Pope Francis, Please Prosecute
Fyodor Dostoyevsky observes in his novel The House of the Dead, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything.” As the bishops of the Catholic Church convene in Baltimore this week to address the abuse crisis, Dostoyevsky’s reflection on human nature seems apropos. Though there are many holy, selfless, and courageous bishops, the response of the hierarchy as a whole, including many of those in Rome, has been one of dereliction, as if they’ve become inured to such failings.
This was not always so, and perhaps it is useful to ponder a bit of church history to recover a sense of revulsion and appropriate consequences for such behavior. After all, the lay faithful are perplexed at the relative silence from the Vatican on the case of Theodore McCarrick, who has thus far suffered only the mild rebuke of having his cardinal’s hat revoked.
Once upon a time in the church, there was a ritual called the “Degradation of the Bishop” in which one who had grossly abused his office was essentially un-ordained. The degradation went beyond merely “defrocking” a bishop, but entirely revoked ecclesiastical status in a pointed and symbolic ceremony of expulsion.
The rite included removing the bishop’s miter, sacred vestments, and even his shoes, with these words, “We deprive thee of the rights and privileges of the episcopal dignity, symbolized in this pallium, since thou hast abused them. We strip thy head of this miter, emblem of the episcopal dignity, since thou hast befouled it by thy ill government.”
The degradation ceremony concluded with a symbolic scraping of the bishop’s hands and removal of his ring, “Rightly do we pull off thy ring, the sign of fidelity, since thou hast made bold to rape God's own bride, the Church. We utterly erase and eradicate the consecration, blessing and anointing bestowed upon thee, and we put thee out of the episcopal order, whence thou returnest unclothed.”
While the formidable words of this ritual may seem harsh to our modern sensibilities, they can remind us of what a proper sense of outrage might be when one considers the offense. St. Catherine of Siena, in her spiritual masterpiece The Dialogue, tells us starkly of God’s view of such behavior amongst the clergy. It’s worth a review of Chapter 124 in which St. Catherine talks of the leprosy of this sin among the ministers of the sacraments, producing a stench that reaches all the way to Heaven. St. Catherine says that even the devils cannot bear the sight of this horrendous sin.
Surely there are updated canonical means of addressing the likes of Theodore McCarrick and his accomplices in the hierarchy (and there are accomplices who ought to be addressed), but the degradation rite might be useful for the bishops meeting in Baltimore to ponder. More importantly, since power ultimately lies in Rome on this matter, we can hope that the “thorough study” of the McCarrick matter ordered by Pope Francis in October will yield more than the anemic response we have seen thus far.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky returns to a similar theme on human nature; he writes, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” In this novel, the murderer gets away with his crime for some time, but only truly repents and starts on a path to redemption after he is finally imprisoned. For Theodore McCarrick, who still denies wrongdoing as he lives freely and comfortably in a Kansas friary, it would be a true act of mercy for him to face justice.
Pope Francis, please prosecute this case fervently. Such an outcome might not only bring some desperately needed healing to the victims, it might also be the only hope of redemption for the perpetrators.