After a week of headlines and dissent, Pope Francis delivered a sermon that -- once again -- offered silence as his strategic response to critics.
The "father of lies, the accuser, the devil" is trying to divide Catholics, said the pope. When faced with "people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families" the proper response is "silence, and prayer."
This echoed earlier remarks when, asked about a scathing epistle by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Pope Francis said, "I will not say a single word on this."
Silence isn't what the authors of a "Letter to Pope Francis from Catholic Women" want to hear, right now. They want the pope to answer Archbishop Carlo Vigano's key accusations -- especially claims that Francis ignored evidence of sexual abuse against children and seminarians by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.
"Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church," said the online petition, with more than 30,000 signatures at midweek. "The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit -- even at the Church's highest levels."
Several of the Vigano's charges "require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only YOUR direct response, Holy Father."
Tensions have worsened in recent weeks, especially after a hellish grand-jury report about the crimes of 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Then came news coverage validating decades of rumors about McCarrick, including testimony about his seduction and abuse of seminarians. Then came Vigano's blast, including charges that Francis trumped efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to push McCarrick out of the spotlight.
The women's statement was triggered by a "wave of problems that has produced so much anguish, confusion, dismay and anger," said Mary Rice Hasson, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It's not like there has been one problem that we could solve with a few reforms. … The problems just keep coming at us, one after another."
Hasson wrote the first draft of the letter and she stressed that it represents the beliefs of the women who have signed it, not their organizations. The text states: "We are the mothers and sisters of your priests, seminarians, future priests and religious. We are the Church's lay leaders, and the mothers of the next generation. We are professors in your seminaries, and leaders in Catholic chanceries and institutions. … We are the backbone of Catholic parishes, schools and dioceses."
The McCarrick case has, for many, become the key to larger mysteries since his work helped shape today's American church. Now, accusations against him combine three major themes in this crisis -- the sexual abuse of children, conspiracies to hide that abuse and reports of an influential "gay lobby" in seminaries and church bureaucracies.
"McCarrick was able to behave in this way and, from all the evidence, he had to have had powerful men who promoted and protected him," said Hasson. "That adds a whole new level to this crisis. … If we don't have the facts on this larger problem, then it's hard to seek a solution. Silence is not the answer."
Meanwhile, it has been tragic to see news reports framing this crisis in left vs. right political terms, said Kathryn Lopez, of the National Review Institute. Truth is, this scandal has been building for decades, exposing dark secrets among traditionalists, as well as modernists.
"Lots of people are angry at the pope, but Francis didn't start this fire. And that's not to pour blame on Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict, instead of Francis," she said. "The big picture here involves some larger system that has become corrupted, so that it protects men like McCarrick."
At the heart of the crisis, said Lopez, is another issue: Whether many Catholic leaders are following, in real life, the doctrines they have promised to defend and teach.
"Once you are dealing with infidelity and broken vows -- among priests and bishops and cardinals -- then that throws up a stone wall around everything," she said. "It's hard to move forward, when there are so many secrets."