I have read and heard both optimistic and pessimistic predictions about the Church’s future. Some are confident that this will be a time of purification in the Church. Others are not so confident. In light of the current scandal, we may ask: Is the Church a glass half-full or half-empty? Will various meetings of bishops, which have taken place already or which will take place, make any difference? What about the many other efforts being made by lay people and clerics—petitions, prayer and fasting, etc.?
Before we can answer whether the Church’s glass is half-full or half-empty, we need to identify exactly what we consider scandalous. If we have been outraged or saddened since news broke – and continues to break – about the sexual proclivities of Theodore McCarrick, we must ask what has outraged or saddened us? What consensus is there within the Church on the nature of the scandal (or crisis or corruption)? In point of fact, there is both a personal and a sociological dimension to the scandal.
More importantly, there is also, then, an ontological dimension to the scandal. What exactly is the nature of the scandal that needs to be remedied? What reform needs to result from the many methods and processes being proposed? For example, if we are to pray and fast, for what should we pray and fast? What does God want the result to be?
Tying these last two paragraphs together, we may ask whether our outrage or sadness is in harmony with the objective nature of the scandal. Is what outrages or saddens us the same as what God wants us to be outraged or saddened by? And, then, is the reform we want in harmony with God’s will?
The Levels of Scandal
One excellent resource for understanding the complications of the scandal is the daily edition of the “Sex Scandal and Cover-Up” feature of the Catholic website, Big Pulpit. What follows is my list of the various levels of the scandal in order to help you think all this through. I start with the level on which there is most agreement and continue to where there is least agreement. Is there a level at which you stop agreeing?
- The Church has a scandal of pedophilia, the sexual abuse of pre-pubescent children, the great majority of whom are male. For this level and the following levels, the scandal includes its subsequent cover-up by bishops, including possibly the Bishop of Rome.
- The Church has a scandal of ephebophilia, the sexual abuse of post-pubescent minors (adolescents), the great majority of whom are male.
- The Church has a scandal of the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults, those seminarians and priests who did not want to be molested by those in authority over them, such as the seminarians molested by McCarrick, but were worried about resisting.
- The Church has a scandal of clergy who are sexually active with consenting adults. According to Father Thomas Berg, “Most of us [priests] would venture that the majority of sexually active clergy participate in networks of gay priests, networks that maintain a code of silence out of mutual fear of being discovered.” Because these promiscuous priests do not want their activity known, they are reluctant to speak out against the above abuses even when they do not commit them. “We can’t prevent the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults by clergy while habitual and widespread failures in celibacy are left unchecked.”
- The Church has a scandal of clergy who want to contradict (not merely “develop”) the Catholic doctrine that there are only two purposes of sexual activity: (1) a love which is a total commitment to the objective good of the other above one’s own good and (2) openness to procreation. I suggest that just as we cannot prevent abuse by clergy while clerical promiscuity is left unchecked, we cannot prevent abuse and promiscuity while habitual and widespread dissent from doctrine—sexual doctrine and all other doctrine—is left unchecked.
Personally, I think the scandal has occurred at all five levels, and I am open to the possibility that the current Bishop of Rome has covered up the scandal on all five of these levels. Therefore, reform is needed on all five levels: children should not be abused, adolescents should not be abused, vulnerable adults should not be abused, priests and bishops should not be sexually active, and no priest or bishop should be contradicting any Catholic doctrine. Abuse should never be covered up, no matter how high up in the hierarchy the abuser may be. All of this is what we should be praying for, fasting for, respectfully urging the hierarchy to address.
A Suggested Letter to Each Bishop
In light of the above, I suggest the following letter needs to be written by faithful Catholics to their respective bishops:
Dear Bishop (or Superior of a Religious Order),
Please publicly affirm that all Catholic doctrine is objectively true. Please require that every priest and every lay leader of every Catholic institution in your diocese (or religious congregation) do so on the same day as you.
Please make this public affirmation an annual event.
Please regularly encourage all Catholics to bring to the attention of any leader of a Catholic institution (parish, school, hospital, charity, etc.) those instances when there is within his or her institutions infidelity to any Catholic doctrine, including but not limited to sexual doctrine, which undermines the institution’s witness that all Catholic doctrine is objectively true.
Please regularly encourage all Catholics to bring to your attention any leader who has not addressed such infidelity.
I will financially support only those institutions which publicly affirm that all Catholic doctrine is objectively true.
God bless you as you fulfill your responsibilities as a Successor of the Apostles,
A Possible Scenario
The brilliant Catholic thinker and writer, G. K. Chesterton, advised us to be neither optimists nor pessimists about the world (in Chapter V, “The Flag of the World,” of Orthodoxy). He was scathing toward both optimism and pessimism as a response to secular things. We should also apply Chesterton’s advice to the Church. Back to the proverbial glass. I think Chesterton would agree that the Church is a glass neither half full nor half empty, but both half full and half empty.
The Holy Spirit is always present in the Church, and conversion is always possible, which gives room for optimism. Yet all members of the Church—including the pope—are fallen human beings who can become entrenched in their sinful convictions and behaviors, which gives room for pessimism. Popes and the college of bishops are infallible only within limited parameters, and infallibility does not free them from sin. The conclaves that elect popes are not infallible.
Where do the odds lie? If I had to bet, here is what I think will happen. We will essentially have a replay of what happened in the U.S. in 2002. The pope and many bishops will frame the Church’s scandal as child abuse (without admitting ephebophilia) and, this time, the abuse of vulnerable adults; they will bemoan and apologize for the abuse; and the U.S. bishops will admit that they should not have exempted themselves from the procedures they put in place against abuse in 2002. So this time around we will also get apologies for “clericalism”. I doubt they will apologize for the billions of dollars paid in settlements to victims. And that is it.
The pope and many bishops and priests will hope that this is enough so that they will not have to address the issue of sexual activity among the clergy and the efforts to contradict Catholic doctrine. They do not want to address these last two issues because they think their image will suffer even more (hoping that many Catholics do not know or do not want to know about these last two issues) or because they themselves are promiscuous and/or want to contradict Catholic doctrine. Jonathan Last gives much food for thought in his “The Catholic Church Is Breaking Apart: Here’s Why.” (See also Anthony Esolen’s excellent column on what happens when a priest becomes an atheist).
Money will talk. Reform on all five levels of the scandal would happen quickly if the financial spigots were turned off. But they will not be turned off as much as they need to be. There are enough heterodox Catholics who—while being against the abuse of children, adolescents, and vulnerable adults and against the cover-up of these kinds of abuses—will financially support bishops and priests who ignore clerical promiscuity (as long as it is between consenting adults!) and who contradict Catholic doctrine. Many Catholics have, in effect, become liberal Episcopalians. Let’s face it: there are enough heterodox financial supporters who themselves believe the norm for sex is consent between adults, not committed love and openness to procreation. The same social contract about sex that is prevalent outside the Church is prevalent inside the Church: namely, “I will not judge your sexual activity as long as it is consensual if you will not judge my sexual activity as long as it is consensual.”
A Bifurcated Church
The Church will continue on the two tracks it has been on since Vatican II, and especially since Humanae Vitae: (1) orthodoxy, with Catholics who try to be faithful to all doctrine in spite of their own failings, and (2) heterodoxy, with Catholics who pick and choose which doctrines they believe, often as relativists (“Who’s to judge?”), or who simply like to socialize in Catholic circles, especially with other heterodox Catholics. Orthodox Catholics will continue to look to orthodox priests and bishops. God bless these heroes! Heterodox Catholics will continue to look to heterodox priests and bishops: “Isn’t James Martin wonderful?!” they will gush. There will be many bishops and religious superiors, even some who are personally orthodox, who simply want to keep their institutions solvent and have learned to operate in a way that encourages both their orthodox and their heterodox constituents.
Things might change in 30 years or so, after those of us who are over 60 have gone to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell. There are enough over-60 heterodox Catholics now who like a heterodox priest or bishop to assure them that God does not care what they and their offspring believe or do and then financially reward him for doing so. The growing number of heterodox children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren do not need such assurances. They have gotten the message loud and clear that they are fine just as they are. They do not need a priest or bishop to tell them so. They do not even need God to tell them so. This growing number only feels guilty about not feeling good, not feeling good about themselves, and not being “socially just” in way that allows them to be personally narcissistic.
Will those now under 60 continue to fund heterodox institutions after we are gone? Heterodox colleges and high schools, with their advancement offices and alumni associations, have a better chance of surviving than parishes and grade schools do. The real goal of the heterodox Alma Mater is to have contributing alums, not practicing Catholics; to be a cult, not the Church. But that will be an issue for the next generation of bishops and religious superiors. The current generation will have gone to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell by then.
Let us pray for a better scenario. Let us pray for a re-birth of orthodoxy. Yet without it, the fullness of the means of salvation will always subsist in the Catholic Church. Even with it, spiritual combat will not end until the Second Coming of Our Lord, in which lies our real hope.