A reader writes:

Basically, I have caught Fr. Groeschel before in serious denial about the sex abuse scandal. He spoke here in [city] ten or eleven years ago and during his talk, he blamed the sex abuse scandal on a hostile media. Now this is [a city] where we were still recovering from a former bishop who was a predatory homosexual. And the revelations in Boston had already been ongoing for months.

So during the Q & A (the format was written questions that he read and answered), I pointed out that, given what we already knew – the scandal was by this time spreading beyond Boston, and I believe your National Review articles on the Society of St. John had already been published — it was unrealistic to simply “blame the media,” that even if the media was hostile, the cover-up was still a real, decades-old reality, and that such an attitude was a grave injustice to the victims. He acknowledged that yes, there were actual cases, but held to his opinion that it was mostly a media-created scandal, that the media was blowing it out of proportion. He fell back on his experience counseling abusive priests and expressed what I thought then was an inordinate amount of sympathy toward them. Then he moved on to other questions and no one in the audience challenged him on it. This was Fr. Groeschel, after all.

His “circle the wagons” mentality was a disappointing thing to see in a man and a priest for whom I had a great deal of respect. And the slew of revelations that continued for years would prove him wrong. So, despite his expertise in this area, and experience, I wondered, following his quotes in the National Catholic Register, how much of that was the ramblings of a confused old man, and how much was of that same “circle the wagons” mentality. Your piece this morning is just more damning evidence against the man.

What’s interesting to me about this is the reader’s words: “This was Father Groeschel, after all.” What he means by that, for ye who are not conservative Catholics or knowledgeable in the ways of that culture, is that Fr. Groeschel was (is?) a giant in that world. It’s hard for me to think of another living American Catholic who has the same moral stature and authority among conservative Catholics as Fr. Groeschel. For many Catholics, if Father Groeschel said X, then X must be true, such is his moral authority.

It’s easy to judge this from outside that culture, but reflect on the public figures you or I hold up as moral authorities, and how much stock we place in their opinions. It’s hard to get through life questioning everybody at every turn. At some point, you have to trust in the authority of people you don’t know personally, and in institutions. The last 10 years in the US have seen the dismantling of the authority of the Roman Catholic institution, as a result of the scandal. That’s not strictly true; the institution’s authority has been diminishing for decades, as Americans have become far more individualistic about their religious beliefs. My guess, though, is even as many US Catholics chose to dissent from the church’s authoritative teachings, they still maintained a basic respect for the authority of the bishop and the institution.

The scandal has taken a serious toll. A 2012 Gallup survey found that confidence in organized religion has been declining among all Americans since the 1970s, but it is especially low for Catholics. Catholic and Protestant views have tracked each other pretty closely since the 1970s, but the bottom fell out for Catholics after 2002, which is when the scandal stories began breaking.

Even today, there are people who will defend the indefensible. On my Facebook feed yesterday, a Catholic friend posted this 2011 blog from Kevin O’Brien, in which he excoriated Bishop Finn for protecting Fr. Shawn Ratigan, a pedophile priest (Bp Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor this week in that case). O’Brien had been castigated by conservative Catholics for his earlier criticism of Bp Finn, an Opus Dei member and darling of conservatives; O’Brien had been called an aider and abetter of the Church’s enemies. He wasn’t having any of it. For example:

What would you say to these parents? Or better yet, if Fr. Ratigan had taken pictures of your sleeping two-year-old girl and removed her diapers to take a spy-pen snapshot of her vagina and her bare butt for use on his computer, and perhaps molested her and the diocese never bothered to tell you this, and never bothered to warn you not to let this man back in your house, or reach out to make sure you and your daughter got the help you needed (all the while the beg letters for the annual diocesan appeal kept coming in the mail) … what would you put down on the “hurt” card? What would you “share” as your “hope” during the listening session while somewhere a man we call father masturbates to a picture of your sleeping two-year-old?

Sorry for being so blunt here, but I have found that you have to speak clearly and without euphemism to people who prefer not to face the reality of what child sex abuse means. When you spend any significant time with these files and these cases, looking at the facts, it becomes very, very difficult to understand how and why bishops behaved the way they did, turning a blind eye to this grotesque evil. It may come to the point where you simply do not trust them.

I don’t, certainly. I generally don’t trust Catholic bishops, which is of no particular importance, as I am no longer a Catholic. But I don’t trust Orthodox bishops either. If I were Protestant, I doubt very much I would trust the leaders of my church on this front. They can be trusted, I believe, to defend the perceived interest of the clerical class. Is this true of every bishop or senior leader, in every case? Surely not. But experience has taught me to be deeply skeptical and defensive as a matter of course. I’m thinking of one case in particular in which I know the bishop to be a very good man, but on this issue, he’s blind, and I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. For bishops, I think it’s what the French call a deformation professionelle.

But here’s the thing: what happens when you lose faith in the competence and judgment of your church’s leadership? For Catholics and Orthodox, strictly speaking, if every bishop in the church(es) was no good, it wouldn’t invalidate the faith, or the hierarchy as an authoritative institution. To believe otherwise is to fall victim to Donatism, a heresy of the early church. It’s a hard teaching to accept, but it really is true that all the corrupt Catholic bishops of the Reformation era, and all the Russian Orthodox bishops who were KGB agents, were still valid bishops. Their failures did not render the Church or the episcopacy null and void.

And yet, we are human beings, not machines. As longtime readers know, a Catholic bishop said to me back in 2002 that if I didn’t trust the bishops to clean up the sex abuse mess, he didn’t understand why I was still a Catholic. That shocked me, partly because of its naked clericalism, and partly because of its implicit Donatism. That is, the bishop seemed to me to be under the impression that to believe in the Church as an institution required believing that the bishops always and everywhere could be counted on to do the right thing — this, despite the overwhelming evidence of episcopal failure. I responded to him that my faith did not depend on the competence or the goodness of bishops — thank God!

And yet, it sort of did, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated at the time. Spending the next three to four years soaking in the acid bath of information about the abuse scandal, learning the gritty details of what bad priests did, and what bishops — who ought to have known better — let them get away with, and what victims and their families suffered because of it, corroded my ability to believe in the claims of the Catholic Church. Look, I don’t want to have an apologetics argument in the comments thread, and won’t do it. My point is simply that if you have believed deep in your heart in the basic goodness of the institution and its leadership class, to learn that in fact many of them were at best shockingly indifferent to evil, can be devastating. It was to me, anyway, beyond my ability to hold on to my Catholic faith, despite the syllogisms, which could not contain my anger and revulsion. But that story has been told. The only way I hold on to my faith in the Orthodox church is by insulating myself with massive defensive walls of mistrust in the institution — which is why I’m appalled by the ongoing shameful mess among the OCA bishops, but not threatened by it. Many of the Catholics I know who have held on to their faith despite the scandal are people who always held the episcopate and the clergy in a certain unfavorable regard.

(UPDATE: The New York Times today publishes an account of how and why Bishop Finn, in violation of the secular law and canon law, failed to stop the child porn freak Father Shawn Ratigan. Excerpt:

The testimony filed in court on Thursday says that because the bishop trusted Father Ratigan to respect the restrictions, he was never monitored and the community was never informed.

On May 11, 2011, while Bishop Finn was out of town, Monsignor Murphy again contacted Captain Smith at the Police Department and told him that the diocese had indeed found not one, but hundreds of photographs of little girls. A week later, Father Ratigan was arrested for possession of child pornography. He was convicted in August and is awaiting sentencing.

Bishop Finn and the diocese were indicted by a grand jury in October 2011. Monsignor Murphy was given immunity for cooperating with the prosecution. He testified that he turned Father Ratigan in because he had grown concerned that he was truly a pedophile. The monsignor said that when the bishop learned he had turned in Father Ratigan, “It seemed he was angry.”

After Father Ratigan was arrested, Bishop Finn met with his priests. Asked why Father Ratigan was not removed earlier, the bishop replied, according to the testimony, that he had wanted “to save Father Ratigan’s priesthood” and that he had understood that Father Ratigan’s problem was “only pornography.”

Finn, now convicted of a crime for failing to report Ratigan, remains the bishop of his diocese, and he will no doubt remain the bishop of his diocese, because as far as I can tell, the Vatican cares more about the episcopacy and the clergy than they do about other considerations, moral and otherwise. The self-destructive quality of the men in charge of the Catholic institution is breathtaking.)

I understand how this works, but it strikes me as a difficult thing to pull off for most people, maintaining this delicate balance between fidelity to an institution and belief in its authority, while regarding its institutional representatives — bishops and priests, I mean — with a certain ironic distance. Ten years after the bishop’s shocking remark to me, I wonder if what he said, while theologically false, wasn’t emotionally true in a way I couldn’t see at the time. That is, to be a Catholic requires a certain level of basic trust in the bishop to do the right thing most of the time, and if you don’t have that trust, then the whole thing falls apart. Again, I know this is theologically false, and thank God it is, because it’s pathetically easy to falsify the claim that bishops can be counted on to do the right thing most of the time. Yet to lose faith in bishops (and, more broadly, in the judgment of religious authorities like Fr. Groeschel) in the real world, as distinct from the world of ideas and concepts, is more damaging than we may think.

It is to be significantly, though not thoroughly, disenchanted. And no institution in society, except for the monarchy, depends on enchantment for its authority as much as the church.

Here is the particular challenge to church leaders in our present age. We live in a secular age, defined by Charles Taylor as a condition in which disbelief in God (and, by extension, religious institutions) is possible in a way it wasn’t before modernity. That is, before modern times, it was very, very difficult for people in Western civilization to disbelieve in God. Times have very much changed, and for many reasons, there is very little within the social and psychological structure of our culture to help one hold on to one’s faith, or particular instantiation of religion. You can be Protestant, you can be Catholic, you can be nothing at all, and nobody is going to much care. This is why 44 percent of Americans have left either the faith they were born into, or at least the church in which they were raised.

If the Secular Age weakens bonds holding most people to a particular church, then the Information Age puts even more pressure on those frail psychological and social frames. Why? Because it confronts people with facts that undermine their narratives. The existence of the Internet is the reason why the Catholic abuse scandal broke so big in the US. A Boston judge released a lot of documents from the Geoghan trial into the public realm, and the Internet spread that information far and wide. Suddenly, Catholics and interested others no longer had to depend on official sources or the mainstream media for information about what was happening. And this was absolutely devastating to the Church’s official story.

It still is. I started this item with an e-mail from an ordinary Catholic layman who related an experience he had with Fr. Groeschel at the start of the scandal, one that undermines the narrative that Fr. Groeschel’s shocking remarks about the scandal the other day weren’t the confused ramblings of an elderly man, but in fact what he really believes. Those remarks appeared on the website of a Catholic newspaper that took the interview down as soon as they realized how compromising of Groeschel’s reputation they were (it is telling that neither the reporter nor the editors grasped how appalling Groeschel’s words were until outsiders pointed this out; this was Fr. Groeschel, after all). Even though the paper removed the interview from its website, once it appeared on the Internet, that was that: everybody learned about it. Within days, Fr. Groeschel was retired.

For better or for worse, this is the world we live in now. I happen to think on balance it’s better, on the principle that it is better to live with difficult and painful truths than with comforting lies. But it doesn’t matter what I think or what you think: this is the world as it is today. This Secular, Information Age is the world in which religious authorities have to lead, and preach, and teach, and work. It has never been more difficult to maintain the enchantment of religious institutions (e.g., churches, the episcopacy, the priesthood) — the very enchantment they must have to retain their authority over the faithful. (Understand that I say “authority” not in the theological sense, but in the sense of being believed, and believed in, by people.)

These conditions require at least two things, if the faith is to thrive:

1. From the faithful, it requires a more sophisticated approach to the faith, both theologically and emotionally. It requires the ability to separate the authority of the institution from the character of individual bishops, priests, or pastors. But it also requires the ability to be more careful in placing one’s faith in particular charismatic figures. For example, one has to be able to see someone like Fr. Groeschel as both a good man — as he plainly is, from his long record of service to the poor — and as deeply flawed, as his response to the scandal shows him to be. It is hard to establish this kind of equilibrium, and even harder to maintain it.

2. For the clergy and the episcopate, the task is actually more clear: they have to be good, consistently, and not just good, but strong.

Thought experiment: Is re-enchantment possible, especially under Secular Information Age conditions? How?