Two things I’ve read in the past few hours put my whole exchange with First Things‘ Rusty Reno over the Catholic mess in perspective.

The first was this comment on a Facebook thread about Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation that I was reading:

I have to say that teaching the Reformation to disaffected/disenchanted high school students is a LOT easier when they see this stuff oozing out every night on the news.

The second was this from a reader commenting on the post below about the challenge technology and pornography pose to families raising children in the absence of strong institutions and customs to resist the currents in the broader culture:

Rod, I appreciate this one very much. I’ve never been religious. Never, as in I was raised without religion and never have submitted to one. I have been curious and longing, alternatively thinking of myself as a “seeker” or some sort of enlightened secularist.

I almost committed to being a Buddhist, but even that (pretty minimal) level of commitment scared me off. I simultaneously am repulsed by the immorality posing as amorality that defines our consumerist culture (ecological destruction, greed, self-centeredness, self-gratification/hedonism). But I’ve also always been pretty fond of this whole idea of personal freedom and autonomy.

Well, of course, this puts “me” in the middle of all my choices, and that is exactly the problem. I’ll submit to a code of ethics, rules, and mores if I think that it makes sense to me.

Well, ok, this has worked well enough, despite not holding a religion I behave pretty morally overall, and have a high degree of satisfaction and success in my marriage, family life and profession. So no problem, right?

Wrong, and for the reasons you discuss and your friend has shared. Being a dad changes everything, including my perspective on things outside my own family. I may be confident in my own ability to make moral choices (most of the time, and I fear that I am pretty overconfident here, really), but to teach that to my kids in a culture that is sick- as in “not-well”? Then that extends to others who are not my children but who are in need of moral learning. I am a professional counselor. I work with folks who have no clue how to live well. They, like me, do not feel the need to “submit” to anything they do not agree with or desire.

Well, hell, where does this leave us? Nowhere good. The problem is not so much that we don’t know what the “good life” is, it’s that it is almost seen as taboo or moralizing to even talk about it.

See, this is why I find the lack of urgency in the face of the Catholic crisis so inexplicable, certainly coming from the editor of First Things. I write not as a Catholic, of course, nor as an aggrieved ex-Catholic, but as a small-o orthodox Christian who sees the future of the faith in the West depending heavily on what happens with the West’s mother church. That blasé attitude on the part of the Roman Catholic leadership in the face of chronic clerical corruption helped lead to the Reformation. Whether the Reformation was a good thing or a bad thing is beside the point. It was a tectonic event that shattered Western Christianity, and paved the way for the crisis of authority we’re now experiencing.

Which is the point I wish to make here. There is a profound and pervasive crisis of authority in our culture. I write about aspects of this all the time on this blog, so I will spare you the same sermon here. Note well the second quote above: we have no idea how to define the good, except in terms of expanding individual liberty and the possibility of fulfilling desire, which implies that to make firm moral judgments is a risky, even immoral, proposition.  In other words, what is the good except what people choose? That may be the best we can do in our pluralistic secular society, but it produces what Michael Walzer would call a “thin” moral culture, and degree of moral discourse.

It all comes back to a crisis of authority. Again, it’s not just a Catholic matter, but the blindness of the leaders of the Catholic institution to how corruption in clerical ranks, especially among the bishops, causes their own moral authority — already under serious siege by the culture — to evaporate. It’s as if they think that the Church is like a public utility, that it will always be there, no matter what. Or, to look at it from another angle, it’s as if they don’t think the church exists for any reason other than perpetuating itself — which, if that’s true, still makes their behavior bizarre, because nothing is doing more to kill a love for an loyalty to the Church today than the behavior and judgment of its leadership.

The thing these bishops and their defenders seem to miss is that unlike in ages past, the culture was sufficiently Christian that the Church was better able to withstand corrupt clerics. They could only do so much damage to the Church as an institution, and to the authority of institutional Christianity. Those days are gone. Young Americans today aren’t becoming atheists, but they are definitely walking away from the Church (which is to say, all the churches). Notice this:

Perhaps most striking is that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. When comparing this with previous generations under 30, there’s a new wrinkle, says Greg Smith, a senior research at Pew.

Percentage Reporting No Religious Affiliation, By Age

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

“Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell,” Smith tells NPR Morning Edition co-host David Greene. “This really is something new.”

This is really something new. You’ve heard it a thousand times: “I don’t need to go to church to experience God.” From a strictly theological standpoint, that’s true, or at least conditionally true. God doesn’t live only in the temple. Yet for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, at least, there can be no authentic and sustainable Christian life outside of the sacramental community. Though most Protestants don’t have sacraments, or at least don’t have the same sacramental theology as Catholics and Orthodox, there is still a compelling need to come together as a community to receive authoritative teaching from a leader.

Unless you no longer really believe in any authority other than your own conscience. Which is why so many young Americans are walking away from religion.

It is true that the sex scandals in the Catholic Church don’t make the teachings of the church false, any more than the failures of leadership within any church or religion do the same. But they do make it much less likely that people, both inside and outside the church, are going to take those teachings seriously as a guide to truth. It seems to me so incredibly obtuse to be so sure that the Catholic Church or any church in Western culture today will endure, because of theological convictions about the nature of authority not depending on the character of those who embody and exercise it. Of course the Blessed Sacrament is still the Blessed Sacrament, even when confected by the hands of a molester priest! But who wants to be part of a church whose clergy are perceived not to be taking their own religion seriously — especially when there is no social price to be paid for leaving religion behind, and when most people in your peer group believe you don’t have to be part of a church to know God and to be a good person?

In 2002, I was in the Netherlands with my wife and son, and went to Catholic mass in a suburban Amsterdam parish. There were few people there, and nearly everybody who was there had grey hair. There was one family, though, with young teenage boys. We introduced ourselves, and ended up having dinner with them. Great people. Turns out the father was one of 11 children from a devout Catholic family. Today, he was the only one of his siblings who still practiced the faith.

And all this was before the scandal in the US, and subsequent revelations in Europe.

You think it can’t happen here? I’m thinking right now of my friend J., and what she has told me about her extended family’s religious situation. She is middle-aged. Her father and his siblings went to church, and took their kids to church, only on Easter and Christmas. Of her generation,  she is the only one of the cousins who goes to church regularly, and who takes her kids to church. She says her siblings’ kids, and her cousins’ kids, some of whom are adults with kids of their own, never go to church. They’re all nice people, but they just don’t see the point.

J. tells me that she is the last link left in her family to the Church as an institution. Within two, three generations, a family that was once faithful to the Church has been lost to it. It wasn’t through trauma or persecution, but through indifference. The Church is not only not trusted by these younger generations, but they don’t even see it as having anything to do with their moral and spiritual lives.

This is a crisis. This is not a normal crisis. This is a world-historical moment for the Catholic Church in particular, and more broadly, for Christianity in the West. The once-unthinkable is not only thinkable, it’s happening. All the people in J.’s family, and in that Catholic Dutchman’s family, they’re individual souls, made by God, and desired by Him. That’s what I believe as a Christian. Though the passing of Christianity cannot possibly be good for the religious freedom of Christians in the long run, it is not an unambiguously bad thing that the Christian church is losing power and influence. Is the Christian church losing the souls of its children? Yes, and that is a catastrophe. If the Church’s leadership was fighting bravely for those souls, but losing, it would be a tragedy. The fact that the Church’s leadership seems rather too often to be fighting only for its own status and privileges, and to hell with the rest of us (including good priests doing their best), makes it something far worse than a tragedy.

There is no guarantee that my children will not be lost to the faith, though I’m doing my best to make that less likely. If they are, though, then it is more likely that their children, and their children’s children, will be as well. All it takes is a generation or two for the tradition to die. If we — bishops, pastors, and religious leaders foremost, but also all of us who claim the faith — are poor stewards of it, and squander what we have been given to care for, then judgment will fall not so much on us, but on those as yet unborn, who will not hear, or because of the post-Christian ethos, be disposed to hear, the Good News. And for this, God will hold us responsible.

Yeah, it’s a crisis. May not look that way to some, high above the fray, but that’s not what I see from down here.

UPDATE: This from TMatt:

A crisis rooted in clerical hypocrisy or outright rejection of church doctrines is especially crucial since, as noted in the Pew report you cited, the glue that holds the “unaffiliated”/”nones” together is a rejection of traditional religious teachings on sexual ethics. More than anything else, that is what the unaffiliated share.

Let me also note that the church establishment’s total lack of interest in the content of mass media and popular culture, other than whining about it from time to time, doesn’t help.

What we have here is the separation of church and life.

But the sacraments are valid no matter how hypocritical the clergy are! And didn’t Jesus say the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church? Besides, theology teaches us that corrupt priests do not obviate the teachings of the Church. Relax. Nothing to worry about. <sarcasm>

I know a couple of Orthodox people who have stopped going to Church because the conduct of the bishops caused them to doubt that what the Church teaches is true. They’re mistaken to react that way. But I understand it. The clericalist mentality says: blame the people first.