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Weigel, Courage, and McCarrick: Let’s Get Real

Weigel's writings risk distracting us from the problems facing the Church--as well as contributing to them.

George Weigel has graced the webpages of First Things with a love letter to Courage International, a Catholic organization ministering to those with “same-sex attraction.” This is his second piece in First Things this week, having published a few days ago on why we shouldn’t focus on Pope John Paul II’s feature in the McCarrick report. Unfortunately, Weigel’s writings risk distracting us from the problems facing the Church–as well as contributing to them.

The Communists

His first piece, on John Paul II, focuses on how McCarrick was an accomplished liar. Weigel seeks to justify the former pope’s blindness to clerical lies with his having lived under communist rule. Weigel’s argument can be summarized in the following paragraph:

“That John Paul II was deceived by McCarrick’s prevarication is not in dispute. That the deception may have reflected the Polish pope’s experience of communist secret police methods in Poland, where charges of sexual impropriety were often used against Catholic priests and bishops, is not in dispute, either. But neither should there be any dispute that John Paul II was the victim of a deception: a man in whom he had reposed trust, Theodore McCarrick, lied to him about his true character. Saints are human beings, and saints, in their humanity, can be deceived. But let the focus of wickedness in this tawdry affair be identified accurately as Theodore McCarrick, not John Paul II.”

John Paul’s experience in communist-run Poland is certainly relevant for explaining why he dismissed the allegations against McCarrick. If I had lived under a government which used false allegations to discredit priests seen as politically dangerous, I would also have a bias in favor of the accused. Weigel does more than explain, however. He attempts to turn an explanation into an excuse. Weigel justifies John Paul’s acquiescence to bias which harmed vulnerable persons. Under Weigel, the rejection of the abuse victims becomes a crime without a criminal — a harm without a perpetrator. The perpetrator just becomes history, or perhaps the communists.

To be sure, McCarrick is the perpetrator of the original abuse. But the Church is now realizing that many can participate in cycles of abuse, including those who fail to take victims and survivors seriously. Rejection, dismissal, betrayal, and a failure to investigate or follow up by those in positions of trust (such as priests and popes) can have more long-lasting impacts on survivors than the original abuse incident. Ignorance and a failure to sufficiently investigate are actions and omissions for which Church leaders should be held accountable. We care about both abuse and negligence, but Weigel attempts to absolve the former pope of both. He makes McCarrick’s victims, not victims of a Church hierarchy, but victims of communism. Attentive readers should see this as a participation in the dispositions undergirding the clergy abuse crisis, contributing nothing but excuses where we need accountability. It wasn’t the communists who failed to take survivors seriously. It was John Paul II.

The Love Letter

The spirit behind these excuses can also be uncovered in Weigel’s love letter to Courage. In his letter to Courage, Weigel writes:

“And among them, there are no more courageous Catholics than you, the men and women of ‘Courage.’ Against fierce cultural and social pressures, you strive—with the help of grace, your pastors, and each other—to live the Catholic ethic of human love even as you experience same-sex attractions. Your efforts at fidelity bespeak deep faith, a powerful hope, and authentic love. “

I had an immediate reaction to this piece, reading it as a sort of flattery piece veiled as exhortation. It’s not without consequence that Weigel quotes Pope John Paul II in his letter the same week that the Church is grappling with the former pope’s relationship to the abuser McCarrick. With dark irony, Weigel sends a flattery letter that features a quote by a pope currently being criticized for the ways in which he was blinded by flattery from an abuser. Indeed, the unqualified and lush praise given by Weigel is strange and discomforting when read against McCarrick’s words of praise throughout the Vatican report. At various points, sentences between the McCarrick report flatteries and the Weigel letter could be traded without notice. But Weigel’s flattery may be even beyond McCarrick’s. Weigel goes so far as to say that Courage members are even more courageous than Catholics risking their lives in Hong Kong, French Catholics braving “Islamist murderers,” and kids bullied in school for their faith. He writes, “And among them, there are no more courageous Catholics than you.” This is extreme hyperbole, combined with an extreme lack of awareness of American Catholic privilege.

As an initial matter when it comes to Courage, I should point out a few things. First, Courage’s founder advised bishops to “rehabilitate” abuser priests. Second, last year one of Courage’s most prominent speakers (who wrote for First Things) was discovered to have had an online sexual relationship with a child. Third, the psychiatrist most closely involved with Courage’s development has called at least one abuser priest a victim, rather than victimizer (more on this below).

Undoubtedly, many defenders of Courage and John Paul II will want us to forgive the above because of the many good things they have done. Unfortunately, this is precisely the perspective that leads to a McCarrick situation. Most likely, John Paul II overlooked the McCarrick allegations and also refused to take action, in part because of “all the good” done by McCarrick. John Paul didn’t want to tarnish the “good work” with reality. We can’t follow his lead, letting a preoccupation with maintaining “someone’s good name” distract us from pursuing accountability.

Regarding the Courage letter specifically, it reads to me like a weird martyrizing love letter. I’ve received similar messages from people in the past who have read my work. I am sometimes praised for “faithfulness” despite the “many costs” and am called a “hero” or an “inspiration” for even just staying in the Church as a gay man. My reaction to those sorts of messages has become something along the lines of, “Ummmm, you don’t know me. Also, instead of an idealizing love letter, maybe actually do something to make our lives easier?”

Harvey and Fitzgibbons

Messages like Weigel’s risk encouraging a sort of martyrdom complex that I’ve seen with many people who identify as same-sex attracted. I’ve suffered from this complex myself, once being preoccupied with how glorious and “Christlike” it was to be sad and alone. That disposition is actually distorting and lends itself to manipulative behavior. During that time, I acted out in weird ways to get the attention and affection of others, especially my male friends. It was only when I was able to openly look at and address my attractions, and allow myself to love in new ways, that I was able to let go of my weird graspings for love. And now when I see this disposition praised by pious Catholics like Weigel, I worry that it encourages similar manipulative and unhealthy dispositions and behavior.

Weigel’s message to Courage eerily sounds a lot like one McCarrick’s remarks about the celibate life. McCarrick is quoted in the report:

“You are called to leave the comfort of a sexual life of your own to go to pastoral ministry and service. You are so often tested by loneliness, by lack of affirmation, by lack of understanding of your needs. But God has promised love beyond compare. In spite of all temptations, let us reach out and embrace those He touches through us.”

All of this is, strictly speaking, true. But it lends itself to a disposition where one becomes preoccupied with the rejection of an affective life. It puts one in a situation to seek affirmation and gratification in unhealthy, manipulative, and sometimes abusive ways.

Weigel’s absolution of John Paul II may be necessary also to maintain the good image of Courage’s own founder. Courage’s founder, Fr. John Harvey, was aware of the “near-rape” of Priest 1 in the McCarrick report [as stated on page 80]. Fr. Harvey became aware of the incident in 1994, though its unclear whether he knew the perpetrator was McCarrick. Harvey only referred to the perpetrator in his own message to Bishop Hughes as “a member of the hierarchy.” Unfortunately, the first two pages of the letter making Fr. Harvey aware of the incident are missing. Given his writing in Crisis and elsewhere, Fr. Harvey likely would have recommended McCarrick go for “treatment” before being reinstated in his duties.

Richard Fitzgibbons is also featured in the McCarrick report. Fitzgibbons is a Catholic psychiatrist who was highly influential in Courage’s founding and who continues to be closely tied to and influential within the organization. After evaluating Priest 1, who had confessed to sexual contact with children (two boys under the age of 16), Fitzgibbons communicated to the Diocese of Metuchen that Priest 1 “has been victimized and is not the victimizer.” Certainly, we ought to have anger and sorrow that Priest 1 was, indeed, a victim at the hands of McCarrick. One can be both victim and victimizer. But this point also bears repeating: Priest 1 himself sexually abused children, and the psychiatrist most central to Courage International somehow came to the conclusion that the priest was not the victimizer. (Even given the above, however, Dr. Fitzgibbons should be recognized for bringing Priest 1’s claims against McCarrick to the Vatican.)

Victim Complex

There’s this weird thing in many Catholic circles, including Courage, where agency gets sucked out of sexuality. The “SSA” diagnosis is often accompanied by a adoption of a sort of spiritual helplessness, especially when Courage treats homosexuality like alcoholism. It’s significant that Courage takes on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as its central approach to “same-sex attraction.” AA often involves admitting your helplessness in the face of your disease. The difference between Courage and AA, however, is that AA enables its members to come out of that helplessness and to take on agency and active accountability, whereas those “suffering from same-sex attraction” in Courage are trapped to the extent they cannot escape their sexuality.

This helplessness is then used to alleviate culpability for all sorts of behaviors, treating those behaviors almost as demonic compulsions, rather than one’s own acts. There’s a sort of removal of one’s sexuality from one’s agency, preventing culpability and change. And this is a situation where one even loses accountability and a sense of agency in relationship to one’s abusive acts. Under that disposition, you are always a victim to your own sexuality, even when it hurts others.

Ultimately, this creates a situation where abuse of others is almost always treated as a victimization of the abuser. Accountability and agency are minimized. One never steps into agency, because the agency has been taken by another (the “homosexuality” or “intrinsic disorder” or “same sex attractions”). John Paul II’s failure to address rampant abuse in an organization where he was the most powerful member in the world, is actually the fault of the communists (says Weigel). Priest 1’s abuse of children is actually the fault of a prior abuser (says Fitzgibbons). The excuse Fitzgibbons gave in 1996 is the same excuse Weigel gives in 2020. The crisis is far from over.

It’s precisely these dispositions that enabled McCarrick’s manipulative and possessive behavior, even when occurred in plain sight. His open inappropriate touching, even in late age, was constantly justified by reference to a tragic past. As late as the mid-2000’s, McCarrick’s inappropriate touching of young men was given a response such as this one from the Vatican report: “They attribute this way of being (wishing not to be alone), and of acting (touchy) to the fact that he was orphaned as a child, and that he did not have the warmth of family in his infancy.” It is undisputed that his open touching of young men’s backs and legs was not wanted by those young men, but those in positions of power constantly made McCarrick the victim in these situations. We constantly lose the perspective of the harmed and are repeatedly trying to rehabilitate the image of those causing or perpetuating harm.

The laity actively engaged in these issues are sick of this. This is ridiculous. Stop making excuses. Start taking responsibility.


My previous series on Courage and clergy abuse can be found here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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