for this rebirth to occur. Though the odds seem insurmountable, the Church alone is fit to weather the storm
. It has maintained for two thousand years the teachings and practices on integral human flourishing that were evident to the ancients—the same that have resurfaced lately in popular Stoicism—but that required revelation and grace to adhere to our nature.
Quite simply, wringing our hands or scratching our heads at the McCarricks of the world comes down to a failure of holiness. And holiness is something that needs to be prayed for and discerned, not debated or analyzed.