Suzanne Emerson, from Silver Spring, Md., holds a sign during a Nov. 12 news conference held by Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Baltimore. CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review

2018: When madness reigned

  • December 21, 2018

Eight-hundred years before Christ the prophet Micah was sure the world was mad: “Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace,” Micah warned. 

His advice? In a crazy world, you can trust only God.

In the age of fake news and outright lies circling the globe at the speed of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, who do we trust? When Donald Trump’s lawyer solemnly tells the world “Truth isn’t truth,” when an out-of-work papal nuncio demands the Pope resign based on documents that don’t seem to exist, when Russia tests an “invincible” hypersonic missile followed by a declaration from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has no intention of starting an arms race, when the heir to the throne in Saudi Arabia allegedly organizes a hit squad to murder a journalist in Turkey, when Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children lays out policies for how and when to euthanize children who ask for death as a medical service… Oh, this list could go on. It all makes the prophet’s paranoia seem very rational.

The world is not at peace. As 2018 closes there are civil wars raging in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq claiming tens of thousands of lives. The regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran being conducted primarily in Yemen has killed more than 25,000 this year and the famine created by that war threatens the lives of 14 million people.

There are forgotten wars in Ukraine, Chad and South Sudan. Mexico’s drug war killed over 13,000 people in 2018 and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent campaign against drug users has killed nearly 900. Enduring conflicts in Congo, Israel and Palestine and Kashmir have no solutions after decades of violence.

What happened to the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar, resulting in a refugee settlement of 1.1 million encamped and dependent on humanitarian aid in Bangladesh, can’t really be called a war. There aren’t two sides battling it out. Who would sign a peace treaty? 

But the Rohingya are just one small slice of 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced — 40 million internally displaced, 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers — according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Migration is reshaping the planet. But when a Vatican-backed agreement on common standards and approaches to the global migration problem was signed by 164 nations in Morocco last month, politicians in the richest countries condemned the non-binding agreement for being what it obviously wasn’t — a threat to national sovereignty.

“Aggressive nationalism, hostile to religious minorities, has worsened to the degree that the phenomenon can be called ultra-nationalism,” according to Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom Report 2018, released Nov. 22. “Violent and systematic intimidation of religious minority groups has led to them being branded as disloyal aliens and threatening to the state.”

Canada this year was reminded how easily religious freedom can slip from its grasp. When pictures of aborted fetuses began showing up in mailboxes accompanied by anti-abortion slogans, people learned that the distributors had received tax dollars in the form of Canada Summer Jobs grants.

The Liberal government, convinced that abortion is a legal right protected by the Charter, responded by forcing applicants for summer job funding to tick a box swearing they supported abortion access as a human right. Suddenly, for a Catholic parish to hire summer camp counsellors, they had to line up with government opinion but against the teaching of their faith.

The government tried to argue its attestation didn’t mean what it plainly meant.

“We made it clear off the top to these groups — it was about their core mandate and the job description. It had nothing to do with their beliefs or values,” Employment Minister Patty Hadju’s spokesperson Matt Pascuzzo told The Catholic Register

The churches argued they know what they believe better than the government and called their lawyers. Finally, as 2018 was winding down, Hadju relented. New application forms for Canada Summer Jobs funding only require employers to vow, “Any funding under the Canada Summer Jobs program will not be used to undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada.”

The lawyers are still marshalling their arguments and papers. Our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion now needs case law to back it up.

Perhaps the one thread connecting us back to sanity is our capacity to mourn, to grieve and to be shocked. The nation wept for teenage hockey players killed and maimed April 6 in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan. Canadians contributed $15.2 million to a Go Fund Me campaign. Tens of thousands, strangers and citizens, showed up to mourn after a van drove into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street, killing 10 and injuring 15. This madness was followed by a man shooting into restaurants and cafes along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, killing two and injuring 12 others, and the community walking the length of the Danforth in solemn silence. We still have a capacity to care that outweighs our fears.

 “You can’t prepare for it, everyone’s in shock,” said Fr. Pat O’Dea, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Parish, mere steps from where pedestrians were struck down by the Yonge St. van attack. “It just comes at you,” he said. 

St. Edward’s became the kind of Church Pope Francis has called for since he was elected in 2013 — a field hospital in a world of broken spirits and wounded memories. 

Despite this hopeful vision, the Church continues to live with the madness of sexual abuse and its dark secrets, which inevitably spill out into headlines and official inquiries. It’s been happening ever since the Newfoundland Mount Cashel story broke in 1989 — 30 years of ignominy, humiliation and shame. 

Canada’s bishops held out the hope that people will again trust the Church as they released updated guidelines to deal with abuse. 

But globally, Church abuse stories in  2018 made even outrageous satire seem tame. The Pope had to extract letters of resignation from every single Chilean bishop. We learned American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had turned his own seminary into a private fishing pond for sexual predation and that other bishops suspected and stayed quiet. A grand jury in Pennsylvania turned up over 1,000 victims and a 50-year pattern of denials, obfuscations and coverups. 

Three years after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission requested a papal apology on Canadian soil for the history of abuse at Catholic residential schools, the issue remains in limbo. It has been nine months since Canada’s bishops told us the Pope “could not personally respond” to the TRC’s call to action for an apology. The bishop of Rome will not come without an invitation from Canada’s bishops.

By August Pope Francis was on Irish soil apologizing for crimes committed over decades there, and for the absence of compassion shown to women and children who suffered in Catholic institutions. Almost concurrently, Pope Francis apologized for clerical abuse globally in a 2,000-word letter that came out just after the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” he wrote. “We showed no care for the little ones.”

The year reminded us that in an imperfect world, there are no perfect solutions. After 70 years, the Vatican finally has an agreement with the People’s Republic of China — which is certainly better than no deal, at least for China’s 5.7 million Catholics. But in a divided Church, the agreement attracted vociferous attacks.

The divisions and the politicking in the Church have never been on display in public media the way they are today. Following the mid-August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former nuncio to the U.S., released an 11-page accusation that Pope Francis somehow knew of McCarrick’s career of sexual predation.

“I will not say a word about this, I believe the document speaks for itself,” Pope Francis told reporters.

When the first letter failed to stick, Viganò followed up with allegations that Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet knew the truth. 

Ouellet’s response was withering: “far-fetched,” “blasphemous,” “incomprehensible” and “abhorrent” were just some of what Ouellet, who leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, said about the accusations.

The sickness in social media was never more apparent in Toronto than when cellphone videos of degrading, violent sexual assaults by 14-and-15-year-old students at St. Michael’s College School began circulating in November. When police got hold of the videos they said having these videos on phones amounted to possession of child pornography. They have charged seven students with various offences, including sexual assault.

For the Basilian Fathers, whose very first Canadian project in 1852 was this school for boys which bears their motto — “Teach me goodness, knowledge and discipline” — above its door, such complete breakdown was like a knife to the heart. 

“We are faced with humiliation and we are being taught, forcefully, what it means to be humble,” Basilian spokesman Fr. Thomas Rosica told The Catholic Register.

A blue ribbon panel has been appointed to look into the culture, traditions and policies of the school.

Amid all this craziness accumulated over 12 months, who do you trust? Trust God, advises the prophet Micah.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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