Suppose a man was presented the opportunity to live a double life filled with both esteem and vice, dignity and debauchery. Would the man jump at the chance? Glaucon, in Plato’s Book II of the Republic, argues that if a just man held possession of an invisible ring, he would undoubtedly live only for self-seeking pleasure and power. On the other hand, JRR Tolkien, in The Hobbit, commends the innocent Bilbo Baggins for using an invisible ring only for heroic reasons.
And then there is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, whereby a painting becomes a vehicle for living a hidden life of sinfulness.
The handsome Dorian Gray is urged by his modernist friend Lord Henry to “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing… A new Hedonism.” Gray jumps at the chance. His depravity grows daily, matched only by his rise in narcissism. When lovestruck Miss Sibyl Vane embarrasses Gray with a poor acting performance, Gray flies off in rage: “You are shallow and stupid. My God! How mad I was to love you! … You are nothing to me now.” Sibyl Vane, shell-shocked by Gray’s cruelty, kills herself. Yet Gray continues his path of personal destruction, shocking vanity, and eventually murder. All the while, Gray appears forever young and beautiful to his fellow Londoners.
Now, suppose there was such a man actually presented with an opportunity for a double life — only instead of a painted portrait as a shield of cover, it would be a graceful robe and ecclesial hat. The man would appear sublime, set apart, and holy, but in reality, he would have license to use, abuse, and influence whomever he wished.
I speak of Uncle Ted, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick was the real-life Dorian Gray. He impressed upon politicians, celebrities, and fellow Churchmen an influence and charisma that won him immunity from justice. His carousing and deviance were shocking, his reputation unblemished. That McCarrick ascended the ranks in the Church is most disturbing. That his peers claim no knowledge of his evil deeds is unbelievable, in the literal sense that one simply cannot believe such claims. McCarrick had free rein on vice, all with the freeing appearance of virtue. His life was a lie. It was as Plato said in his Republic: “if we do wrong we shall get the profits and, provided that we accompany our sins and wickedness with prayer, be able to persuade the gods to let us go unpunished.” Such was McCarrick’s ecclesial life.
There is a further distressing connection between McCarrick and the story of Dorian Gray. As the portrait of Dorian Gray secretly grew horrid with blood and grotesque manifestations, so too the human component of the Church covertly grows in moral depravity and deceitfulness by shrouding the misdeeds of McCarrick and not seriously investigating the web of this scandalous man’s ascension within the Church.
Sin has real consequences. Grave sin by high-ranking Church prelates has serious consequences for all Church members. McCarrick was a spiritual father abusing his children. He wounded his flock deeply, as is evidenced by the continued revelations of victim James Grein. Yet the fact remains that McCarrick was aided and abetted in his crimes, and so the entire Church is now infected with his malevolence. For instance, through the McCarrick story, the bishops have lost the trust of their flock. For who can trust the Church to protect the children now? Or be righteous? Or be honest teachers of the faith? Indeed, it is the Church which becomes the hidden portrait of hideous deformity when it fails to publicly reveal the crimes of its prelates.
Sadly, the portrait of disguise that McCarrick so maliciously employed endures today. It has not yet been taken away. That bishops can safeguard other bishops is most probable. That other ecclesial McCarricks could still be prowling free in the Church is completely imaginable. That the odorous sins of spiritual fathers are currently begetting sins in their spiritual progeny is likely. That suffering will continue, and despair heighten, is certain. The Picture of Uncle Ted lives on.
God will not be mocked. Dorian Gray, at last, came to a bad end. So will those in the Church who indulge in their own portrait of concealment.
His Honorable Theodore Edgar Cardinal McCarrick, By Carolyn Egeli. 2003.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.