Philip Jenkins writes at RealClearReligion about “the church boom that never happened.” Taking us back twenty years, to 1992 (the first time charges against a Catholic priest received heavy national media attention), he reflects on the strangeness of everything that has unfolded since, and attempts to chart out what was lost:
If the abuse crisis had never happened, American cities would probably be in the middle of a church building boom much like that of a century ago, with all that implied for construction, investment, and social capital. Scholar Anthea Butler observes that the Catholic meltdown has neatly coincided with the economic collapse of many big city Pentecostal churches, which had suffered from unwise investments or outright fraud, aggravated by the 2007-2008 economic crash. Combining the two crises has left America’s already troubled urban heartlands far weaker than they might otherwise have been.
Politically too, the crisis has eviscerated what had long been one of the America’s most powerful institutions. Now, the Catholic Church of the 1980s was nothing like as potent a force as it had been in the age of Cardinal Spellman, when it could count on the solid electoral support of most of its faithful, and it already faced major revolts over issues of gender and sexuality. During the crisis years, though, the bishops have constantly found themselves on the defensive whenever they venture into politics.
Of course, this falls into the category of historical counterfactual, and because it’s history (and not an abstract logic game) there’s no way to verify whether his prediction *would have* been correct or fantastical had his conditionals been met. His optimism about an inner-city church-building boom does seem almost far-fetched, but perhaps incredulity towards that simply underscores his point about how much the American Catholic imagination has been circumscribed since the early 1990s.
Jenkins is certainly right to remind us that the abuse crisis is not a minor bump on the road. It deeply wounded the Church, both publicly and internally, and shifted the foundations of our engagement with the culture in ways still not fully understood. It imposed, as Fr. Neuhaus termed it, a “long Lent.” Even if history hadn’t played out quite as Jenkins predicts, it’s worth pondering not only what the crisis cost in terms of holiness, reputation, or dollars, but also (and this is impossible to quantify) in terms of how much potential good was suffocated and refused.