Vatican sources were feverishly leaking over the last weeks that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick would soon be former archbishop, former priest and former cleric Mr. Ted McCarrick. Nevertheless, it remains startling now that it has happened.
So many aspects of McCarrick being dismissed from the clerical state — the “death penalty” for clerics in canon law — are noteworthy:
- It seems incredible that McCarrick is now forbidden to celebrate Holy Mass. The one who presided over grand and humble celebrations of the Eucharist for more than 60 years is no longer permitted to do so. I had only a few encounters with McCarrick over the years, but I did witness his habit of getting up before dawn to celebrate Mass in the private chapel at the North American College in Rome. On one occasion I arrived to set up the chapel for Cardinal Avery Dulles at 7am, and McCarrick had long finished and had returned — not knowing if anyone had been assigned — to put out the cruets and books for Cardinal Dulles.
- McCarrick may no longer act as a priest and no longer belongs to the clerical state, according to canon law, but he is still a priest. The priesthood, like baptism, is irrevocable. A priest can no more be unordained than the Eucharist can be unconsecrated. It’s important not to forget our theology of the priesthood, even if some priests neglect to act in accord with it. And McCarrick is a priest forever, so while it is likely that we will never see him again on earth, we may yet still see him in eternity. As for all priests, his priesthood there will be to his added benediction in heaven or his added malediction in hell.
- Prayers for victims are perhaps easier to offer. But prayers — as the Lord Jesus and St. Stephen teach us — are for the perpetrators, too. Prayers that Ted McCarrick might end up in the Good Thief section of heaven might be difficult but are sound. It was the Good Thief who was the first one home.
- Bishops were quick to express the hope that McCarrick’s “defrocking” might lead to a measure of justice and reconciliation for his victims. Certainly, as the punishment of law is meant to effect justice and repair the damage to the common good; but it should have been noted that the sentence is also aimed at persuading McCarrick — if he has not already done so — to repent and to receive the mercy of God before he dies. There is nothing to hide anymore, no appearances to keep up, no fear of losing human respect, no earthly consequences to avoid — all these things can keep us from sacramental absolution and restoration to sanctifying grace.
- The mercy McCarrick needs is great, for his sins were great. The gravest was “solicitation in the sacrament of confession,” which means using the sacrament for the purpose of sexual activity. It is a grave sacrilege, and even worse than sexual abuse alone, for it offends against the holiness of God, who acts in the sacraments through the priest. And if — understandably — such abuse should dissuade the victim from approaching the confessional again in future when in need, it can be an obstacle to sanctifying grace for the victim, too.
- On the eve of the Vatican’s sexual-abuse summit, the McCarrick matter showed that the Church is still learning how to speak as the Church about sexual abuse, using the proper categories of sin and grace, betrayal and sacrilege, penance and redemption, contrition and conversion. Healing and justice are necessary to be sure, but they are natural categories. The Church has a supernatural mission and should be comfortable speaking about it. That does not diminish the suffering of victims; to the contrary, it exacerbates the gravity of the offense against them.
- Yes, the verdict was announced on the eve of the summit. The process was rushed in an unseemly manner to get a timely announcement. Justice, especially canonical justice, especially in an area where canonical norms have so often been ignored, should not be rushed or manipulated for public-relations purposes. Now that we know the timeline, it is clear that the McCarrick process, though undoubtedly reaching a just conclusion, did not proceed in a normal manner. Vatican sources were leaking that he would be dismissed from the clerical state before a decision had been taken. Verdict first; trial later.
- Consider that the Archdiocese of New York was still taking evidence from McCarrick’s victims after Christmas. The congresso of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) concluded the process and decreed the penalty on Jan. 11, less than two weeks later. McCarrick was notified of the verdict and given a chance to appeal, which was heard and dismissed on Feb. 13, one month later. The Holy Father then confirmed the decision either the same day or the next, McCarrick was informed on Feb. 15, and the world was told the next day. Has the CDF ever handled a case like that before? Even when an outcome is clear, it is still possible to rush to judgment. Rushing to judgment to generate positive headlines is a different version of the problem with how sexual abuse was mishandled in the first place: the priority of public image over application of law.
- Priests whose cases languish for months or years in the Roman Curia might wonder if there really is the same law for all. “No bishop, no matter how influential, is above the law of the Church,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement upon the verdict. Not exactly. It was precisely the prelates of the Roman Curia who bent the penal process to their needs for an announcement before the world’s journalists arrive for the summit later this week. That the powerful get to direct the course of justice is not the road to authentic reform.
- The news for the Archdiocese of Washington was not entirely bleak. To have a former archbishop laicized is rare indeed. But it is also rare to have a former vicar general elevated to camerlengo (chamberlain) of the Holy Roman Church, one of only two Curial officials who continue in office after the Holy See becomes vacant. Cardinal Kevin Farrell was given the prestigious post Thursday, the day between McCarrick’s appeal was denied and his notification of the same. Cardinal Farrell served as McCarrick’s vicar general in Washington for six years and as Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s vicar general for one year. Both Cardinals Wuerl and Farrell have repeatedly denied that they knew anything about McCarrick’s misconduct. Cardinal Wuerl was not entirely precise in his denials.
- The review of the McCarrick dossiers in New York; Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey; and Washington must be moving along more quickly than thought. After all, it would be unimaginably foolish to appoint Cardinal Farrell to the post of camerlengo unless it was already known that he came out clean in the Washington review. The appointment must mean the review is complete and shortly will be published, another important step in the resolution of the McCarrick matter.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.