I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been accused of “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” This happens nearly every time I happen to notice a small detail in what someone has said or written. My usual counter is that the deck chairs are likely to be one of the first signs that something larger-scale is wrong—noticing the deck chairs doesn’t mean you’re not going to attempt to fix the larger problem.
In recent days, I’ve noticed some liturgically-connected skittering deck chairs in connection with the events surrounding the laicization of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. These were not only in the secular media, but in religious media, and the discourse of knowledgeable Roman Catholics as well. Here are three, all related to one another:
One: He can still celebrate the sacraments, as can any baptized Roman Catholic. The repeating sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing are celebrated regularly by all the baptized.
Two: Laicization is not the worst punishment that can be given to a priest—excommunication is, as it is for any disciple. While no longer being able to minister within holy orders surely is serious, to be ex-communio doesn’t only exclude one from the ordained office, but from the entire mystical Body of Christ in the Roman rite.
Three: The system that empowered and enabled this situation is still very much in place. This lone laicization is not a “remedy” for what caused it. This will not be the last person to use this ecclesial/sacramental system—one with no concrete, horizontal accountability to the whole Body—for unhealthy, then evil ends. Nor is this the only area in which this systemic structure is harmful. This is an important filter for all of us to have in place as this week’s Vatican meeting convenes.
Along with deck-chair arranging, I’m also accused of “playing semantics” when I insist upon things such as the former Cardinal still celebrating the sacraments. The accusation is often followed up with “You know what I mean.” In this instance, my reply would be that yes, I do know what you mean: that the entire Body of the baptized faithful gathered does not truly celebrate sacraments, that only those ordained to the presbyterate or episcopate do. This meaning is wrong, and it signals (one of the things that semantics does) that we need to get below decks and see what needs to be fixed.
For those of us who focus our ministry in the area of liturgy, it can be tempting to think that what is occurring at this moment in regard to the sexual abuse crisis and cover-up has little, if anything, to do with us. It is in the Church’s liturgy, however, that the baptized faithful have most of their contact with Church, and through which we derive understanding of the Church in its sacraments and ministries. In my view, it behooves us to keep our eyes and ears open.