The disgrace of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, credibly accused of having for many years groomed and abused teenage boys, seminarians, and priests, sometimes with some measure of consent and sometimes without any consent at all, gives us a rare opportunity to survey the whole miserable scene as regards both the Church and what, for want of an accurate term, we with a helpless sigh call our culture.
We are pigs in a sty, complaining that the boar stinks.
Does the boar stink? To high heaven. Cardinal McCarrick ought to be defrocked, immediately, and so should every bishop who knew about the stink of his life and refrained from saying or doing anything, even when they were urged to do so. I am not merely talking about knowing about the most egregious of his flock-fouling sins. It is a neat dodge to say, “I had no good evidence that Mr. Capone had actually ordered the murder of anybody, dear me and goodness gracious,” when you have known all along that Mr. Capone was over his eyeballs in crime. Must I be explicit? Anyone who knew that McCarrick liked to put his hands down the pants of seminarians and priests and did nothing about it must do the honorable thing and resign. Take yourselves out of our misery, please. Enough already. Go, repent, live out your days in humble and sorrowful and, we hope, healing solitude. Others have done that before you. You will not be alone. Die reconciled to nature, mankind, and God—what we all hope to do.
Fellow Catholics who hang a rainbow banner somewhere: hang your heads also. What fantasy world do you live in?
Meanwhile let us not fool ourselves.
It is always easy to say that Other People’s Sins are worse than My Sins. That is not simply hypocrisy speaking, or slander, or detraction. It is because of the manifold character of sin and the broad range of human circumstances in which we sin. In some regard Other People’s Sins are worse, and we are pleased to think so, while carefully choosing the regard in which that result comes out right, and not all those others in which it comes out wrong.
We can see how the thinking goes, because we all engage in it. I would be astonished if McCarrick himself did not. He might say, “Yes, it is true that I am doing this thing with seminarians, but I am not actually committing sodomy,” because, wait for the excuse, there was no penetration. The sodomite might say, “Yes, it is true that I am engaging in sodomy, but it is with a fully consenting partner.” The casual offender comes back, “You have a regular partner, so you have committed your life to this sin, but I only fall prey to it occasionally.”
The adulterer says, “You people are violating the very nature of the human body. At least I sin with someone of the opposite sex.” The sodomite replies, “But I am not breaking any vow!” The fornicator says, “Well, I am not breaking any vow, because I have never made any vow, and I too am at least sinning in the natural way.” The adulterous woman replies, “And how many millions of children born or conceived out of wedlock are your actions responsible for? If I get pregnant, the child will have a home. My husband will not know.” The adulterous man replies, “I am only doing what you are doing, and for every one of me, there are ten or twenty of you.”
The nicer fornicators say, “We are being responsible,” which is of course not true, but because they are using contraception they persuade themselves that it is, “and we at least do not use pornography.” And the solitary users of porn reply, “We get no one pregnant by thumbing through a magazine.” The fornicators reply, “We at least are social.” The porn users shoot back, “And you are the reason for most of the million abortions performed every year.”
Some people who sue for divorce are better than others because they did not commit adultery until after the divorce was final. Others who sue for divorce are better than still others because they were head over heels in love, which is to say adultery, before the divorce. Some people are better than others because they had no children whose lives they would make miserable. Others are better because at least they did have children, who will now be a comfort to the abandoned spouse. Still others are better because they had children and are going to remain a great big part of their lives, and not simply leave them with the spouse they have wronged.
Do we see the trouble? We are all embroiled in it. We are angry because bishops, who should be leading the flock rather than roasting them on a spit, winked and smiled at sexual misbehavior in their peers. And that is the same kind of thing we ourselves have been doing for a long time now. Every one of us, without exception. It is almost impossible to live in this whatever, this culture, without compromising yourself at every step. You say nothing about fornication, nothing about cohabitation, nothing about divorce, nothing about obscenity, nothing about sins against nature, and nothing about contraception, and you are shocked to find that your bishops are bad, your president is a pig, his opponent was a sow, the entertainers you watch on television grunt and squeal, and the ordinary banter at your middle school is fouler than the graffiti on the wall of a Roman bathhouse.
We may also ask how it is that a man like McCarrick rose to the status of chief boar in the bog. What signal accomplishments of the intellect, what conspicuous acts of holiness, what merely worldly successes in building up institutions qualified him to rise so high? Anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucratic setting, whether in private industry, in education, or in government, will be able to provide the answer. You rise by giving the “right” people what they want. It is another neat trick. You draw down the capital of your institution, whether it is monetary, cultural, or intellectual capital, in order to reward a certain group of people, often the most worldly and vocal and ambitious, rather than others—the old-fashioned, the people who want mainly that things should be sane and decent. Thus do you harm the institution itself while firming up your position in it. You rise by means of the right kind of managed failure.
As long as the “right” people are with you, you may give the others the whistle. Again, the habit of looking at Other People’s Sins stands you in good stead. We are all censors when it comes to those. So you claim a success when the congregation at Our Lady of Perpetual Motion is full and chatty and noisy with semi-Christian sing-along follow the bouncing dotted eighth note ditties, but you do not ask whether that is a confessional in back or just the broom closet, and you do not inquire too closely into the age of the parishioners or whether they actually believe all that the Church teaches. You yourself do not really believe all. You at least are not grimly traditional and censorious, like the people over there. Or you do as I have just done, and see those sins against orthodoxy, good taste, and even grammar, which sins are many, and fall to a sinister temptation, to be animated more by scorn for the wrong than by love for the right.
We may have gotten worse bishops than we deserved, but not much worse; we certainly have not deserved good and wise and holy bishops, because we have not been a good and wise and obedient flock. It is time to see to our own corners of the bog. McCarrick was not only the cause of misery. He was a product of it and a symptom of it. For someone who contributed his or her share to the cause, look in the mirror.
It is time to get to work, cleaning.
Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).