More than 100 presidents from every bishops’ conference in the world will attend Pope Francis’ Rome summit on the protection of minors Feb. 21-24. People expect change. However, as Pope Francis boarded the plane to attend World Youth Day in Panama City, he urged us to “deflate expectations.”
I am not optimistic about the summit’s outcome because — at least in North America and Europe — the criminal abuse of minors may not be the problem it once was, but its root causes remain. For as horrid as the sexual-abuse crisis has been, it is just one symptom of a more systemic collapse of the Catholic clergy’s moral responsibility and personal accountability as well as lay indifference to the effectiveness and responsibility of our clergy.
Who and How?
But before we examine the root causes of this collapse, let’s address the more immediate problem. Who is responsible for the crisis? Does anyone expect this conference to expose guilty clergy?
By all rights, those priests unable to fulfill their promise of chaste celibacy should be named and removed from active priesthood whether the acts were criminal or consensual. (As clergy come under increased scrutiny, a new scandal involving clergy sexual misconduct with adults looms on the horizon. But that is for another discussion.) When new priests are ordained, people wonder, “Is this a good or bad priest?” Friends are comparing how many priests they know who have been “defrocked.”
In all likelihood, this conference will force few, if any, to resign. Rather, a generic and gauzy mercy will be spread over the ugly wounds. Personal moral responsibility will be eclipsed. And we will all be encouraged to applaud mercy without honor and then imagine it a pious act. So until the offenders are named, every Catholic clergyman lives under a cloud of suspicion and the Church remains in its moral stalemate.
But if we can’t expect guilty clergy to be exposed, can we expect a coherent and comprehensive explanation detailing how this abuse mess originated and developed? People will praise tough new policies. But one of the first rules of making effective and lasting change is to take inventory of why change is needed and how the offending parties have gotten into trouble in the first place. We have no explanations, and yet policies will be adopted. Once again, moral stalemate remains the status quo.
Yet there is an explanation that goes deeper than sexual scandal — one which, once identified by the Church’s leaders, can lead us out of this stalemate.
During the years of peak sexual abuse, vast numbers of priests and religious abandoned their vocations. The number of laity dropped, and those who remained were sacramentalized but not evangelized. The much-touted New Evangelization is a fancy admission of failure. After all, what’s new about the New Evangelization? Who it targets — the baptized — have certainly benefited from it, but who else?
The implicit point of this initiative is that somewhere, somehow Catholic evangelization of the world failed the first time, so we need a do-over. Call it the re-evangelization. But bishops couldn’t even seem to get that right.
As the 20th century drew to a close, the state of catechesis in the Church showed us that teaching during this period was abysmal.
On behalf of the U.S. bishops at the time, the late Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis acknowledged that 80% of catechetical textbooks in the late ’90s contained serious doctrinal deficiencies. Thankfully, the problem has been largely corrected. But who was held accountable for years of what can only be described as catechetical or pastoral malpractice? The brokenness of today’s clergy is the harvest reaped from the Church’s broken teaching apparatus of yesterday. Indeed, the sex-abuse crisis is a symptom of a much more serious ecclesial malaise.
Lessons in Irony
Is it ironic or providential that the bishops will gather in the hall of Paul VI, whose encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on marital chastity? For, since its publication in 1968, most priests and bishops of America have taught married couples to consult their own consciences on contraception.
Every 14-year-old boy quickly learns that subjectivizing sexual morality often leads to rationalizing one’s sexual desires. The delightful rush of hormonal energy, youth have been taught, is “life affirming” and “liberating.” The common mantra of the day remains “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” Yet, if this approach led to greater expressions of “freedom” from guilt for the faithful, human nature, being what it is, often has the last word, as unconfessed sins sear the conscience into a paralysis that rejects the graces available through sacramental forgiveness.
Likewise, many in the clergy also destroyed their ability to discern right from wrong — and thereby their opportunity to cooperate with God’s will. Did not their rejection of Church teaching on marital chastity predispose them not only to tolerate but to perpetuate immorality among themselves?
At the upcoming Vatican summit, we have another opportunity for catechesis — but one that tastes not like honey on the tongue, but like ashes in the mouth. Victims have been invited to the February meeting to share their testimonies. In this way, Pope Francis wants to provide a “catechesis in suffering” for the bishops.
While this may help heal the victims, I doubt that it will enlighten the bishops. Admittedly, it makes good copy to see victims confront their offenders, but these bishops have not been hermetically sequestered from victims’ stories in their own ministry, have they?
The media has done its job well — making all too clear how these individuals have suffered — as the flood of documentaries, talk shows, articles and other outlets can readily attest. If the bishops are unfamiliar with the life-derailing consequences of abuse — dissociative disorders, crippling substance abuse, underemployment, shattered marriages, crime, depression or even suicide — how will a few personal testimonies, as harrowing as they are, help these shepherds see the light now?
By all means, ask victims to share their stories and listen. But it is time to ask our bishops to listen to one another. How did you, your brother bishops and priests, over decades, shape an ecclesial culture that privileged your own safety, protection and self-indulgence over lay victims? Give us something better to read than the Pennsylvania grand jury report. If you don’t, you risk turning the engaged laity into an enraged mob.
From the Top
Pope Francis comes close to the truth when he cites clericalism as a factor in the crisis. But he hasn’t yet connected this alleged “closed-shop” attitude with the possibility of a privileged clerical network of pederasts — the so-called “lavender mafia.”
Ken Woodward, Newsweek’s religion editor for 40 years, cites the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report (2004). “Eight out of 10 reported abuses by priests … were cases of [adult] males abusing other [pubescent and post-pubescent] males.”
Woodward quipped “one would have to be either blind or dishonest” to ignore the role of homosexuality in the abuse scandal. This secular journalist is not alone in seeing this elephant in the sacristy, but space forbids including other citations.
Yet there is a sort of cold comfort in knowing that Pope Francis’ indictment of the clerical culture is on the right track when it comes to placing a finger on the primary cause of the crisis. With the hope that the highest authority in the Church might recognize how to fix the problem comes the possibility that he may restore confidence in the Church’s moral authority in the world.
Consider: In 1999 who represented the public face of Catholicism? Two saints — John Paul II and Mother Teresa. What a difference 20 years makes. In just two decades, those faces of Catholicism morphed into a grotesque old man wearing either a Roman collar or a miter. The perceived moral authority of our bishops has fallen to the level of Bill Cosby — beloved and respected father figure gone rogue.
A Gallup survey from June 2017 found that roughly 50% of American Catholics had a “high” or “very high” opinion of the honesty and ethics of clergy. After the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Archbishop Theodore McCarrick scandal and Archbishop Carlo Viganò whistleblower reports, the number fell to roughly 30% in December 2018.
Our tolerance of sin has diminished the effectiveness of the bishops’ moral authority, shattered the integrity of the priesthood, corrupted the soul of the victims and damaged the plausibility of the Gospel.
If we are serious about restoration, we need the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Warren Commission — not four days in Rome fiddling with policies, mining pious platitudes or virtue-signaling with vehement affirmations of how badly we all feel. Moral authority is restored by embracing moral responsibility for one’s sin.
So do start at the top. We know that the Vatican was aware of the abusive behavior of the sociopath Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel since the 1940s. Father Maciel lived a double life, fathering multiple children — abusing them and seminarians. How did it escape the notice of the popes from that time onward?
If Pope Francis can’t uncover the truth about the former bishops of Rome’s failure to stop abuse, why should we expect the bishops of Chicago, Newark, Los Angeles, Miami, Buffalo, etc., to cleanse their episcopal stables? If the papacy won’t take moral responsibility for its sins or incompetence, lesser bishops won’t.
Pray and Speak for Truth
But starting at the top doesn’t mean the laity should sit on the sidelines. We must certainly pray for our leaders in the Church — the most powerful and perhaps underappreciated method of redress the Church has to find a way out of this mess.
But the lay faithful must also love, honor, forgive, encourage, exhort and admonish our priests and bishops as our brothers in Christ. We must bear one another’s burdens. If we don’t relate to them first as brothers, we won’t learn to properly respect and receive from them as spiritual fathers.
The co-responsible laity must embrace our call to holiness, resolving to do all things in charity, and we must speak honestly to our shepherds, insisting that they should be the pastors Christ called them to be. When we show false deference to unworthy clergy, we in turn also will be patronized and disrespected. As a result, we will get the wolves we deserve.
But I would like to make one more prediction: If we take our own gifts and callings seriously, more seriously than some of the ordained, we can expect to see big and beautiful changes in the next 20 years of this our pilgrim Church. As we move forward to the February summit at the Vatican, I am not optimistic about the outcome of the conference, but, as we move ever forward on our pilgrimage here on earth, I am supernaturally hopeful about the Church of Jesus Christ.
Let me re-emphasize: The laity must find more creative ways to effectively exhort and admonish our clergy. The intent and words of our prayers must not only be addressed to God but to our bishops and priests. In some dioceses, conflict will be likely, as always when dysfunctional families begin to hold one another accountable.
Check out the National Catholic Register Symposium.