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Church As Institutional Failure

Theologian: Where trust is lacking, arguments do little good
Church As Institutional Failure

Many comments on this new Pope Francis thread from Catholics and others are really sobering and thoughtful about the state of Christianity in our country. A couple:


[Quoting another reader:]

The cover-up by the Bishops struck at the heart of the moral and spiritual authority of the Church in the West. There is now this kind of uncomfortable silence…and anger: “Don’t you even try to challenge us on the moral issues that we are dealing with in our complicated private lives, with the way you dealt with your own dirty laundry.””

I think this is very true and will be true until the Church engages in a fearless and searching reckoning of the crisis and is transparent with the laity. And the clergy who covered up these abuses must pay a price for the cover ups not retire to comfortable positions like Cardinal Law.

However, the laity is not justified in ignoring the commandments because of the transgressions of a small minority of the clergy and the Church does not belong to the offending clergy. It is so much more than the clergy. Do not let them take it away from us or cause us to discard it.

Elizabeth Anne:

It’s not just anger. The clergy scandal irrevocably and permanently altered the way all the Catholics I know think about the church. In short, except for a VERY small core of Catholics I know who are able to separate the men from the institution, none of them are at all willing to believe anymore that the Roman Catholic Church is in any way a special institution with a particular right to dictate morality.

I live now in a very Catholic area (Wisconsin) with Catholic family. And the abuse scandals simply undid their faith in the church as an authority. Most of them have either left and will not go back or go with an insistence on a hands off approach wherein the priests and especially the bishops have absolutely no right to dictate morality to them. A few have gone the other extreme and jumped into sedevacantist RadTrad camps.

I think this is nowhere more painfully obvious than in the statistics out of Ireland. But you can see it everywhere.


It’s not the sex abuse scandal.

Take my parish where my kids attend school. Very conservative, orthodox priest. He even has introduced Latin into our Novus Ordo liturgy. It is a parish in a politically/culturally conservative neighborhood. The school is amazing. Prayer is an active part of their school day, and they focus a lot on faith formation.

That said, hardly any of people who send their kids to school at our parish go to mass regularly. I’m in my early 30s and so are the other parents in my kids’ classes. It is nothing like I remember being in Catholic school in the 90s, when you saw everybody at mass on Sunday. If anyone does go, it is the mothers and kids. Fathers rarely go to mass.

Why is this not the sex abuse scandal? Because these people who don’t go to mass are heavily involved in the social and community life of the parish. Everyone meets at the parish for sports and festivals. People volunteer for all sorts of things. For lollipop soccer (non-competitive soccer for kids under 6), the fields and concession stands are packed. People hang around till nearly 11:00 socializing. Even the priest and a seminarian will attend. This is a wonderful, vibrant (and welcoming) community. By the way, all of these parents could send their kids to the above-average public schools in the area.

If these people had a problem with priests, they wouldn’t choose to maintain their Catholic identity. And it’s not just identity. They are actively participate in the life of the parish and support it with time and money.

If people were honest with themselves, it’s because it is easier (and more entertaining) to avoid Church and a religious life. I love the Catholic mass. It is beautiful, and a representation of Heaven on Earth. But it is not entertaining. It is not ESPN on Sunday morning; it is not a fantasy football app. It is not even a Megachurch with Starbucks and bagels in the lobby. For the poorly formed Catholic, the Mass is boring and repetitive.

I am happy my kids’ school focuses on faith formation. There is a whole generation of people who were not properly formed as Catholics (1960s-1990s). They simply do not know about their faith and don’t care. Maybe they wouldn’t care regardless of formation. But we can’t have 40 years of a bland, superficial faith formation (tarnished by awful, criminal sexual abuse), and expect everything to be fine. The Church needs to heal. It will take 100 years.


I think a major reason for the disconnect between church doctrine and how Catholics live their lives is that the church and clergy actually DO NOT regularly teach on moral issues. I’m talking about in the parish, in classes, etc. not in Vatican documents that typical Catholics never read. I am a fairly recent convert to Catholicism from the Mormon faith. And even though I no longer believe in Mormon doctrine, Mormons do an excellent job in continually hammering home, to youth and adults alike, LDS moral teaching on things like sexuality. No active LDS youth will have any confusion about what the Mormon church teaches on the sinfulness of pre-marital sex for example or about how their participation in LDS life will be affected by it (at least if they don’t hide the sin from their local bishop). How many Catholic youth graduate from Catholic schools understanding that pre-marital sex is a grave sin or believing that if they have sex outside of marriage then they cannot fully participate in parish life?

And unlike in Catholicism, those who actively and publicly disagree with LDS teachings often leave the Mormon faith. Why? Because Mormonism is not a comfortable environment for those who publicly flout its teachings. The same can’t be said in most case for Catholicism.

And on and on.

Meanwhile, today I was communicating with a Catholic parochial school teacher, a theological conservative who is also a father of young children. He is extremely fed up with the indifference and even hostility of Catholic parents. But he is especially fed up with the bishops. He told me that his local bishop is a time-server and bench-warmer who is presiding over the decline of the diocese’s Catholic schools into mediocrity. Says this bishop doesn’t want to rock the boat, and contents himself with managing decline, because that’s the easiest route. This reader sees the sex abuse scandal as central to the decline in the Church’s authority, because in his view, the bishops of his church and very many of the clergy showed that they cannot be trusted.

Recently, I exchanged e-mails with an Orthodox priest. We were talking about some various issues in the different Orthodox churches. I told him that after I left Catholicism, I came to Orthodoxy incapable of trusting religious hierarchy. It’s not that I disbelieve in the authority of the hierarchy, or of its necessity. I am not a Protestant. Nor is it that I believe that all bishops are bad. I can think of several examples, in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, that prove that statement wrong. No, the thing is this: that I cannot bring myself to believe that as a general matter, the hierarchy can be trusted to do the right thing consistently. I might be wrong about that, but I’m not moving off that belief, because I have seen up close and personal, in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the damage done to innocent people who did have trust.

Here are some very wise words from a theologically informed writer who was Catholic but who is now Orthodox, on why he is not interested in Catholic vs. Orthodox polemics. Excerpt:

The greatest pitfall in which one can be entrapped is the fantasy that one can find ecclesiastical refuge in either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. At the risk of offending pious ears, neither is a paradise. Whatever problems you had in one will follow you to another, and you will have to be willing to exchange one set of baggage for another. Anyone who tells you the opposite is either a liar or provincial in their view, having lived only in a carefully created womb of devotion that takes pains to remove or deny evidence to the contrary that would challenge its strictly defined parameters.

There is no “refuge” for us weary sinners in an organized religion. How many times have we grown frustrated with our own coreligionists or religious authorities to prove this out? “Refuge,” if it may be found, is found on the more personal level of the community one develops for pursuit of the praxis of the Christian life. For us non-monastics, this community increasingly violates old confessional boundaries, discarding barriers sustained by removed intellectual extrapolation in favor of the experiential knowledge born out of praxis. This is, indeed, the ancient Christian path to contemplative knowledge of God and true religion.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. One reason this works is because it is easier to trust people with whom you have personal experience. The Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts recently wrote a very insightful blog post on distrusting institutions and its effect within Evangelicalism. Excerpts:

In the past, theologians and pastors typically heavily mediated theological thought to their congregations. The edification of church members was crucial, but theologically trained pastors were expected to pre-digest Scripture and theology for the sake of their congregations and feed them with it to the point that they could process ever more solid food.

The rise of the Internet, however, has posed serious problems for this model. Increasingly, the person in the pew is receiving their theological and biblical understanding independent of pastoral oversight and guidance, often through a sort of personal ‘research’ akin to that of the Googling anti-vaxxer.

Church leaders are increasingly facing a situation where members of their congregations have an ever-growing and diversifying interface with a dizzying array of different figures. Congregants are following people on Twitter and Facebook, reading various blogs, listening to podcasts, watching Christian videos on Youtube, participating in online forums and communities, reading a far wider range of books than they probably would have done in the past, watching Christian TV shows, listening to Christian radio stations, etc., etc., all within the comfort of their own houses. The sheer range of sources that the members of a congregation will be exposed to nowadays is entirely unprecedented. Although some may expect pastors to keep on top of all of this, I really don’t see how they realistically can.

The result has often been a situation—similar to that faced by vaccination programmes—in which pastors and church leaders urgently have to protect the spiritual health of their congregations against false teachings that untrained people have adopted through their independent ‘research’. In such a situation, few things are more important than a strong bond of trust between lay people and those in authority over them, who are responsible for their well-being.


However, that bond of trust has come under extreme and sustained assault in the last couple of decades. With the revelation of scandals of spiritual and sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups and gross mishandling, pastors and church leaders are subject to much more suspicion. Pastors, prominent Christian leaders, and teachers may commonly presume that authority is something that comes with the job position. However, this election is just going to provide further evidence of how profoundly mistaken this assumption actually is. Especially among the up-and-coming generations, the older generation of prominent evangelical leaders has less and less influence. Their widespread support of Trump will just be the final nail in the coffin of their credibility for a large number of younger people. ‘Authority’ counts for little where trust no longer exists. Not only will this mean that their future statements won’t carry weight: they will be actively distrusted. Once again, there is a dangerous situation of unattached trust, ripe for the establishment of counter-communities.

Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.

The egalitarian online environment also makes it difficult to discern the difference between those who hold ordained pastoral office and responsibility and people who are simply self-appointed online ‘influencers’ (in case you need a reminder, I am just a blogger: I am not your pastor). It makes it difficult to discern the difference between trained and orthodox theologians and untrained people who are simply regurgitating error. Everyone appears to be a peer online, which dulls our awareness of the fact that some people have authority over us and others have other forms of authority resulting from privileged knowledge, training, or experience. Everyone is expected to make up their own opinion in such a world, but very few people have the means to make up their minds well.

Once again, when information overwhelms us and traditional gatekeepers are no longer trusted, we can renegotiate our networks of trust and find a new sense of orientation in tight-knit communities.


Whereas in the past, communities of trust would tend to be locally based, typically rooted within church congregations, extended families, workplaces, and neighbourhoods, in the age of the Internet, communities of trust are increasingly abstracted from locality. Twenty or thirty years ago, one’s community of faith would primarily have been found in one’s local congregation, and would have been overseen by pastors and church leaders. Nowadays, our communities of faith are much more diffuse and much less pastorally guided. Where once pastors, church leaders, and mature Christians could keep watch over a congregation, ensuring that error didn’t creep in, this is much harder to do today. Likewise, dissenting and disaffected persons are much more able to form their own independent communities online.

Jen Hatmaker is a good illustration of some of these dynamics. Hatmaker isn’t a trained theologian, yet her changed position on same-sex marriage has recently received an immense amount of discussion among Christians. In some respects, there isn’t a huge difference between Hatmaker on same-sex marriage and a celebrity anti-vaxxer who has claimed to have extensively ‘researched’ the issue. In both cases, even supposing they were correct, the person’s position is of little academic worth (because they only have very limited ability to engage in first-hand research themselves). Nevertheless, it is of deep social consequence and danger. The opinions of such persons hold weight on account of their popularity, likeability, and people’s instinctive trust of them, whereas the official authority figures challenging them are distrusted, despite their greater learning.

To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust. If people are confident that evangelicalism will generally be opposed to same-sex marriage in twenty-five years’ time, for instance, I wonder whether they have been paying close attention to the movements that have been taking place. The most prominent voices that have opposed same-sex marriage are now regarded with deep distrust from many quarters, especially by the younger generations, not least on account of their politics and the abuse scandals that have tarnished their reputation. People no longer trust them as leaders, so their position on same-sex marriage is now thrown into greater question. Although they may officially have authority, practically they have little authority over the younger generations.


As with the social crisis of truth, thought, and knowledge facing America, the crisis facing the Church will only be addressed as it is addressed precisely as a social problem. Where trust has broken down, a crisis of truth will soon follow in its wake. Rebuilding trust once lost is an immensely daunting and difficult task, yet it is the task that faces us. Where trust is lacking, there is little to be gained from directing ever more information and arguments at people. Repentance must be made, forgiveness must be sought, bonds of trust must be repaired, and then truth might begin to do its work.

Please read the whole thing. These little sections here can’t possibly do justice to the sweep of Roberts’s whole post. In case his name is unfamiliar to you, Roberts a young, English, theologically conservative intellectual. I don’t care what your tradition is, if you are a small-o orthodox Christian and not reading his blog, you are making a serious mistake.

This “social crisis of truth, thought, and knowledge facing America” is not confined to the churches alone, as Roberts points out. And it is by no means a matter of sorting out who has the most persuasive argument.  Roberts starts his post not by talking about the church, but about why it is that so many people put their trust in Donald Trump, in particular in Trump’s anti-vaccine theories:

Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities—the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc.—who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.

The loss of trust in the persons and agencies happened on many different fronts. It happened as people ceased to believe that the persons and agencies were being open with and transparent to them, that they were committed to their well-being and had their best interests at heart, that they were devoted to truth over power and self-advancement. However, with the loss of that trust, a lot of beliefs that those persons and agencies guaranteed, which formerly would have gone unquestioned, became collateral damage.

This is why the abuse scandal was so devastating to the Catholic Church. The thing that magnifies the power of the sex abuse scandal, or any other major church scandal, to destroy the church’s authority is that contemporary culture gives one a powerful disincentive to believe what one wants to believe. I have experienced this over and over in contexts that have nothing to do with religion, with people who are conservative and with people who are liberal (inevitably, people believe that THEIR experts are telling them the truth, and the OTHER people and their experts are just too stupid or blinded by ideology to see it).

Where does this leave us? In a mess. We have entered a period of radical distrust, and if anybody tells you they know for sure where it’s going, don’t trust them. Roberts’s insights, taken in tandem with the comments from you readers, help me to better understand the intuitions that led me to the idea of the Benedict Option. No community can survive without authority, and agreed-upon authority at that. The Ben Op is a general strategy for rebuilding social trust around small communities of believers who share a traditionalist (= anti-modern, at some level) Christian faith, and who — crucially — are committed to the practices necessary to sustain that faith in community, over time. Let me repeat Alastair Roberts’s words:

Rebuilding trust once lost is an immensely daunting and difficult task, yet it is the task that faces us. Where trust is lacking, there is little to be gained from directing ever more information and arguments at people.

Exactly. It is certainly true that the masses today have strong incentives to refuse legitimate religious authority. But it is also true that the authorities who run our authoritative religious institutions — archdioceses, parishes, schools, even down to the level of youth groups — ought not to make it so hard.



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