In the past week, media coverage has ranged from allegations of papal intervention to prevent the investigation of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O Connor to Congress meetings concerning Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. There has also been news that ArchbishopTheodore McCarrick is to take up residence within a Franciscan friary in Kansas. In this latter case, the Most Rev. Gerald Vincke (Bishop of the Diocese of Salina) even went so far as to provide an open letter of explanation to the faithful; assuring them of his understanding and, equally, the fact that the arrangement would not result in any financial liability for the Diocese. What, if anything, do these things have in common?
It may be thought that they possess a medieval quality: the exercise of papal power as (seemingly) an act of personal benevolence; the adoption of a form of trial by combat; and the recognition of the desire to drive those considered undesirable out of our communities? It may also be thought that they share a profound difficulty.
In the case of alleged papal intervention, the issue has ceased to be whether the allegation said to have implicated Cormac Murphy O Connor, was authentic, supported by evidence, or, worthy of belief. These matters have now been eclipsed by the assertion that investigators were simply instructed to refrain from investigating further. Theoretically at least, the potential misuse of power.
The Kavanaugh nomination has - it would appear- by-passed the forensic scrutiny of the trial process, and simply been transported to a public committee whose determination will in a manner which is primarily influenced by political considerations, determine both the nominee's character and eligibility for office. Whilst for some this display is the outworking and misuse of political power; for others, it is the means by which power is safely preserved from abuse.
What of the case of Archbishop McCarrick? We have not heard of any trial, or conviction: only sentence. Reduced in clerical state he is required to live a life of prayer and penance. If a fraction of the media detail is correct, the McCarrick case bears witness to the misuse of power and its corrosive character. But what of the notion that a Diocesan Bishop considered it necessary to explain publicly his decision to afford a place of residence to Archbishop McCarrick?
It might be thought that in each scenario, one is able to detect a more subtle influence; one which involves a desire to appease, win over, or exercise influence. In short: ambition. The corollary of ambition is of course, fear of what others may think of the quality of one's decisions, actions, or motives. We should not be surprised at this. Ambition is the same whether it involves aspiring to office, or, constitutes a determination to keep it.
The pitch and yaw of fame and fortune are not uncommon in the secular world. Until recently, the same would not have been considered a feature of the Church in modern times. The recent scandals reveal not only the lengths to which people are prepared to go to retain office and power, but also demonstrate the speed with which the aura of status and power is lost to the court of popular opinion. For some observers, recent events simply confirm the relativist notion that: "we are all the same, after all"; actuated by the same selfish motivations and desires; there being nothing new under the sun.
This presents a rather depressing vista. It yields a perspective of the human condition which sees the worst and is never disappointed. This perspective is not simply non-christian; ignoring as it does the redemptive mission and power of Christ. Rather, the real problem lies in the fact that it not only depicts humanity as concupiscent but adopts this propensity towards the accommodation of self and self interest as a defining characteristic and normative standard with which we must all conform. Whether Pope Francis did instruct staff at the CDF to terminate an investigation, only time will tell. The same is true of Brett Kavanaugh's fate. However, it would appear that Archbishop McCarrick's fate is already determined. What is at stake here is not whether he has been guilty of misconduct or found to be so. Those are important issues but factors such as public disapproval, anger and resentment should not cloud the Christian response. This is not about condoning wrongdoing of any character; least of all conduct which causes harm to the weak and the vulnerable. Instead, it is about recognising that for all of us, our Christian vocation requires (in fact demands) that we demonstrate justice which is counter-cultural. That is, to ensure that we are true to the mission entrusted to us. This mission makes difficult demands of us. Those demands are not reducible to issues of popularity nor are they capable of relegation in the interests of political camouflage. In the words of St Polycarp:
"...[D]o not regard these people as enemies but call them back as fallible and straying parts of your own body, that you may make that body whole again. By doing this you will build up your own spiritual strength."