THE visit of Pope Francis to Ireland last weekend was a watershed. The great expanses of grass before the stage where he celebrated mass were a testament to the millions of Roman Catholics who have turned away from the Church after decades of sex-abuse scandal and cover-up. Half a million tickets were issued; only 130,000 arrived. Just 40 years ago, half of the population of Ireland turned out to see Pope John Paul II. The contrast was stark.
Organisers blamed pouring rain and the 1.8-mile walk to the mass site. But the real chaos was institutional. For all the warmth of the popular response to Pope Francis as an individual, the visit brought home the crisis of moral authority of the Church, in what was once the most staunchly Catholic country in Europe.
Europe has been steadily secularising for more than a century. But the suddenness of the collapse of the Irish Church has been spectacular. The voices of protest — even the calm and measured ones — showed that the Irish people see their Church as corrupt or in denial.
The Pope met Irish abuse survivors in private. He told them that many more resignations were coming over the scandal. But he also said that he was not planning new procedures to discipline bishops who covered up clergy abuse. Marie Collins, who served on the Pope’s commission for the protection of minors — but resigned after three years, in protest at its impotence — asked him why he has never used the episcopal disciplinary tribunal he approved, financed, and staffed, after it was recommended by the commission. He replied, rather lamely, that he had found other, more flexible, methods.
If he has, they have not succeeded in lancing the boil, and being seen by the public so to do. Last week’s grand jury report in Pennsylvania, revealing 1000 more victims and 300 more abuser-priests, has only heightened public disquiet. This problem is much bigger than anyone feared. So are the cover-ups.
The visit ended with the publication of an 11-page letter by a former papal ambassador to the United States, Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano, which alleged that Pope Francis himself had covered up allegations of sexual abuse against the Catholic Church’s highest-ranking offender, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington. The letter called on the Pope to resign.
The document undoubtedly raises some questions that the Vatican ought to answer, although the hoo-ha that it has generated in the secular press is overstated. The row is the latest round in the continuing struggle between Catholic reactionaries and progressives. Cardinal Vigano is one of a group of ultra-right ideological opponents of this Pope, which is why conservatives take the letter seriously, and liberals do not.
At the heart of it all is a clerical sense of power and privilege which Pope Francis attacked in his recent letter on the abuse crisis. Yet, if clericalism is to wither, it will not be just because priests give up this power, but because lay people refuse to venerate it. The diminished crowds in Ireland last weekend may be the first sign of that.
Paul Vallely is the author of Pope Francis: The struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (Bloomsbury).