158. The Annus Horribilis (Terrible Year) of the Roman Catholic Church

February 1st, 2019

Stable. Traditional. Consistent. For many this has been the image of the Roman Catholic Church. But that was ages ago. The present-day situation appears to be quite different: uncertain, scrutinized, wavering. The public image of the Roman Catholic Church now is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Here are few signs of the current crisis.

Annus Horribilis
In September 2016, four cardinals sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts). These questions gave voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community concerning the interpretation of key parts of Amoris Laetitia, the papal document that relaxes access to the sacraments by the divorced.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope, thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denunciation of doctrinal deviations.

At the end of July 2017, Father Thomas Weinandy, a former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last ten years, horrible things have come out: first in Ireland, then Australia, then Chile, and more recently in the USA (where a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report exposed systemic abuses committed by priests) and Germany (with a recent report saying that 3,677 children have been abused by Catholic priests since the 1940s). These are just five regions where exposure of the traumatic evidence meant that the scandals could no longer be covered up. The impression is that we have not yet reached the peak. The vast echo of these scandals reached the Vatican headquarters when former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò accused vast sectors of the Roman Curia of covering them up and called for Francis’ resignation due to his inability to properly deal with the abuses. Cases of abuse are also emerging from Argentina and involve people very close to the Pope.

What is the Problem?
What is happening in this Annus Horribilis undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome. Even though Pope Francis continues to cling to the idea that, while her children make mistakes, the church is indefectible (i.e. it does not err), the reality is that it is a failure of the whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on.

The abuse scandal is not the case of few isolated “black sheep”, nor can the internal turmoil be interpreted as a physiological discussion in a large community. There is something wrong within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August 2018) called for repentance and envisaged stricter procedures for the recruitment of the clergy, the prevention of abuse, and the prosecution of abusers, which will be discussed at a meeting scheduled for 21-24 February 2019. More than 100 churchmen will represent every bishops’ conference. But is this enough?

The Pope is also suggesting that the main problem lies in “clericalism”, i.e. an attitude marked by self-referentiality and detachment from the people. In a clericalist culture, the clergy often stand above and aloof from their flocks, thus creating the conditions for unchecked power to become abusive. In Francis’ words, it is “a perversion of the church”. As true as this might be, is only clericalism to blame?

Is the Protection of Mary the Solution?
In the midst of this Annus Horribilis, Pope Francis has called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary and to Saint Michael Archangel to ask for their protection. He invited “all the faithful, of all the world, to pray the Holy Rosary every day, during the entire Marian month of October, and thus to join in communion and in penitence, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to separate us from God and from each other.” The Pope asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”) and with prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

The full invocation “Sub tuum praesidium” is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and, in so doing, deviates the focus from the Triune God to Mary.

With this request for intercession, the Pope asked the faithful of all the world to pray that the Holy Mother of God place the church beneath her protective mantle, preserving her from the attacks by the devil. He also asked that the recitation of the Holy Rosary during the month of October conclude with the prayer written by Pope Leo XIII:

Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

In the Pope’s view, Mary and  Saint Michael Archangel are the two defenders of the church in this Annus Horribilis. But are they really the ones to be invoked to receive help? Is this a biblically viable way forward?

Where is Rome going?
There is no doubt that Rome is going through difficult times. The institution that appeared strong and stable is now showing signs of serious weakness at various levels. The suggested diagnosis of the current crisis, i.e. the “black sheep” explanation and the evil of clericalism, seems to be self-protective and unwilling to engage the real issues at stake. The proposed cure to the problem, i.e. the invocation of Mary and the saints, is even more problematic. Both the diagnosis and the cure do not show any indication that radical biblical renewal is taking place in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The gospel is still obscured by centuries of unwillingness to expose the church to a time of doctrinal reformation and by scores of devotional practices that lead the faithful astray.

There might be movements and individuals here and there who are exploring what biblical faith really means. However, as far as the institution at its highest level is concerned, the current Annus Horribilis is a lost opportunity to rediscover the truth, the purity, and the healing power of the biblical gospel.