The Archbishop's easygoing persona was a social strategy – and a theological stance

Theodore McCarrick did not want to be known as a father. He encouraged young men and boys to call him “uncle”, and called them his nephews in turn. He wrote them letters signed Uncle Ted or Uncle T. According to the Vatican journalist Rocco Palmo, he was in fact “known to everyone from reporters to donors to his aides as ‘Uncle Ted.’” Every year he hosted an Uncle’s Day party.

The Catholic custom is to address priests as fathers. Every cleric, from the parish priest to the successor of St Peter, is in some sense recognised as pope, papa, father. This paternalistic language reminds us that the priest gains his authority from, and remains accountable to, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.”

McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, following a string of abuse allegations, makes the “Uncle Ted” label look rather different. We have seen, in other cases of clerical misdemeanours, how spiritual fatherhood can go wrong. Abusers and their enablers, especially those of a “conservative” stripe, have hidden behind this notion of paternity, accusing anyone who challenged them of attacking the Church. A figure like the serial abuser Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, provides a horrifying example. But McCarrick’s very different style carries its own risks.

McCarrick’s easygoing, avuncular persona was partly a social strategy: it was integral to the way he befriended seminarians and young priests. It was also a theological stance. In both contexts, he found the title of father too cumbersome. A father’s role is to guide, instruct, and protect. An uncle, less bound by these duties, is free to indulge his nephews and nieces. He may offer them friendly advice on occasion, but it is never his role to forbid or command. He may accompany, but he does not judge.

Though always careful to remain within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and respectable opinion, McCarrick urged a more accommodating stance toward libidinal sins – including the abuse of minors. When asked whether Cardinal Law’s presence at liturgies mourning the death of John Paul II were meant as declarations that Law should be rehabilitated, McCarrick said, “I think we feel we are all Easter people. … We look at the light rather than the darkness.” McCarrick believed that the Church should be pastoral rather than “paternalistic”, eager to accompany and unwilling to judge.

When the Vatican sent McCarrick a letter saying that America’s bishops “must refuse” communion to politicians guilty of “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws,” McCarrick told his fellow bishops that the Vatican had left it “to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether to pursue this path.” After the letter leaked, McCarrick was seen by some as having misrepresented its contents.

Both these cases typify McCarrick’s belief that that the Church should be pastoral rather than “paternalistic”, eager to accompany and unwilling to judge. The press celebrated his avuncular approach. They showered their hero with headlines like Golden Ted” and “The McCarrick Mystique.”

McCarrick’s vision of a less rigid and paternal Church has helped to make “paternalistic” a bad word. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago – who once presented McCarrick with a “Spirit of Francis” award – has recently denounced “an authoritarian or paternalistic way of dealing with people that lays down the law”. Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has declared that the upcoming Synod on Youth will be “shaped by a paradigm of responsibility and shorn of any kind of paternalism”. This is a long way from St Paul’s vision that all paternity is a reflection of God.

In fairness, these men came of age at a time when paternity had gained a bad name, in part because too many patriarchs regarded their fatherhood as placing them above question and challenge, rather than as making them especially accountable before God for how they protected the weak. As a result, many Catholics believe that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse can be solved by denigrating the sacramental priesthood and downplaying prohibitions on fornication and homosexual acts.

Perhaps because I grew up in an age dominated by avuncular figures such as McCarrick, I take a different view. The fathers I have encountered, in society and the Church, have rarely been harsh and forbidding. They have accommodated me and urged me to be accommodating. More than once I have entered the confessional, only to hear the priest question whether or not what I was confessing really was a sin (in every case, it certainly was).

We will not be saved by avuncular archbishops, or by fathers who disparage paternalism. If abusers like Maciel show how easily the paternal ideal can be abused, there are also dangers that await those who discard it. Children with bad fathers do not need uncles. They need fathers who fear the Father above.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow

This article first appeared in the August 3 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here