When I interviewed former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating recently about his past work on the lay sex abuse panel the Catholic bishops set up in 2002, he told me that when he took the job of heading up the panel, a Southern Baptist pastor friend wished him well, saying something to the effect of, “I hope you can clean this up. If the mother church is sick, it hurts all of us.”
There’s a lot of truth in that, and it shouldn’t be hard for we who are part of non-Catholic churches to say. As a matter of historical fact, the Roman Catholic Church is the mother church for all Western Christians. We may have left her, as Protestants have, or she may have left us, as Eastern Orthodox believe. But the fact remains that the Church of Rome is the mother of Christianity in the West.
There would have been a time when her travails would have given comfort to Protestants and Orthodox. Ah-ha! This just goes to show that Rome was and is wrong! If that kind of triumphalism ever was right, it certainly no longer is. The health of the Roman church matters in a big way to all of us Christians living in the West.
For one thing, it dwarfs the other churches in size. There are 70 million Catholics in the US. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, is only 16 million. (Side note: the size of the Southern Baptist Convention within Protestantism is why the rest of us Christians ought to have paid attention to its struggle over the summer with sex abuse.) If the Eastern Orthodox in the US — maybe one million of us, total — are consumed by scandal, it doesn’t really make a difference to the larger Christian body. If Presbyterians, or Episcopalians are strangling in their own corruption, it’s sad, but they’re too small to make a major difference. Not so with Catholics.
For another — and more importantly — the Catholic Church is the keeper of Western Christian memory and, in some hard to define way, the guardian of theological orthodoxy. That last one will be difficult to defend, I grant, but here me out. Catholic theology is a very deep and complex phenomenon, one that penetrates to the roots of the 2,000 year old Christian faith. In theory, at least, it ought to be the bulwark against the disintegrating tides of liquid modernity. For all its undeniable strengths, Protestantism, as a modern phenomenon, does not have the foundations that Catholicism does. No Protestant or Orthodox Christian will or should convert to Catholicism for sociological or cultural reasons, but we can still recognize that in the West, as goes Catholicism, so go the rest of us.
Defending the sacredness of human life and the sanctity of the natural family are two of the greatest challenges to Christians in the post-Christian West. On paper, no church is better prepared to do that than the Roman Catholic Church. And yet, though it is true as a matter of strict logic that the sins of priests and bishops do not negate the teachings of the Church, as a matter of common sense, the Church is a laughingstock in the public square, trying to proclaim these vital truths while unable to police corruption in its own ranks.
Today, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley canceled his planned appearance at this month’s World Meeting Of Families in Dublin, saying he needs to stay in Boston and clean up corruption in the archdiocesan seminary. It’s hard to blame the cardinal for wanting to stay away. These cardinals are on the speaking roster:
- Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, tainted by his failures to deal with priest sex abuse while Bishop of Pittsburgh
- Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s family policy office, a former flatmate and disciple of Cardinal (now merely Archbishop) Theodore McCarrick, of whose grotesque sins against chastity Farrell claims to have known nothing
- Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, who learned (or should have learned) of McCarrick’s molestation of seminarians at least since early 2017, when he took over in Newark; his predecessor approved of a sex abuse settlement with one of McCarrick’s accusers;
- Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who diocese is embroiled in a clerical gay sex scandal that has already claimed the career of one of his auxiliary bishops
These men have anything to teach anybody about family life? Really? Maybe they are wise on the subject, but at the moment, they have no credibility.
Meanwhile, one of the non-episcopal keynote speakers at the World Meeting Of Families will be Father James Martin, the Jesuit advocate for normalizing homosexuality within Catholicism. His book, celebrated among Catholic progressives, has been endorsed by Cardinals Tobin and Farrell, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego — whom the recently deceased Richard Sipe informed about McCarrick by letter in 2016.
An atomic bomb has gone off this week in Pennsylvania, with the grand jury report finding, on page 1, that most of the 1,000 abuse victims they identified were boys — victims, therefore, of gay priests. And yet the Roman Catholic World Meeting of Families will feature a priest advocating for changing Catholic teaching on homosexuality, and feature speakers who have endorsed this view (Farrell, Tobin) or who are themselves badly compromised on the issue (Maradiaga is attacking his own seminarians who blew the whistle on sexually active gays in the Tegucigalpa seminary). It’s insane. It’s a bad joke.
Perhaps Cardinal O’Malley doesn’t want to participate in this pharisaical sham. I’m reminded of a Jordan Peterson quote sent to me this morning by a pissed-off parish priest, who had the bishops in mind: “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”
But enough about the bishops. What kind of men are the laity? Reader Matt in VA put up an explosive comment, which he begins by quoting C.S. Lewis’s famous remark about “men without chests”:
We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
What does anybody do to make anybody involved here stand up/man up/take responsibility/clean house? There is this sense that seems to permeate Christianity of the more conservative/orthodox variety that goodness and honour and “enterprise” (!–definitely want to write more about that word) just happen. Put all your trust in the Lord, right? The Lord can see into your soul and knows that you are good and are destined for heaven, so all that you need to do is hold the right positions/beliefs and not be, say, a liberal. Ideas Have Consequences and of course you will be vindicated simply by the process of History itself. It’s Science!
A lot of commenters on these threads are calling out for millstones around necks and people being tossed into the sea. But will any Catholics even go so far as to put together a picket line outside these bishops’ residences? I wonder. Maybe some lonely victim of abuse will stand outside holding a sign, but there won’t be anything organized, I bet. What about a pressure campaign to target those involved financially with these churches? How about going after the insurance companies who insure these churches, or any corporations that donate to these churches? No, of course not, because that would hurt the Church, right? And all the people the church serves, right? So nothing happens. People are going to fall precipitously away from Catholicism, and that’ll hurt the church, but I guess it’ll just separate those who really believe from those who don’t, and a smaller but purer church is better, right?
Talk about a slave mentality.
A few of the commenters on these threads are noting that they believe that in the past, enraged fathers and community members would be going after these priests and knocking their teeth down their throats. But us comfortably middle-class 21st century Americans would never do something like that. After all, Christianity is about forgiveness, and never doing evil to do good. Funny how these arguments work to justify doing nothing about anything other than more committees and more “standards” and more b***s***. Funny how these arguments are really arguments for behavior that is indistinguishable from that of cowards. But, again, God sees into our hearts and knows that of course we’re not cowards, He knows we’re good as long as we believe the right things.
What does it say about us — and I mean all of us — that we don’t do a thing other than lament and write about “throwing up” when we learn about this kind of stuff? All of the commenters who say that they’re made physically ill by reading this report — what is the real, substantive difference here between this kind of comment and the liberals/leftists who are “physically shaking” when they are exposed to some kind of mean online comment or whatever? Well, here’s the difference. Those liberals organize and get those mean online commenters banned. Those liberals practice incredibly effective entryism and pull the richest and most powerful corporations in the country further left. They do more, when they encounter much less objectively serious or evil stuff.
C.S. Lewis uses the word “enterprise.” Let’s look at the definition of the word. A risky undertaking. A systematic purposeful activity. Daring or difficult action. It is ACTIVE by definition, not passive. This is not “going deeper into the faith.” This is not steeling oneself for the martyrdom that is coming (though maybe not for you, maybe later, for your children (whew!)). Those are interior and/or passive. Conservative Christianity has trapped itself in decline.
I guess I do kind of believe that Ideas Have Consequences. The Idea here that holding Right Beliefs means automatic Eventual Victory has the consequence of producing men without chests. There is a direct line here.
I don’t always agree with what Matt in VA says, but when he’s right, damn, he’s right.
My 14-year-old son asked me last week about why I was so tense and distracted. He knew it had to do with this church story. I told him what I was working on, and said to him that I’m sorry I’m preoccupied, but this stuff is really important. I told him about the abuse scandal, and in particular about how hard it was to listen to Stan Schulte talk about what his abuser — a priest — had done to him. The lesson I want you to take, I said to my son, is that as a man and as a Christian, you must always and everywhere stand up for the weak, and for what is right and holy. It is your duty.
I was startled that he had noticed a change in me. I try to keep my work separate from family life. But it turned out to be a teaching moment. Our children are watching us, and learning from us. We are stewards of the church, and of the world they will inherit. If the faith matters to us, then by God, they’ve got to see us defending it.
UPDATE: I was wondering what Michael Brendan Dougherty was going to have to say about this, and let’s just stipulate that it’s a beating — and it follows the theme of this post. Excerpts:
If the events outlined in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report had happened among Pakistani immigrants, rather than the Catholic clergy, the perpetrators would called a grooming gang. If we treated the Catholic Church the same way as the British public treated the grooming gangs of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, we would be asking tough questions about the culture that produces abuse on this scale. We would ask questions about what twisted form of political correctness dissuaded law enforcement from identifying and confronting the criminal network until now. We might be debating our immigration policy, and possibly shutting down our embassies in the countries from which this gang receives support and reinforcements.
In fact, much of that would be the correct response. The Vatican has previously tried investigating and reporting on America’s Catholic seminaries, offering recommendations on how to fix them. The recommendations were not only weak, but mostly ignored. Not a single American bishop has emerged from reviewing the records in his chancery offices and apologized before the cops, the courts, and the news media arrived to ask about the revelations. Not a single bishop has publicly demanded that one of his brother bishops resign after being exposed for playing games with the statute of limitations. They knew about the powerful cardinal who preyed upon seminarians, they know about the decadent culture of the seminaries where priests are trained. And they tell themselves there is nothing they could really have done about it.
Other state attorneys general should do investigations like Pennsylvania’s. As a Catholic, I’m tired of waiting for the next red slipper to drop. If the Church cannot govern itself from within, then it will be governed from without. That’s not a policy, but the iron law of history.
“We are deeply saddened,” they say. Spare us this fake public-relations drivel. We don’t need your sadness, we don’t need new policies. We need better men.