It is unlikely that Pope Francis will publicly describe 2018 as an annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth II did in 1992, when a year of scandals in the royal family was crowned by a terrible fire at Windsor Castle.
Scandals there have been aplenty in the Church, but thus far no fire at the Vatican.
The Catholic Church ends 2018 with a heavy spirit. It is not the series of scandals alone, but the loss of confidence in the traditional solution in times of crisis, namely recourse to Rome, as adequate to the task.
The year began with the most catastrophic papal trip in history. The aftermath of the disaster in Chile tainted everything that followed and seriously weakened the capacity of Pope Francis to take effective action.
The papal trip to Chile in January had to deal with the “Barros affair,” the decision in January 2015 of Pope Francis to transfer Bishop Juan Barros from the military diocese to that of Osorno.
The appointment was met with widespread opposition — including physical disruption of the installation ceremony — because Bishop Barros was widely believed to have covered up sexual abuse by his mentor, Chile’s most notorious priest-predator, Father Fernando Karadima. (Karadima was subject to canonical penalties in 2010 and laicized in 2018.) From 2015 onward, the Holy Father rejected the objections to Bishop Barros in increasingly intemperate language, accusing critics of being “stupid” and politically manipulated.
The plan was to definitively slap down the Barros criticism once and for all in Chile. The papal biographer Austen Ivereigh was on hand in Santiago as the Pope arrived and spent the day with both Bishop Barros and another “Karadima” bishop.
A story explained why Pope Francis was courageously standing by an innocent man in the face of a mob screaming for a scapegoat.
“Francis’ dogged determination to support Barros against this tide from both Church and society must be counted as one of the boldest — or, perhaps, foolhardiest — decisions of his pontificate,” wrote Ivereigh.
It was soon revealed to be more than foolhardy. It was dishonest.
On the eve of the trip, leaked letters revealed that the leading bishops of Chile had begged Pope Francis not to transfer Bishop Barros. The Pope had even agreed that it would be better if Bishop Barros and the other “Karadima bishops” resigned. Bishop Barros himself offered to resign twice. Yet, in the end, the Holy Father made the appointment and then accused his critics of “calumny,” even when they were making the same objections which he had privately received from the bishops of Chile.
It all proved too much for Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Vatican’s head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, who publicly rebuked Pope Francis for doubling down on Bishop Barros when in Chile.
It was an unmistakable sign that the Holy Father, on this issue, had lost the confidence even of those close to him. Never in living memory had a close cardinalatial collaborator of a pope — Cardinal O’Malley sits on the “council of cardinals” — publicly criticized him.
It was a turning point. Pope Francis realized that if he were losing Cardinal O’Malley, he was in danger of losing the flock. He humbly accepted the criticism of the Boston cardinal and, upon return to Rome, reversed course entirely. He sent Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna to Chile to investigate, even though much of what the Holy Father needed to know had already been provided to him in Rome.
When Archbishop Scicluna submitted his report, Pope Francis announced that he had been “badly informed” about what was going on in Chile. That was another, near fatal, blow to confidence in the capacity of the Holy Father to provide the necessary leadership.
It was clear by now to all that, even if Pope Francis had not been fully informed, he had long since been adequately informed. The problem was manifestly not the information given, but the decisions taken. Guilty of not taking proper action, Pope Francis vigorously moved in the opposite direction. The entire Chilean episcopate was summoned to Rome for a severe and public tongue-lashing, after which all of them submitted their resignations. To date, eight out of some 30 have been accepted, including that of Bishop Barros. No permanent replacements have been appointed.
Pope Francis is obviously not responsible for generations of clerical corruption in Chile, but the complete calamity that followed his decisions has eroded confidence that Rome can be the solution to a local crisis.
For the past four years, decisions in Rome have made matters worse, to the extent that the Church in Chile has now been decapitated and left in temporary limbo; its credibility has been compromised for at least a generation. No other local Church in a time of crisis is eager for the Chilean model to be replicated for them.
Meanwhile, earlier in the year, another crisis was resolved with another blow to papal credibility.
In the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, the appointment of a new bishop, Peter Okpaleke, in 2012 (by Benedict XVI) had been opposed by the local clergy, on the grounds that Bishop Okpaleke was not a local candidate, either of that place or ethnicity. The new bishop was not able even to enter his diocese, and the matter dragged on for years.
In June 2017, Pope Francis decided to resolve it by a fearsome application of raw papal power. All the priests of Ahiara were given 30 days to write a personal letter to Pope Francis, begging his forgiveness and promising to accept Bishop Okpaleke. If they did not do so, they would be suspended.
Faced with an ultimatum, most of them did so. But by early 2018, the wrath of the Pope did not seem sufficient to persuade the Diocese of Ahiara to make its bishop welcome. In February 2018 the Holy Father accepted Bishop Okpaleke’s resignation. The rebellion prevailed, and Ahiara still does not have a bishop.
The Chilean bishops were sacked in May. In June came the revelations of sexual abuse and harassment of minors and seminarians by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In July he resigned from the College of Cardinals. In August came the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Viganò, accusing the Holy Father of knowing that now-Archbishop McCarrick had “restrictions” placed upon him and nevertheless “rehabilitated” him.
Leaving aside the contested allegations of Archbishop Viganò, the fact that a former nuncio — and a former supervisor of nuncios for the Holy See’s diplomatic service — would so publicly criticize the Pope, even going so far as to recklessly call for his resignation, was an earthquake in Rome.
Equally remarkable, not a single senior voice in Rome came unambiguously to the Pope’s defense. Only Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, gave a full-throated defense of Pope Francis — but only after his own conduct was questioned by a subsequent intervention from Archbishop Viganò.
The implications of the Cardinal O’Malley intervention in January were now plain to see.
So eroded was confidence in the Holy Father that a former nuncio could unleash a near-slanderous attack and the senior figures in the Roman Curia would keep quiet. In September, the leadership of the U.S. bishops asked Pope Francis for an apostolic visitation to thoroughly investigate the entirety of the McCarrick affair. How did he rise? Who knew about his behavior?
Pope Francis turned the Americans down flat, reportedly because if he authorized such a visitation for Archbishop McCarrick, he would have to do so for other cases. And what case might the Holy Father have had in mind?
A similar investigation into the entirety of the Barros affair would certainly reveal that Pope Francis had been repeatedly warned not to do what he did.
It is wholly implausible that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) gave its nihil obstat (“no objection”) to the Barros transfer, given their prior investigation of Karadima.
What Archbishop Scicluna investigated in 2018 was, in substantial part, already known at the CDF in 2010, when the Karadima case was heard. And so the bungling of Bishop Barros in Chile has consequences for the McCarrick matter in the United States.
The Holy See has promised a review of the documents in its files related to Archbishop McCarrick. That review is still ongoing, and what, if anything, will be published remains to be seen.
But after 2018, confidence that the Holy See might be helpful in the McCarrick — or any other — matter is seriously in question.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of