In a must-read column, Damon Linker explores the role that the Internet plays in undermining the authority of the Catholic Church (and by extension, all hierarchical, authoritative religions). Excerpt:

What matters is that, regardless of whether faithful members of traditionalist churches should be working to conceal scandalous facts, today’s technologies of publicity render such efforts effectively impossible.

Someone somewhere inevitably learns the scandalous truth and either publicizes the information directly or passes it along to someone who will. And the next thing you know, everyone’s heard the foul and filthy news.

A nasty story now and then wouldn’t do any lasting harm to the churches. But a seemingly endlessstring of scandals, especially when each new outrage seems to confirm a consistent pattern of hypocrisy, cruelty, and corruption among the men (always men) who run more traditionalist churches? That can do serious, even fatal damage.

Consider: Church attendance is already in decline. How long will the remaining parishioners keep returning to the pews when they’re confronted by a persistent drip of scandal implicating people at all levels of the institution?

Damon puts his finger on a profound truth, one that I see little evidence is understood by contemporary religious leaders. The reason the US Catholic Church was upended by the sex abuse scandals that began to be unraveled in 2002 was not because the scandals were new. It was because those revelations happened in the age of the Internet, when it was possible for everyone to know virtually everything. When Judge Constance Sweeney, presiding over the abuse trial of Boston priest John Geoghan, declined the Archdiocese’s request to seal the trial record, and instead made it public, those documents hit the Internet, and the Catholic world had crossed the Rubicon. Everyone, anywhere in the world, could read the Boston Globe’s excellent reporting. Everyone could read what ordinary Catholics were saying about the scandal. Reporters in newsrooms across the country saw what was happening in Boston, and wondered if it might be happening in their own backyards — and went looking for it.

Here we are 12 years later, and there are still bishops and church leaders who think they can do what they want, and keep everything quiet. And some can — but it is an extremely reckless bet. From the NYT’s report this week about the hot mess Minneapolis Archbishop Nienstedt finds himself in:

Ms. Haselberger, a canon lawyer who has worked in other dioceses, said that in her more than five years as chancellor for canonical affairs in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Nienstedt and his top deputies disregarded warnings about priests accused of inappropriate contact with children or with vulnerable female parishioners; declined to report suspected abusers to civil authorities; failed to monitor sex offenders in the clergy; and in various ways violated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Everything I had heard about Archbishop Nienstedt,” said Ms. Haselberger in a telephone interview, “led me to think that if there was ever a guy who was not going to put up with this kind of stuff, it would be him. Would you ever think that somebody with a reputation for being dogmatically pure would turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff? I was completely unprepared for it.”

See how this works? Nienstedt had a public reputation as a doctrinal conservative. But that meant nothing with regard to how he responded internally to sexual misconduct among priests under his authority (N.B., anyone who thinks the public reputation of a bishop, liberal or conservative, has anything to do with how they really run the show, is deluded). And now, things that were hidden are being brought to light, for a potentially worldwide audience.

This is not new, and it’s not going away, no matter what Canute-like bishops or priests or rabbis or imams would prefer. And as Damon indicates, it is having and is going to have a profoundly debilitating effect on religious institutions. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face that we are not Donatists, and that the authority of the Church and the validity of its sacraments do not depend on the holiness of the clergy — and as a theological matter, you would be correct. But for many, many ordinary people, that would make little difference. The more you learn about these things, the greater the quality and reserve of faith you must have to hold on to the Church in the face of that information. I can testify to the reality of that from my own painful experience. Just this morning I received an e-mail from a faithful orthodox Catholic friend in which he mentioned that he and a Catholic seminarian friend of his have had to dramatically lower their expectations of the hierarchy in order to stay strong in the faith.

Me too — and I say that as an ex-Catholic who found a second chance in the Orthodox Church. As a matter of guarding my own heart, I expect the worst from Orthodox bishops and clergy. Do I really believe they’re all bad? Of course not. I am blessed right now to be in a parish led by one of the best priests I’ve ever had. For all I know, most Orthodox bishops in America are living saints. But I’ve lived through what happens when you trust those in religious authority as strongly as I once did, and I cannot afford to get fooled again.

A middle-aged New Orleans friend mentioned to me not long ago that his mother, a devout Catholic, wouldn’t let him be an altar boy in their parish growing up in the 1970s. It turns out that “everybody knew there was something funny about the priests there,” said my friend (“everybody” being the parents). But those families stayed faithful to the Church, despite the corruption of their parish clergy. It was a different world then.

Damon Linker draws a radical conclusion:

Once we recognize the crucially important role of publicity in driving a mass exodus from the churches, something far more troubling becomes obvious — namely, that more than anything else it is the truth, and not some external cultural or political force, that may ultimately destroy the churches.

“Truth” not in the theological, propositional sense, but truth as in accurate but previously hidden information that is received as falsifying the churches’ claims to authority.

Here’s a perhaps more radical claims: the wide dissemination of truth may, in time, destroy the authority of all institutions. Walter Bagehot famously said about the importance of keeping the British monarchy shrouded in mystery, “We mustn’t let daylight in upon magic.” This is true for the leadership of all authoritative institutions, don’t you think? We rightly have higher expectations for ecclesial leadership than for political, corporate, or military leadership, but no governing chief or administrative class can long survive if the people under their authority see them as hypocrites, manipulators, or otherwise abusers of that authority. After Iraq, I expect that everything the US government will say in the future about why America needs to go to war is a lie, until shown otherwise. You see the principle at work.

It’s impossible to keep the magic of authority figures veiled from daylight. I often think of a question a friend of mine asked years ago, that I’ve not been able to answer: “Is it possible to lead at all in an era in which everybody can know everything?” If the answer yes, that will require men and women of unimpeachable character and decisive will to rise to the top of these institutions. Institutions led by bourgeois Pelagians (i.e., go along to get along people who think everything’s going to be fine), card-punchers, tribal loyalists and yes men, will find it very difficult to survive. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about this (cited by blogger Steve Perisho):

“Often bourgeois Pelagians react strongly against all criticisms of secularizing post-conciliar practices and the concerns of those who worry that there might be problems with the reception of the conciliar call for renewal and with popular interpretations of conciliar documents. When presented with statistical data about plummeting Mass attendance rates, the even smaller numbers going to Confession, and the rather large numbers cohabitating before marriage, contracepting and so on, the bourgeois Pelagians are likely to reply that the younger post-conciliar generations simply have different ways of expressing their spirituality. Against these kinds of reactions Ratzinger has spoken of the ‘arrogance of apostasy which is a parody of faith and hope.’ He has also drawn analogies between the attitudes of contemporary bourgeois Pelagians and those who imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah for his pessimism. He observes that in the time of Jeremiah ‘the official optimism of the military, the nobility, the priesthood, and the establishment prophets demanded the conviction that God would protect his city and his temple. However, they were all wrong. They ignored all the evidence to the contrary and ‘downgraded God to become the guarantee of human success and the justification for their irrationalism.’ Contrary to the attitude that whatever appears to be wrong with the contemporary Church must be somehow the work of the Holy Spirit, even if it is not obvious how or why, Ratzinger has written that the criterion that Jeremiah laid down remains valid: ‘the proclamation of empirical success is to be judged by empirical criteria and cannot rely on theology.'”

The future Benedict XVI also wrote, in The Yes Of Jesus Christ:

Jeremiah the pessimist showed himself to be the true bearer of hope. For the others everything had necessarily to have come to an end with this defeat: for him everything at this moment was beginning anew. God is never defeated, and his promises do not collapse in human defeats: indeed, they become greater, as love grows to the extent that the beloved has need of it.

From a theological point of view, what all of us Christians are living through now, and will live through, could be seen as God’s judgment on His people. Purification is painful; bourgeois Pelagians in the clergy and in the laity will be burned away. Increasingly, churches whose leaders cannot withstand the scrutiny of the all-seeing eye of the Internet will not survive over time. And not just churches.