I’ve written before about the pitfalls of community — about how finding a group of like-minded people with similar interests can urge us to greater heights of virtue, but it can also affirm us in our vices.
Once you’re comfortably inside the walls that define your group, the group quickly becomes what defines you; and then, if there’s nothing from the outside calling you to account, it’s all too easy to put all your effort into making the walls stronger. No matter what your original reason was for joining that group, your sole work becomes maintaining the walls.
And inside the walls, the oxygen decreases, the temperature rises, and what was once a group of individuals becomes undifferentiated intellectual and spiritual compost that’s not even useful as fertilizer, because it never leaves the heap.
This is how we get nasty little social media cliques, and this is also how we get the alt right, how we get violent incels and other militantly misogynist and racist groups openly arguing ideas that normal people would have been aghast to even entertain ten or twenty years ago. There are no meaningful outside checks; it all becomes about maintaining your identity by shoring up the walls of your group.
And God help us, this is how we got Cardinal McCarrick and Co.
Carinal Wuerl (who, I’m just gonna say it, is talking an awful lot like a man trying to get out ahead of something ugly) thinks we can fix the profoundly ingrained systems of institutional predation and corruption in the hierarchy of the Church by forming an oversight committee made up of — you’ll never guess — the hierarchy of the Church.
This is insane. Insane. This tells us that the group has devoured the individuals. Not in all cases, but in far too many. Maybe once these men became priests and then bishops out of a desire to serve God through serving the Church, but now far too many are putting all their efforts into strengthening the walls between them and their flock.
Just stop and think for a minute. If I, as an individual layman, knew that a powerful man was preying on some innocent person, I would call the police. That is what I would do. I’m a member of the human race, and it is my obligation to protect the vulnerable if I can.
Why haven’t all bishops done this? Why have they not taken instantaneous, dramatic action to protect the innocent from powerful men in their ranks?
I’ve only found three possible answers.
The first is that some of them truly didn’t know. There is such a thing as a naive bishop, and there is such a thing as a bishop who is not in the loop. I do believe that, whether or not they should have, some of them truly didn’t know.
The second explanation is the threat of tit-for-tat. “You spill the beans about what I did with those seminarians, and I’ll spill the beans about [what you did with that woman] or [what you did with those funds] or [whatever awful things people do when they come into power].”
This may very well explain everything. But the only other explanation I have been able to find is somehow the worst of all, and it goes like this: “Well, after the scandals broke, we decided that we would have VIRTUS training, and that took care of predatory layman and priests, but there haven’t been sufficient channels put in place to report predatory bishops. So if anyone knew that a bishop was doing something wrong, there was simply no way to report it, even if it was a bishop himself who knew.”
What the hell does that mean? Are their phones broken? Does 911 not work when you get anointed bishop? Can you not call the NYT like any other whistleblower? Do you lose your humanity when you put on a mitre?
This is what happens when you are so deeply entrenched in a group of your peers. You forget that there is an outside world. You forget you’re still free to act like any other human being would act, and so you don’t act. You just keep on frantically daubing at the chinks in the walls, where that awful light keeps getting in.
Cardinal O’Malley gets it. He went after the Pope, for crying out loud, even though nobody had put channels in place for that to happen. That’s how you act when you’re a shepherd, not angling for lifetime membership in the Ole Shepherds Club.
Shepherds exist for the sake of the flock. They are supposed to be individual men who serve God by leading and serving the rest of the Church and the rest of the world. If they continue on this inward-spiraling, double-talking, no-response response, it becomes harder and harder to see why the group exists at all.
Even a compost heap is supposed to be shaken up every once in a while. You dig in with your shovels, you turn it over, you let the sun hit what was buried. I thank God for those bishops who are willing to dig in with their shovels, without worrying about how much of their own ground they’re undermining. Are there enough of them?
We laymen are watching, your eminences, and yes, we are praying for you. But right now, the view from outside the wall you’ve built is pretty grim.