Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Spiritual Lesson of the McCarrick Report: Don't Play the Game

There was one part of the McCarrick report, released yesterday by the Vatican, that really summarized for me the depth of the corruption involved. The report describes a scene that seems like something out of the Sopranos or the Godfather, where a few clerics are having dinner in an empty banquet hall. Without describing all that happened there, the thing that for some reason really disturbed me is when McCarrick tells a priest who will soon be working in a highly sensitive position in the Church with access to highly confidential information regarding the candidates for bishops of various dioceses, that he expects that the priest will keep McCarrick informed of that confidential material. It is confidential material that McCarrick was not entitled to know.

For some reason, this particular scene revealed to me the depth of the rot. Why? I think because so many of the other things that McCarrick did were personal to him. His immoral and abusive behaviors and his lying were related to his own internal make-up, but, feeling comfortable telling a priest effectively to spy for him reveals an institutional defect. His ability to say that in front of several other bishops and priests basically says, "We all know this is how the game is played."

Of course priests talk "inside baseball" sometimes. "Who do you think is going to become bishop of . . . ?" But McCarrick's request to be provided confidential information is not about talking inside baseball. It is about rigging the game. That McCarrick felt free to pressure somebody in that way suggests that he viewed the Church from a very natural and political perspective. How long had he been playing that game? How long had he--and others--been rigging the game? You get the sense that, in his world, it is perfectly normal and expected that clerics would freely reveal confidential information that they had no right to share. The cold and calculating nature of that request and the ease with which it came to his lips really stung me.

I don't really know how valuable or complete this report actually is, but what I do know is that the scene described above is like a little parable of warning to the rest of us who are in the clergy. It's obvious that there are some who "play the game." They manipulate others and use information and politics to assume power, prestige, and control. In the face of that, it might become a temptation for others to try and beat them at the same game, to have the same mindset, and to use the same tactics. This temptation, however, is the work of the devil. 

In the face of ambiguous language, political intrigue, morbid curiosity, and an all too natural vision of the Church, priests need to be men who speak clearly, who are guileless, who hold confidences, who don't seek information as a source of power, and who have a supernatural vision of life. In a word, we need to be holy. We need to not be part of the game. Playing the game--even if we think we are "the good guys"--weakens the Church. 

The pursuit of power, the hunger for and the misuse of information (lack of discretion), the purposeful employment of evasive and ambiguous language, and the "crisis management" mentality of limiting conversations and controlling the message etc are all killers of ecclesial life. They are all evidence of a merely natural approach to the Church. When these become the normative means of interacting, it gives rise to the unscrupulous, the dishonest, and the manipulative. 

And to be fair, I think it is safe to say that most priests and bishops love the Church, speak the truth in love, and are not given over to this type of twisted mentality. That being said, the traps are always there and we should all be watchful not to fall into them.

What should the Church do? I have no idea. I'm sure lots of people will have plenty of good suggestions and advice. My initial reaction is more about, "What can I do?" I can read about saintly priests and try to imitate them. I can surround myself with friends who help me to grow in holiness. I can be a whole lot more humble. I can focus my attention less on all of the "big" picture stuff in the Church and focus on the little section of the vineyard that the Lord has entrusted to me. I can hold confidences more tightly. I can refrain from seeking to know things that I don't need to know. I can be a lot better about not speaking about things that don't concern me. I can--with charity--speak clearly and unambiguously about things without fear of the repercussions. I can spend a lot more time thinking about holy things and a lot less time thinking about ecclesial politics. I can remember that the greatest power in the Church is not some congregation in Rome or a diocesan committee. It's good for me to remember constantly that the greatest powers of the Church are in the Sacraments and in the Word of God. I can be more charitable, faithful, hopeful, humble, obedient, chaste, pure, temperate, gentle, repentant, and joyful. Yeah, there's plenty I could do to improve the situation in the Church by attending to my own spiritual life.

When I was kid, a movie called, "WarGames" came out. In the film, the US and the Soviet Union almost enter into a full-scale nuclear war because a defense department computer was simulating an attack. The computer thought it was merely playing a game. In the end, just before it is too late, the computer learns an important lesson. It declares, "Strange game. The only winning move is not to play." 

The antidote to what ails the Church is to be found in a renewed commitment to holiness and a deeper Faith. McCarrick seems to have played the game well, but it all came to nought. That's because the game he was playing was indeed a strange game. When we opt for holiness, virtue, and a supernatural life, we choose what is real and lasting and reject what is fake and passing. As far as the political games that can absorb church life sometimes, the only winning move is not to play.

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