Theodore McCarrick: Some Noteworthy Points to Consider
National Catholic Register, 19 February 2019
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.
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