The Catholic Church Is a Dysfunctional Workplace

The ferocity of the Vatican’s civil war has less to do with theology or justice than petty office politics.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is greeted by Pope Francis during the Ordinary Public Consistory at St. Peter's Basilica on February 14, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is greeted by Pope Francis during the Ordinary Public Consistory at St. Peter's Basilica on February 14, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The present scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States has no obvious precedent. Demands that a sitting pope resign have been unknown since the crises of the late 14th century, when rival popes reigned in Rome and Avignon, and they would have been unthinkable in modern times until 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by resigning. Before then, one would have no recourse but to hope that a pope with whom one disagreed should die. In fact, one British priest who hates Pope Francis assured me last year that the group of priests who oppose him “pray for him to die every day” but that forcing him to resign was out of the bounds of possibility.

So the demand by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, formerly the Vatican’s ambassador to Washington, that Francis resign was a significant escalation of the culture wars now convulsing the U.S. church. The ostensible reason is that Viganò claims that in 2013 Francis restored to favor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had, in retirement, been secretly sanctioned by Benedict for his liaisons with seminarians. The problem with this accusation is that the sanctions, if they existed, were so secret that the outside world did not know of their existence and McCarrick ignored them entirely.

Viganò’s letter follows the attempt by four retired cardinals last year to convict the pope of heresy over his line on divorced and remarried people, one that Francis eloquently ignored. In terms of U.S. politics, it pits the right-wing firebrand Steve Bannon against the Democratic upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is a battle for the soul of the Catholic Church in the United States, between the conservative culture warriors in one camp and the pastoralists in the other. It has potentially global implications about the way in which the leadership of the church and the way it tackles migration, the environment, sexuality, and capitalism. The hammering of the right-wing Catholic media on this scandal is reminiscent of the way the Fox News axis worked on the Benghazi attack and its aftermath, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Whitewater in the past. The pope himself has used the powers of his office ruthlessly (as all popes tend to do), not least in sacking Viganò.

But reading the archbishop’s 7,000-word denunciation of the pope and his allies reminds me most of all of the greatest poison pen letter I have ever been sent as a journalist. In the spring of 2013, as the pontificate of Benedict was drawing to an end, I received at my desk at the Guardian a four-page single spaced letter, posted from Bavaria, with a covering note in English that said: “The enclosed secret letter was sent to all German cardinals and bishops, as well as to the most eminent personalities of the Vatican in October 2013. Everybody knows that what was written is true. Yet nothing happened. Therefore we have decided to go public about it.”

There followed an indecipherable signature. The letter was headed: “The homosexual network in the Vatican. Prelate GG and the homosexual society behind the back of Pope Benedict XVI.” I’m ashamed to say that I put it aside for a couple of months. Not that I doubted the Vatican was full of gay men—nor even that Benedict himself and his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, might be among them (though the writer of the letter didn’t broach this possibility, portraying the conservative pope instead as the victim of a sexualized cabal). Such possibilities are assumed by anyone seriously interested in Vatican affairs. But there is no good reason to associate either with scandal at any stage in their careers. If both are celibate, their conduct is perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. There wasn’t any kind of printable story there.

Nonetheless, when I finally read the letter through, I was entirely fascinated. Most of the characters in it were referred to only by initials, but the network described—of gay men all busily intriguing for high office in the Vatican—stretched from Rome to Vienna to Berlin. I was possessed by the need to discover whom these initials belonged to and, above all, who had written the letter. Over the course of a fortnight, and with the invaluable help of a friend, a former British intelligence officer well-versed in German Catholic affairs, I unpicked the skein of pseudonyms until I tracked the author down to the cathedral of a small city in Bavaria, where he had been exiled after his diplomatic career had ended for alleged sexual indiscretions.

I flew to Munich, hired a car, and, accompanied by the Berlin correspondent, met the sleek and stately cleric in his chapter house. We introduced ourselves and asked him straight out if he had written the letter. An innocent man would have replied, “What letter?” This man just looked at us through his steel-framed spectacles. A flicker of surprise jumped across his face, and then he smiled. He said, still smiling, that he had no idea what we were talking about and that journalists from respectable newspapers didn’t do this kind of thing. Then he shut the door and retired within. The story was dead, as he knew it would be.

Viganò’s letter differs from the one I received in that neither its author nor its subjects are anonymous. It is also aimed directly at the pope, rather than appealing to him against the misdeeds of his subordinates. But the tone of a mafioso shocked—shocked!—to discover that there are bodies buried in the foundations of a bridge he has been trying to sell is very much the same. The Vatican’s ambassador—a papal nuncio—will have been present at many of the burials because his job is twofold. He is not just a representative of the Vatican to the host country but also to the host church, where he acts as a political commissar and alternative source of information to the Vatican for the local bishops.

What gives the Viganò letter its force is the enormous tension in the U.S. Catholic Church that started under Pope John Paul II and has widened ever since. The roots of that potential schism go back at least as far as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which broke up the fortifications of the Counter-Reformation church, which had endured since the 17th century. Latin in the Mass was out; the church’s traditional anti-Semitism was purged; nuns shook off their habits; a thousand flowers were set to bloom. Some turned out to be weeds: The plurality of child abuse cases later identified were perpetrated in the 1970s by priests born in the 1940s who lost their moral compass in the sudden storm of freedom.

Some people, predominantly intellectuals who had joined the church precisely because it stood against the modern world, were aghast at these developments. For them, the election of John Paul was literally a godsend. He restored church discipline and maintained a fiercely anti-communist position. In Latin America, he moved the church away from its alliance with left-wingers—or tried to. In the United States, he was enthusiastically supported by neoconservative intellectuals, including many of the most influential converts from Protestantism.

But John Paul had a very poor record on sexual abuse, as has become apparent in recent years. He protected and indeed encouraged the charismatic Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, who was a brilliant fundraiser. In the United States, he promoted another charismatic fundraiser and promoter of vocations, “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, to be a cardinal and archbishop of Washington. We learned from Viganò’s letter that the then-nuncio had warned Rome against promoting him in 2000 but was overruled. It now seems that McCarrick was widely known to be gay and believed to be only intermittently celibate, but his activities were not thought to be criminal. And once he had been promoted, any public punishment would have been an occasion of scandal and a huge blow to the reputation of the pope who had promoted him.

Maciel’s sexual predation was so outrageous that Benedict took action against him as soon as he succeeded John Paul. But McCarrick remained in place and was honored even after his retirement in 2006. Viganò claims that Benedict placed him under secret sanctions in 2010, but if this happened, the sanctions were so secret that McCarrick was entirely able to ignore them. Francis’s supporters have been gleefully reposting footage of Viganò, as nuncio, greeting the cardinal when the secret ban was supposed to be in effect.

What changed the balance was first the accession of Francis, who is absolutely on the other side of the U.S. church to his predecessors. He is uninterested in the culture wars. He is pragmatic about sexuality, like his flock. He has a visceral, Argentine distrust of U.S. capitalism and a passion for the environment: His big encyclical on that subject, Laudato Sí, is far to the left of acceptable opinion in Washington. He obviously loathes Donald Trump and everything he represents.

Against this is a well-financed network of Catholic conservatives with their own television stations, websites, and think tanks. They have excellent connections in Rome: This is how Bannon was invited to give his apocalyptic predictions of coming religious war in Europe to a Vatican conference in 2014. For Francis, the problem the abuse scandals illustrate is clericalism—the institutional structure that protects itself. For his opponents, many of whom are themselves priests and believe in the dignity of their office, it’s homosexuality. That certainly goes for Viganò himself, who writes in lurid terms of “homosexual networks … [that] are now widespread [and] act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles. … [They] are strangling the entire church.”

There is a peculiar petty ferocity to this battle. All church fights are marked by a disproportion of hatred to the practical disputes. To take an example from Orthodox history, people slaughtered one another in 17th-century Russia over whether they should make the sign of the cross with two or with three fingers. But these questions can appear to be of literally cosmic importance. Not just the believers but the whole world could be damned if the wrong answer prevails. In the contemporary Catholic Church, two more things intensify the tension. The first is that it remains organizationally feudal. The pope is an autocrat, but within each diocese, each bishop is an autocrat, too. No priest has real job security. None has employment rights. To offend the powerful is very dangerous. The second is sex. Only half of clergy are happily celibate, according to estimates by the late A.W. Richard Sipe, and about 15 percent are gay. Very few are open, and those who are, however celibate, are the target of ferocious abuse. The Catholic gay priest James Alison has called the Vatican a “honeycomb of closets,” using a phrase from the Harvard professor Mark Jordan, which nicely captures the claustrophobic mystification of the culture.

This scandal will blow over. Neither side will be persuaded in the least bit by the other, and in fact both clericalism and gay clergy are essential to the functioning of the institution today. In any other church, the money and the nationalist passion of the American right would lead to an open schism. But Catholics are distinguished from all other Christians by their belief in the papacy. They believe in the existence of one divinely guided and ordained institution based in Rome. Just as liberals were lumbered with John Paul, their enemies now are lumbered with Francis. He will die, as some of them pray, but he won’t be dislodged by their scandals.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout