"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The thin line dissolves

Having recovered from the shock of actually agreeing with an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter, I have begun to realize two things about the massive, and massively costly, sex scandal that the U.S. Catholic Church continues to wrestle with.

First, and as NCR says, "the sin must be named." The Church in this country will never recover credibility unless the full extent of the malfeasance and its causes are owned up to. The process is underway—but only through the bishops' gritted teeth, and only because the publicity, the subpoenas, and the damage awards have made some sort of serious response unavoidable. That isn't good enough. As yet there is no apparent collective awareness, among the bishops or those who work under them, that a far more radical housecleaning is in order. Great efforts are being made, as they should be, to weed out old pedophiles and screen out potential new ones; but it hasn't quite sunk in that the real problem is wider and remains rooted in the clerical club itself. Until that sinks in, the momentum of reform will be lost and the seeds of future scandal will be sown.

And that's where the difficulty of naming the sin looms very large. Sure, the scandal mushroomed because of how the bishops avoided accountability; one might therefore call that latter problem "imprudence." But why was accountability avoided? The bishops had a good, formal report on the pedophilia problem as early as 1985; they "received" it and proceeded to ignore it. Surely they should have known that they had a legal bomb ticking. They were even told as much by such whistleblowers as Tom Doyle. What made them think the problem would remain manageable if they conducted business as usual? What accounts for such denial?

Part of it, as I've said before, was the undue influence of homosexuality in the clergy. The vast majority of victims in the publicized cases were adolescent boys; and in one of his last speeches as President of the US Bishops' Conference early this year, Bishop Wilton Gregory acknowledged the ongoing challenge of "preventing the Catholic priesthood from becoming a gay profession." In the last few years, more than a handful of bishops have got into serious trouble for their own homosexual liaisons, though thankfully none of the objects of their affections were under the age of legal consent. Yet at least two of those bishops were clearly forced to resign. And the dozen or so cases we know about are only the ones we know about. So long as homosexuals constitute quite a substantial percentage of Catholic priests—the estimates range between 25 and 60 percent—there will be too much winking and nodding at sodomy in the seminary and beyond. It's only human, after all, and the problem is not about to go away.

Another, equally weighty reason why the scandal developed as it did was what I can only call a false sense of entitlement. Bishops are the authorities in the Church and are directly responsible for her welfare both individually and collectively. They are of course concerned to protect the Church's reputation, with which their own as individuals are closely bound up; and in countries where there is religious freedom, bishops and clergy have usually been given much more benefit of the doubt by civil authorities than the ordinary man gets. Nor must we forget the "seal of the confessional." Given all that, it was and is too easy for bishops to handle privately what would be publicly prosecuted as crimes in most other settings. Couple that with the "therapization" of our culture than began in the 1970s, and it was almost natural for bishops to think themselves entitled to deal with the problem of pedophile and other sexually erring priests more as matters for the confessional and the couch than for the DA.

But in view of the gravity of what was happening, such a sense of entitlement was false. That it persisted for so long is to be explained by the cocoon atmosphere of the club—in this case, the clerical club. The comraderie understandably forged by being collectively "set apart" as sacred, special people, looked up to by the lowly laity, is reinforced and twisted if you and many of your professional buddies are gay. And I'm convinced that many of those bishops didn't want to sacrifice priests for the welfare of the victims and the Church not only because priests were getting hard to come by but also because they never had to sacrifice anything important—such as marriage and family, which they did not desire and therefore could not sacrifice—in order to become priests themselves. Catered to by servants, enjoying fine meals and big fancy houses, they didn't know the meaning of sacrifice anywhere near as well as any ordinary parent does. It was an all-too-charmed existence for too many. It was not to last. The thin line between privilege and irresponsibility dissolved.

But even all that is merely symptomatic: it does not identify the core of the problem. The core of the problem was that there was no moral core. Spiritually speaking, there was no "there" there. The perks of their existence had made them morally vacuous, concerned more with protecting the status quo from which they benefited than with protecting the souls of their flock. They were hardly unique in that respect: many CEOs care more about their stock options than their employees, certainly more than their customers. But one ought to expect better of bishops even if, in this cynical age, that is considered naïve.

The solution is not necessarily what NCR urges: another blue-ribbon commission to study the problems and make recommendations. However good the process and the product, any such undertaking can be ignored after it is ritually praised. The bishops are still very good at that sort of thing. Beyond all bureaucratic mechanisms, the solution is for bishops to do what all Christians are called to do, and begin to do, in baptism: conform themselves with the crucified Christ by dying to the old self. It should truly be said of each and every bishop what St. Paul said of himself: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Such an ideal is probably unattainable for many in this vale of tears; but a crucial step forward will have been made if the bishops understand what the ideal entails for them, value it above self-preservation, and strive accordingly. Only if the bishops as a whole take that step will the Church in this country be worth anybody else's taking seriously again.
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