Don’t be fooled by the parentheses. “Continued” is the operative word. As in going on and on. I have said it before: we have probably not yet felt the full fury of the storm aroused by the grave misgovernment of the Catholic Church in America. I do not want to write about this, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do not want to read about it. Since all this broke in January, I have given no less than thirty hours per week to the subject, talking with endless reporters, and doing radio interviews. (I’ve been turning down as many as half a dozen television interviews per day, because they take so much time in traveling to studios, and mainly because most of them provide an opportunity for no more than a few sound bites and a food fight.) Please, I’m not whining. It is just to say I’m weary of the subject, but recognize the probability that it will not let us go.
For weeks now, the media have been in a feeding frenzy. I do not say that in criticism of the media. Let it be stated unambiguously: the leaders of the Catholic Church, meaning mainly the bishops, are responsible for the crisis and for the consequent frenzy. Of course some reporting is sensationalistic, and of course it is amusing to see the New York Times, day after day, running essentially the same story on the front page, as though they’re afraid people are going to forget about it. But, regrettably, there are also new developments, and no doubt will be more, that legitimate the major attention paid.
There is this difference: for the first time in years, I have the impression that most journalists are really trying to understand what is happening, or at least to find a story line that makes sense of what is happening. In other words, the story doesn’t conveniently fall into the conventional left/right, liberal/conservative boxes on which reporters usually depend. Recall that the story started out as a “pedophilia” scandal. The story has rightly moved beyond that now. The scandal is only very marginally about pedophilia. With very few exceptions, it is about adult men having sexual relations with adolescent and older teenage boys. So everybody has by now heard a great deal about “ephebophilia.” It is not necessary, however, that we learn a new vocabulary. There’s a perfectly good old fashioned word for same-sex sex. Homosexuality is very close to the center of the crisis. At the epicenter is the grave negligence of bishops. Not all bishops, to be sure, but too many. And, as in the case of Palm Beach, Florida, not only grave negligence but active complicity. Two months ago a lawyer and friend of the Church told me that before this is over we will see a bishop or two in jail. I thought that hyperbolic. Now I am not so sure.
It is not the greatest crisis for the Church since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, as one columnist has written. And it may not even be the greatest crisis the Church has experienced in America. Remember, for one instance, the nineteenth-century controversy over lay control. At stake was whether Catholicism in America would be governed by the traditional hierarchy or adopt a more “democratic” polity along the lines of Protestant denominationalism. For another instance, the massive, mainly Irish, immigration of an earlier time, joined to the virulent anti-Catholic bigotry of the Protestant majority, posed a crisis that went on for decades. Then there was the “Americanist” crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century when, in the view of many, Rome’s hostility to key ideas and institutions of the American experiment forced Catholicism into a countercultural ghetto. Today’s relentless immediacy of a media culture requires and induces historical amnesia. In its American experience, never mind the many previous centuries, the Church has hit rough spots much rougher than this. But, once again, this is a crisis.
The Rallying of the Faithful
The crisis is not that millions of Catholics are going to abandon the Church. The papers are full of reports about alienated, devastated, and angry Catholics, and many of them are disappointed and angry with good reason. But they are not leaving, and are not about to leave, the Church. One national poll found that three percent of Catholics interviewed were “reconsidering their relationship to the Church” because of the scandals. That’s less than the margin of error in survey research. I would not be surprised if at least three percent of Catholics are at any given time reconsidering their relationship to the Church, for one reason or another. In the current circumstance, it seems that the more general reality is that Catholics are rallying to the defense of the Church, or at least to the defense of their own parishes and priests. Mass attendance is up, offerings are up, words of encouragement and support are the order of the day. That is the case in my parish and, having talked with people all over the country, it seems to be the general picture. There are exceptions, of course. An acquaintance who is a convert from the Episcopal Church says he is thinking about reverting. At least there, says he, you can take your vice without the scandal. I don’t know whether he’s serious about that.
“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” or so the saying has it. I have traditionalist friends, priests and lay people, who are unhappy with that. They say there are not sixty-five million Catholics in the U.S., but, at the most, only twenty million or so real Catholics. In their view it would be good riddance if the majority of impostors packed up and took themselves elsewhere. I don’t think so. Other traditionalists say they themselves are sometimes tempted to leave but they are “going to stay and fight.” As though there is somewhere else to go. Such ways of thinking and speaking strike me as profoundly untraditional. Dare I say profoundly Protestant? To such traditionalist friends, I say, I was a Protestant and did not become a Catholic in order to be a Protestant. Catholics speak of the Church as our Holy Mother. A holy and loving mother does not disown her miscreant children. And she remains our holy and loving mother, even when those to whom she entrusts leadership turn out to be unholy or misguided in their understanding of the duties of love.
But, as I say, the evidence is that the Catholic faithful are rallying. Their allegiance to the Church, or at least to their parish church where Mass is said, is deeply heartening. It is, after all, the Mass—which is to say Christ in the Real Presence—that has always held the Church together. At the same time, there is a troubling aspect to this demonstration of loyalty. It may lead some priests, and especially some bishops, to the conclusion that we’re simply going to ride out the storm. “This, too, will pass.” Of course, this will pass, and the Church will ride out this storm and all the storms to come until Our Lord returns in glory. We have his promise on that. If the gates of hell will not prevail, no number of abusive priests or negligent bishops will prevail.
That is ultimately important but it is not the immediate point. The point is that this is a crisis, and this crisis must be permitted to do its work. That work involves scrupulous self-examination, candid confession, firm contrition, and believable amendment of life. And the doing of that hard work is chiefly up to the bishops. They are the ones who got us into this mess and, given what we believe is the divinely constituted structure of the Church, they are the ones who have to lead in getting us out. Faithful Catholics owe it to the Church and owe it to their bishops not to let them off the hook. In this instance, the virtue of docility includes a respect for bishops that requires recalling them to the duty and the dignity to which they were ordained. Too many of them have neglected that duty and debased that dignity.
One little-remarked dimension of the troubles is that they represent a severe setback for those who have argued that the Church in America should have more authority to govern itself in greater independence from Rome. The claim that the U.S. bishops have demonstrated their capacity for self-government may strike many as a sick joke. Perhaps the June meeting of bishops will restore a measure of credibility to the U.S. conference. But the national conference is not the issue, nor should it be, except to the degree that it can encourage or pressure bishops to do their job. It is, after all, the bishop in the place who is the pastor of the local church, meaning the diocese.
The Nerve to Govern
As I write, the Pope has taken the extraordinary step of summoning the American cardinals for consultation. This comes only days after his meeting with representatives of the bishops conference who said the Pope was leaving it up to them to deal with the problems. Apparently they misunderstood him, or he was subsequently given reason to change his mind. The bishops have said that their June meeting will produce yet another set of “guidelines” for dealing with sex abuse. The summoning of the cardinals suggests that the Pope expects a great deal more than that in response to the crisis. (See postscript below.)
There is general agreement that the bishops of today are a more solid lot than was the case, say, twenty years ago. Yet, at least on the national scene, there are few who have demonstrated real leadership in the present crisis. And some to whom people might have looked for leadership, such as Cardinal Law of Boston, have turned out to be more part of the problem than of the solution. Resisting and protesting every inch of the way, I have been dragged by the accumulating evidence to the conclusion that I cannot wholeheartedly defend his decision to stay on. A friend of his and of mine says he is just waiting for a moment in which he can exit with more public grace. His friends should not leave it to his enemies to point out that the disgrace already incurred may well preclude that option.
Today’s newspaper brings another report, this one about a seminary in the Southwest where the influence of the “lavender mafia” and the consequent and predictable scandals are coming to light. “I have no control over the seminary,” the bishop is reported as saying. That is simply false, and represents a grave dereliction of duty. Canonically and pastorally, he does have control of the seminary. It is in his diocese. What he should have said is that he does not have the nerve to exercise the control that was entrusted to him by the Church, and that he accepted by solemn vows before God and man. At the epicenter of the continuing crisis is the simple, however difficult, virtue of fidelity. What is this crisis about? The answer is that this crisis is about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. The fidelity of bishops and priests to the teaching of the Church and to their solemn vows; the fidelity of bishops in exercising oversight in ensuring obedience to that teaching and to those vows; and the fidelity of the lay faithful in holding bishops and priests accountable.
I have been told that the proposition is “controversial,” but I suggest it is almost embarrassingly self-evident: if bishops and priests had been faithful to the teaching of the Church and their sacred vows, there would be no scandal. Those who would confuse the subject reflexively reach for complexity. No, I am sorry, it is as simple as that. We are reaping the whirlwind of widespread infidelity. If you ask why infidelity became so widespread, the answers do become more complex. Although I expect they all come back to the haunting question of Jesus in Luke 18: “When the Son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
Celibacy Not the Issue
Contrary to much current discussion, the problem is not the rule that priests must be celibate. When there is a rise in the incidence of burglary, do we say it throws into question laws against burglary? When husbands and wives commit adultery, do we say the problem is the virtue of marital faithfulness? Of course not. And if, as now almost everyone recognizes, the scandals are inextricably tied to homosexuality in the priesthood, nobody is suggesting that the remedy is to allow homosexual priests to marry. (Except, of course, for those who advocate same-sex “marriage.”) The problem is fidelity, or, more precisely, infidelity. Every priestvoluntarily and with ample opportunity for careful thought beforehand—took a solemn oath to live, by the grace of God, in uncompromised chastity and celibacy. The sadness is that some of them, homosexual and heterosexual, did not really mean it. Because at seminary they were taught, explicitly or by example, that they were not expected to really mean it. Because bishops turned a blind eye to what seminarians were being taught; or, even worse, bishops by their own example indicated that sacred vows do not really mean what they really say, and what the Church says they mean.
But the issue is not celibacy. It is correctly observed that the discipline of celibacy is precisely that, a discipline and not a doctrine. It could be changed. I do not think it should be, but that is for the Magisterium to deliberate and decide. It is frequently being said now that the celibacy rule is a late-medieval imposition aimed at protecting the Church’s property from nepotism. That is not true. The celibacy rule is grounded in the words and example of Jesus, Paul, and the earliest apostolic churches. At Nicea in 325 the West wanted it to be firmly adopted by all the churches, but the Eastern churches—in which to this day only the bishops are required to be celibate—defeated that move. In 386 Pope Siricius reinforced the rule of celibacy, a measure reaffirmed by Innocent I (d. 417) and Leo the Great (d. 461). The fact that it had to be repeatedly reinforced suggests that there has always been a problem with its observance. As there is today, much more so than in this country, in Latin America and Africa. Perhaps in the next pontificate or in the one after that, the rule will be reconsidered. I believe it would be a great loss were it rescinded. To explain why I believe that would require another essay. Suffice it to say that it would be disastrous for the rule to be changed, or even formally reconsidered, under the public pressure of the present scandals.
The celibacy rule is so offensive to many of today’s commentators, Catholic and otherwise, because it so frontally challenges the culturally entrenched dogma that human fulfillment and authenticity are impossible without sexual intercourse of one kind or another. Among the many oddities of the present circumstance is that a new twist is being given to the old maxim, Hate the sin but love the sinner. It is commonly said that the maxim has been discredited. It is not explained why or by whom it has been discredited. Hating the sin but loving the sinner—it seems to me, as it has seemed to innumerable worthies through the centuries—gets it just right. There is reason to believe that the maxim is said to be discredited by people who love the sin. Great public indignation is expressed at priests who violate their vow of celibacy. It is frequently the same people who say that celibacy is unnatural and oppressive. In effect, the maxim is now, Love the sin but hate the sinner. Love the fact that people give sexual expression to “who they really are”—whether heterosexual or homosexual—but hate these men for belonging to an institution that teaches that sexual expression is not necessary to being who you really are. In this view, it is intolerable that the largest and most influential moral authority in the world persists in rejecting the sexual expression of the cultural commandment to “follow your bliss.”
I asked an assistant to check out what the gay papers and websites have been saying about the scandals. (NB: In this context, “homosexual” means someone with dominantly same-sex desires, while “gay” refers to a person whose self-identity is determined by such desires.) After one day, he couldn’t stomach any more of the pornography that is endemic to that subculture, but he came up with a sizable portfolio of reporting and editorial comments. For the most part, it would seem that “the gay community,” as it regularly calls itself, is keeping a careful distance from the criminal aspects of the scandals, repeatedly insisting that it does not endorse man-boy sexual relations. At the same time, there are expressions of sympathy for priests who are acting out their homosexual desires and accounts of gays who claim to have had affairs with priests. One young Jesuit describes in detail how grateful he is to his superiors for helping him to understand, affirm, and give expression to his sexual needs. In the gay community, it would seem, the maxim is: love the sin and love the sinner, but hate anyone who calls it a sin or him a sinner.
A Counterintuitive Claim
It is true, as some readers have noted, that we have in these pages tried to maintain a certain distance from the question of homosexuality in the priesthood. Publications such as the National Catholic Reporter, on the left, and Catholic World Report and the Wanderer, on the right, have over the years given the question more attention. We countered Father Donald Cozzens’ The Changing Face of the Priesthood, which offered an alarming (alarmist?) picture of the homosexualization of the priesthood, with Msgr. Earl Boyea’s “Another Face of the Priesthood” (FT, February 2001), which attempted to put Cozzens’ claims into perspective. We had Avery Cardinal Dulles review the McDonough-Bianchi study of the Jesuits, Passionate Uncertainty (FT, April), and he did so in his usual balanced manner, correcting some of its more exaggerated claims.
Now there is Michael Rose’s forthcoming book, Goodbye, Good Men, which I have had a chance to read. It is a depressingly detailed account in support of the thesis that the so-called crisis in priestly vocations is “artificial and contrived.” Diocesan vocation directors and “formation teams” in the seminaries systematically weed out the “good men” who do not jump through the hoops of psychological testing. They are deemed to be “rigid” or “inflexible” if, for example, they agree with the Church that it is not possible to ordain women, or if they are not “comfortable” with homosexuals in the priesthood and are therefore suspected of the sin of “homophobia.” A subtheme of the Rose book is that some bishops actually want to intensify the vocations crisis in order to promote the abandonment of the celibacy rule and the ordination of women. A large part of the book is based on interviews with manly men who were repelled by seminaries dominated by the “lavender mafia.” Rose names names, and I have checked with people familiar with some of the incidents he recounts. It seems that his reports are generally reliable, but, even if the situation in vocation offices and seminaries is only half as bad as he suggests, it is very bad indeed.
Rose duly notes that in some dioceses vocations are flourishing: Denver, Colorado; Arlington, Virginia; Lincoln, Nebraska; Peoria, Illinois; and Rockford, Illinois, are among the outstanding examples. Without exception, they are dioceses with bishops noted for their orthodoxy. Which brings us back to fidelity. It is simply counterintuitive to claim, as many do, that there is no connection between dissent from the Church’s teaching on doctrine and dissent from teaching on morality. The Church teaches authoritatively on “faith and morals,” and the two are inseparable. For a long time, most blatantly in the organized opposition to the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, systematic dissent was inculcated, also in the seminaries. In 1972, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) established a commission whose findings were published in a 1979 book from Doubleday, Human Sexuality. The seeds of everything that has come to light in recent months are to be found there.
Human Sexuality was “received” by the CTSA, which also “arranged” for its publication “as a service to the membership of the Society and a wider public of interested persons.” The book is thoroughly revisionist from A to Z, flying in the face of the Church’s teaching on contraception, celibacy, chastity, homosexuality, and even—albeit more delicately—on bestiality. Had the CTSA formally approved the study, it would have created a frontal confrontation with the Magisterium. But the book has been widely used in seminaries. Seminarians and priests of the time who had a woman or a male lover on the side could, and did, cite Human Sexuality to reasonably claim that a very large part, if not the majority, of the academic theological establishment countenanced their behavior. The CTSA report left no doubt that it represented the avant garde, that the Church’s teaching would eventually catch up with “the latest research,” and that, while waiting for the Church to catch up, priests should exercise discretion in deviating from the present and woefully benighted official teaching. Thus did academic and theological dissent promiscuously issue permission slips for an era of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, the consequences of which are now on scandalous public display.
Many of the bishops did not and do not have the intellectual self-confidence to challenge the academic theological establishment. A few hardly bother to disguise the fact that they agree with the positions espoused by, for instance, Human Sexuality. One bishop, in his self-serving statement of resignation after an unsavory incident with a teenage boy was revealed, went so far as to suggest that his problem was that he was a particularly caring and intelligent person who was attuned to the latest thinking about matters sexual. Most of the publications cited above that have been paying major attention to what is called the homosexualization of the priesthood allow that, at least in diocesan seminaries, the situation has been much improved in the last ten or fifteen years. As has been frequently noted, almost all the current scandals are from twenty or thirty years ago. We should not be surprised, however, if the relentless probings that are now inevitable turn up more recent incidents.
In all this, relatively little attention has been paid the religious orders where, according to some accounts, deviations from the Church’s moral teachings are more common than among diocesan clergy. One reason less attention has been paid is that the orders have their own chain of command and, as one bishop remarked, “The media are out for the blood of bishops.” In fact, orders operating within a diocese are accountable to the bishop, but not so directly. An obvious exception in terms of public attention is the Society of Jesus, Jesuits still having a certain panache. (Catholic lay people of a certain age announce with some pride that they are “Jesuit educated.” That claim is becoming less common and will possibly disappear in another generation.) Cardinal Dulles has written here that, despite the “gaying and graying” of the society, Jesuits have been through hard times before and the charism of Ignatius of Loyola will rebound in the future. We must pray he is right. The aforementioned Passionate Uncertainty and other reports suggest that the corruption is far advanced. Everybody has their own stories. A young scholastic tells me that he and others were hit on by superiors and decided to lodge a complaint with higher-ups in the society, only to discover that “the higher up we went, the deeper in we were to the lavender regime.” Nonetheless, there are still a few virile young men entering the society, determined to revive the Ignatian charism in all its integrity, and one must pray them well.
In 1979, a high-ranking prelate in the Roman curia asked Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, then Archbishop of Boston, about reports of widespread homosexuality among clergy and seminarians. The inquiry was sparked by tapes on homosexuality produced by Fr. Paul R. Shanley that had come to the prelate’s attention. Shanley, it may be remembered, is the flagrantly gay priest who, among other things, publicly supported the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The fact that, under Cardinal Law, he was shifted from parish to parish and finally fobbed off on other dioceses was, for many loyal supporters of Law, the final straw. In a confidential document now made public under court order, Medeiros responded to the Vatican inquiry: “The danger in the seminaries, your Eminence, is obvious . . . . Where large numbers of homosexuals are present in a seminary, other homosexuals are quickly attracted. Other healthier young men tend to be repelled.” “Since our seminaries reflect the local American culture,” he continued, “the problem of homosexuality has surfaced there in a manner which is widespread and quite deep.” He was confident, however, that the problem had been remedied. “We have a seminary which has now—within a five-year period—become almost fully transformed into a community of healthy, well-balanced young men. Our numbers are much smaller but now we will attract more young men who will be the right kind of candidate.” People who know the Boston seminary very well tell me that Medeiros’ confidence, with very few exceptions, was warranted.
One reason the media began searching for a new story line once the issue moved from pedophilia to homosexuality is, of course, the fear of being accused of homophobia. There was quite a ruckus in March when Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, opined that homosexuals “just cannot be ordained.” He went so far as to suggest, but did not develop the idea, that homosexuals who had been ordained were not validly ordained, homosexuality being an “impediment” to ordination in the same way that there may be impediments to a valid sacramental marriage. This gets into sticky territory, given confused and conflicting notions about sexual orientation. (See above on the distinction between “homosexual” and “gay.”) It seems more than likely that, in centuries past, some priests who have been canonized as saints would meet today’s criteria as having a “homosexual orientation.” The issue was not then, and should not be today, the nature of the temptations resisted but the fidelity of the resistance.
The Triumph of the Therapeutic
You have undoubtedly read in the press that the rule for homosexual priests is like the presumably discredited rule in the military, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” In fact, quite the opposite is the case today, and has been for some time. Seminarians are incessantly asked, and encouraged to incessantly tell, about every quirk and wrinkle in their sexual make-up and imagination. This is “the triumph of the therapeutic” that Philip Rieff wrote about in his classic 1965 book of that title. It is most particularly depressing to hear bishops offer assurances, in response to the present scandals, that they are going to add more psychological testing to the process of forming priests. Psychological testings and probings are, one may suggest, at least as much a part of the problem as of the solution.
The same bishops, more understandably, offer assurances about prompt reporting of criminal abuse to civil authorities. In such preoccupation with the psychological and legal, what risks getting lost is the commonsensical and the moral. Psychobabble and legalities aside, bishops have the job of seeing to it (episcopos = oversight) that their priests teach and live in fidelity to the truth about faith and morals expounded by the Catholic Church. In respectfully holding their bishops to account, the Catholic faithful should cut through all the chatter about more psychological testing, updated bureaucratic procedures, and new guidelines for reporting, and ask the simple question, Have you been doing your job? The three-fold job to which bishops are ordained is to “teach, sanctify, and govern.” It is obvious that some bishops have failed to teach and govern, with dire consequences also for sanctification. Had they been doing their job, we would not now be inundated by scandal. If one asks why they did not do their job, the answers are no doubt various, ranging from indolence, naiveté, willful ignorance, doctrinal dissent, and cowardice to active complicity in evil and the fear of blackmail. Some of the answers may be excusable, all are forgivable, but none is edifying.
What the bishops do in their June meeting will not be very credible if they do not forthrightly address the question of homosexuality and its obvious connection with the sexual abuse of adolescent and older teenage boys. This necessarily involves a thorough reform of what Michael Rose calls the “Gatekeeper Phenomenon.” The gatekeepers are the clerical and lay staff of the diocese or religious order who control the various stages of formation on the way to the priesthood, beginning with the admission of candidates to the seminary. They typically include vocations directors, psychologists, nuns and former nuns, seminary rectors, and what are called “formation teams.” The would-be priest runs a gauntlet that, the accumulating evidence indicates, all too often screens out healthy heterosexual men who are religiously orthodox, traditional in their piety, and resistant to manipulative therapeutic techniques that only thinly disguise an ideology of dissent.
As one seminary rector says, “For those men who are exclusively heterosexual in orientation and devoutly orthodox in faith, the difficulty in becoming a priest at the present time must be faced in an objective and dispassionate manner.” Such men who want to make it through the therapeutic gauntlet must keep their cool, resist any temptation to criticize the system, and, above all, learn how to achieve the psychobabble goal of “transparency” while being anything but transparent about who they are and what they really believe. Unwelcome theological convictions must be hidden, along with unfashionable devotional practices. The seminarian who takes the bait and strikes back at the therapeutic regime will likely be sent for special psychological counseling, which provides the formation team with additional material for a recommendation that he be rejected for ordination. To be sure, this oppressive regime does not obtain in all seminaries, but the evidence suggests that it is widespread, and was even more common ten and twenty years ago, thus lending support to the claim that the crisis in priestly vocations is, in large part, “artificial and contrived.”
It should be said that not all that is submitted as evidence is convincing. Michael Rose, for instance, interviews 125 seminarians or former seminarians from fifty dioceses, and the cumulative effect is devastating. At the same time, I cannot help but suspect that some of the rejected whom he interviewed really are rigid and refractory in ways only marginally related to orthodoxy or traditional piety, and would likely not have made good priests. Yet Rose’s account, supported by many others, generally rings true. A friend who is now a happy family man and distinguished academic tells how, when he was a young man, he discerned that he had a vocation to the priesthood. He joined a religious order and, along with other novices, was sent on retreat. As the novices got off the bus, they were joyfully greeted by older members of the order who gathered around giddily discussing which of the novices was the cutest. He soon packed up and left. That was more than twenty years ago.
Losing Our Native Language
Not very long ago, anyone relating such incidents might have been accused of telling tales out of school. Now the tales are on the front page of every newspaper, and the corruption they reflect must be candidly addressed. Consider again the notorious Fr. Paul Shanley of Boston. In addition to his other activities, he and a gay priest friend owned and operated tourist resorts in California that catered to the gay subculture, including sex at poolside. What would have happened if, even a year ago, Cardinal Law had confronted them and other blatantly gay priests with the alternative of living in obedience to their vows or leaving the priesthood? We can be sure that a powerful protest would have been launched, strongly supported by, among others, the Boston Globe, against the Cardinal’s campaign of “homophobic repression.” It would have taken great courage on the Cardinal’s part.
Catholics tell the story of a ten-year-old attending the ordination of a bishop with his father. There comes the point in the ceremony where the opened book of the Gospels is held above the head of the bishop. “What are they doing?” the boy whispers to his father. “Shh,” the father responds, “I think this is when they remove the backbone.” It’s an old story and is not entirely respectful, of course, but the fact that it is told is reflective of a Catholic sensibility that is not devoid of a certain whimsy about the Church’s leadership.
In another diocese, priests and nuns are involved in a very public “ministry” to gays and lesbians. They make no secret of the fact that their aim is to help people “affirm” and “celebrate,” as they do, a way of life that the Church teaches is gravely sinful. The bishop told them he will not interfere or pry, but if they occasion public scandal, he will show no mercy. The sobering implication is that, for this bishop, grave sin and clerical defiance of the Church’s teaching are not as grave a cause for concern as the prospect of legal, financial, and public relations liability. As anyone attentive to the news now knows, this bishop is by no means alone. The dismal reality is that the Church’s native language of sin and grace, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, is in danger of being displaced by the vocabulary of psychology, law, and public relations. What profit is it to a bishop if he masters the arts of damage control but is no longer a bishop? One must resist the perhaps cynical answer that he may be made an archbishop.
We are now at the point where public prosecutors are in a position to give or withhold from Catholic bishops a clean bill of moral health. Morally approved bishops cooperate fully with the state’s oversight of their oversight. Having squandered their moral authority to judge right and wrong, and having abandoned the Church’s native language of sin and grace, bishops appeal for exoneration to the legal and therapeutic. “I followed the advice of the experts.” The telling subtitle of Philip Rieff’s classic text The Triumph of the Therapeutic is Uses of Faith After Freud. Rieff argued that Freud, like most modern thinkers, assumed that human nature is a “jostling democracy of contending predispositions” arranged in no fixed hierarchy. He wrote that psychological maturity is not achieved by writing oneself permission slips to unleash instinctual desires. Maturity is won by the trained capacity to negotiate the conflicting discourses between cultural norms and instinct. Post-Freudian psychology took a very different course, endowing therapy with the power to release and then synthesize the “jostling democracy” of passions. Psychology as an all-purpose tool for achieving a satisfying way of life became, as Rieff put it, “a therapeutic parody of a moral demand system.”
The Triumph of the Therapeutic was published in 1965, the final year of the Second Vatican Council. Rieff warned then that authentic spiritual renewal in Catholicism was liable to be confused with the therapeutic ethic, turning the spiritual prudence of pilgrims into the lifestyle ambitions of tourists. Psychology can serve many good purposes, Rieff wrote, but it must not be allowed to become a therapeutic ideology that aspires, like religion or morality, to order the entirety of human life. That, tragically, is what psychology became in too many seminaries and programs of pastoral formation, including the “treatment centers” to which priests and religious are sent when their behavior becomes unacceptably egregious. What Vatican Council II meant by “pastoral” was widely confused with openness to the therapeutic. Euphemisms were concocted to make the pastoral and the therapeutic seem part of a single continuum of spiritual insight and growth.
Perhaps no book on the priestly life and pastoral care has done more damage than the late Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. In this view, priests become good pastors to the degree that they expose their own wounds to therapy, inviting others to similar disclosure. The teaching of the Church and centuries of spiritual and moral wisdom are judged by whether they inhibit or enhance the therapeutic norm. And so the therapeutic marches on from triumph to triumph. Treatment centers for priests take names such as “New Life Center” or “House of Affirmation.” Resisting seminarians are packed off to clinical psychologists for “growth therapy” or what is called “Sexual Attitude Reassessment.” The patient is liberated from “traditional” sexual roles and stereotypes to be his true self while, at the same time, taught to observe the “boundaries” of professional conduct. The Palm Beach bishop who was forced to resign used the claim that he was practicing therapy as an excuse for sex with young men. Three of the seminarians who accused him are now very openly gay. The bishop confessed to “having crossed the boundaries.” In such a view, the boundaries are not grounded in moral truth or fidelity to ecclesial vocation but would appear to be merely external limits on the expression of an otherwise amoral therapeutic.
Given all that has now come to light, bishops should resist the proposal that the solution is in adding another layer of the therapeutic. Some bishops continue to look to the therapists; it would seem to be the only answer they know, except for the force of law. But therapists can provide only a more intrusive and degrading approach to priestly formation. If now the order of the day is to tailor the therapeutic to the fear of legal liabilities, the result will be seminaries ever more disordered and ever more repressive. The result will be more testing, more scrutiny, more coerced self-disclosure and self-discovery—and more files to turn over, in due course, to the public prosecutor. The alternative is love for Christ and his Church, including the tough love of disciplining the wild card in the poker of life that is sexuality. The great task and the great grace, as St. Augustine reminds us, is the right ordering of our loves and loyalties. In a word, fidelity. Or we might go so far as to rehabilitate another word banished by the therapeutic: holiness.
To Be a Priest
As mentioned earlier, there are dioceses and seminaries today that are attracting large numbers of manly, faithful, and holy candidates for the priesthood. The seminarians at, for instance, the North American College in Rome are an inspiration. The same is true of communities such as the Legionaries of Christ. Moreover, and without in any way excusing what has gone wrong, we should not blind ourselves to the fact that there are some in the media who are bent upon exploiting the present scandals in the hope of discrediting the Church and her teaching, especially her teaching with respect to sexual morality. In these months it has been a disappointment that so few non-Catholic Christians seem to recognize that the attack is not just against the Catholic Church but against Christian faith and morals as such. Nor should we fail to acknowledge the tragedy and injustice when priests who have been faithful for many years are subjected to public disgrace by the exposure of, or even no more than the unverified accusation of, a wayward act twenty or thirty years ago. It is no news that the Church has enemies and that some of them are vicious. Neither is it an excuse for what has gone wrong.
The public scandal of priestly sex abuse first broke in the mid-eighties, and was then muted when the media was rightly embarrassed by its reckless and false charges against the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. The bishops did take action and by 1993 most dioceses had in place much more effective systems, often involving lay review boards, for dealing with charges of abuse. As has been noted, none of the currently publicized incidents are from the last ten years. In this connection, it is also important to ask what bishops have done right in the last decade and more. Part of the answer, it would seem, is the reduced defensiveness of a clericalist culture and a greater involvement of lay people not only in advisory roles but in actual decision-making. It does not diminish but enhances the apostolic authority and dignity of the episcopal office when it is exercised in a relationship of trust and cooperation with the faithful—and the overwhelming majority of Catholics do want to understand themselves as the faithful.
Any discussion such as this must end with the acknowledgment that, despite all, most priests and bishops are faithful, often to the point of heroic self-sacrifice. It has become almost a cliché to say that, but it is a cliché because so many people say it, and so many people say it because they know it to be true. Even in the general media, scandal stories are typically accompanied by an acknowledgment of the fine work done by most priests in helping the poor, providing shelters and soup kitchens for the homeless, and so forth. Their value as social workers outweighs the dubiousness of their being priests. That, of course, is to miss the point quite entirely.
The point is that at ordination a young man hears his name called and responds, “I come to serve.” He lies prostrate at the altar and over him is declared, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek”; he is indelibly marked and for him is prayed the Litany of the Saints, invoking all the heroes and heroines of the past to assist him in being who he truly is—sacramentally, ontologically, and forever—a priest. He is what he does, his person is conformed to his vocation; he preaches, he baptizes, he forgives, he blesses, he anoints, he intercedes, and, above all, he offers in persona Christi, and in the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the eternal sacrifice by which the world is redeemed. He is a priest, possessed of a dignity, all undeserving, that he earnestly and daily prays he will never besmirch nor betray.
One day the present scandals will be yesterday’s news. The lawyers, prosecutors, therapists, and spin masters will leave the stage. The reporters will go chasing after other disasters. The Church will remain. About that there is no doubt. Please God, the Church will remain renewed. I do believe that will happen. Whether and how it happens depends upon the bishops who are primarily responsible for the shame and humiliation of the Long Lent of 2002. Theirs is a historic opportunity for self-examination, confession, repentance, and publicly credible resolve to exemplify, by the grace of God, amendment of life in rediscovering, and calling others to rediscover, the vocation to fidelity.
Postscript: The address to the cardinals and other American leaders at the end of April was an instance of what might be described as papal tough talk. John Paul left no doubt that he holds the bishops responsible for what has happened. While acknowledging the need for more effective procedures in dealing with abusive priests and related matters, he underscored that the core issue is fidelity. The Catholic faithful and the world have a right to expect better of the Church. “They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” In other words, how can bishops and priests credibly speak of fidelity in marriage if they themselves are not faithful to their vows? “We must be confident,” the Pope continued, “that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow, must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.” Following the Rome meeting, a number of bishops, notably Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, have been speaking in tones reflective of the Pope’s urgent words about sin, grace, repentance, conversion, and fidelity. Regrettably, other bishops continue to focus on legal liabilities and the need for a procedural “fix” to get out of an embarrassing institutional scrape. There is no telling which accent will prevail at the June meeting in Dallas. Needless to say, there will be much more on all this in the August/September issue of FT.
Morality in the Absence of a Story
Some while back, Robert Jenson wrote “How the World Lost its Story“ (FT, October 1993), and it has provided rich grist for many intellectual mills, including Steven D. Smith of Notre Dame Law School in an article in the Wake Forest Law Review . The commonly assumed distinctions between the “religious” and the “secular” and between “religion” and “morality” are really very odd, says Smith, and make little sense to people who believe that the world has a story, as in upper case Story. The moral question, How should I live?, has an obvious answer: I should live in harmony with the Story of which my life is part. People who have lost the Story come up with sundry moral theories of a utilitarian or pragmatic sort, but they are finally of a merely prudential sort. And, as Smith notes, a problem with mere prudentialism is that its adoption is imprudent “because if people realize that the point of ‘morality’ is really to get what we want, then people will lose their incentive to respect the moral-prudential imperatives that prudence itself imposes whenever those imperatives seem to impede us from getting what we want.”
And so Smith poses his question this way:
Can we reconstruct a “morality” that is more than merely prudential without a Story? Most people (or at least most specialists) seem to believe-though perhaps out of desperation-that we can. So they set about devising what we might think of as “Story-substitutes.” There are various candidates for this role, but the leading candidates to succeed the Story seem to be, first, moral discourse itself and, second, the characters who remain-who have been left stranded, so to speak, without their Story.
The first Story-substitute proposal observes that although we may not be situated in a Story, as we had supposed, still we do find ourselves situated in a moral discourse. We still use words like “should” and “ought,” “right” and “wrong,” “naughty” and “nice”; and we still talk about things like “virtues” and “duties” and “rights.” This usage seems inescapable, as the nihilist “wannabe” quickly learns when he embarrasses himself by declaring that “we ought to stop saying ‘ought.’“ Moreover, we still recognize that some ways of using this moral vocabulary seem appropriate and broadly “grammatical;” other usages do not. Indeed, analytical philosophers can devote entire careers to studying and explaining how this moral discourse works. So perhaps this discourse can take the place of the Story; indeed, maybe we will do better-become better moral reasoners-without the Story.
The second Story-substitute proposal suggests that moral rights and duties can be squeezed out of the characters themselves, without the aid of any Story-like the odd movie that succeeds with good characters even without the benefit of a discernible plot. Probably the most influential version of this proposal observes that these characters-ourselves, in other words-aspire (at least intermittently) to behave “rationally.” Some people might be inclined to deny that this aspiration is their most important feature, and a few might try to disclaim it altogether; but it proves to be harder than you might think to deny the commitment. Try it: a philosopher will ask you to defend your denial-to explain why you are not obligated to be rational-and as soon as you try to satisfy this request the philosopher will say, “See, you can’t deny your rational nature without contradicting yourself, because you resort to reasoning even in resisting rationality.” So perhaps this innate rationality can be the source of categorical duties that would provide the substance of “morality.” Perhaps it could be shown that some responses to the question “How should I live?” are self-contradictory and hence irrational, and that other responses are not.
Obviously, this is not the occasion to enter into the labyrinthine philosophical debates surrounding these “Story-substitute” candidates. But even for present purposes I think I can notice one objection that is in a sense “pre-philosophical,” and hence that even a non-philosopher might be permitted to raise. I can explain the objection in this way: those of us who remember our upbringing in Idaho may think that these Story-substitute accounts, intriguing and important though they may be, are guilty of “changing the subject.” For all of their ingenuity and their (perhaps considerable) merits, in other words, these accounts seem not to be talking about the same sort of thing that we have all along understood “morality” to be (or that we encounter when we feel ourselves subject to “moral” constraints). “Your analysis is very impressive,” we might say to the Story-substitute proponents, “just as the consequentialists’ analysis was impressive. But you said they weren’t really talking about ‘morality’; and it seems that you aren’t either. Even you ‘moral discourse’ types are talking about how we talk about morality-not about morality itself.”
We might make basically the same point, I think, by asking a “So what?” question. Why does “morality,” thus reconceived, exert any significant moral “pull” on us in the way the Story did (or, for the devout, still does)? When we raise this concern with the proponents of the Story-substitute “moralities” (“Why should I make an effort to comply with my moral ‘duties’ as you understand them?”), the answer typically ends up being either that “That’s just what it means to be ‘moral’ (or ‘virtuous,’ or ‘good’)” or else that if we do not comply with the demands of morality we will have committed a special kind of rational blunder-a “performative contradiction.” And our attitude toward each of these responses is likely to be “So what?” The “So what?”, in this context, is a way of expressing that the Story-substitutes are not, in reality, doing what the Story did: they are, rather, ways of changing the subject.
All of which brings us back to those taken-for-granted distinctions between the “religious” and “secular,” and between “religion and morality.”
Even if it is misconceived, though, the question is still pressed upon us: Is it permissible in our political community for public decisions to be based on moral values informed by religion? So I suppose that the devout citizen will just answer “yes,” adding under her breath, “Because, in the final analysis, that’s the only kind of moral values there are.” Asking whether citizens should be permitted to rely on religious convictions in addressing moral issues will seem to the devout a bit like asking whether horses should be allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby, or whether participation in symphony orchestras should be open to musicians. The questions seem a bit peculiar, but I suppose the appropriate response is still to smile and say “yes.”
So in the end, the tough-minded, post-Story people and the more traditionally devout people may give the same short answer to our question. But their tone-and their longer answers-will be quite different. The devout citizen answers “yes” while thinking that she is putting up with a good deal of conceptual and perhaps spiritual confusion. The tough-minded post-Story survivor may (if he is an indulgent sort of person) also answer “yes”; but if he does he will believe that he is generously tolerating a good deal of backwardness and obscurantism. And as particular controversies arise (about abortion, or the “right to die,” or same-sex marriage), these deeper differences are likely to make even a surface convergence on a “yes” answer seem quite thin.
Still, there is at least a possibility of convergence, at a fairly abstract level, on the answer. It is harder to understand who ought to be really happy with the question-or with the way the culture that produces the question forces us to talk.
I’m not sure the culture “forces” us to talk that way. The pressure to do so can be defied, as Steven Smith defies it. He is among those whom he calls the devout, and he does not simply smile and say “yes” to the way the question is posed. He challenges the question, and explains why. And so should we all.
It Is Not a “Catholic Thing”
During what may come to be called the Great Lenten Humiliation of 2002, it seemed that every day the news included another report on a priest accused of sexually molesting a minor-in Atlanta, Amarillo, Texas, or the suburbs of Seattle. A reader acknowledges that a tu quoque (“You’re one, too”) defense always sounds petty, but he was curious about the often repeated claim that such abuse is as prevalent among other religious leaders. So he went to his Internet search engines looking for news stories about ministers and rabbis accused or convicted of such offenses. It makes a very thick dossier. He stopped after two hours when he had accumulated over three hundred such stories-from Bakersfield, California, to Chicago, Illinois, to a place aptly named Embarrass, Minnesota. They were all cases dating from 1997 to the present, whereas the publicized Catholic scandals are typically from twenty to thirty years ago.
What does this prove? Perhaps nothing, except that sexual abuse by clergy is more widespread than one might expect. And one might want to see a comparable search on abuse by other professions, such as teachers and social workers. Some might complain that the Catholic Church has been “unfairly” singled out for negative publicity, but that comes with being the Catholic Church. Certainly this reader’s findings excuse nothing. But they do provide a measure of perspective.
Just as I was thinking why there was little or no reporting on this in the media, the Christian Science Monitor of April 5 ran a long story on a study just done by Christian Ministry Resources (CMR). CMR is an organization that offers legal and tax advice to more than seventy-five thousand Protestant congregations and one thousand denominational agencies nationwide. The study indicates that over the past decade the number of allegations of sex abuse against churches and church agencies has averaged about seventy per week. The numbers peaked in the mid-nineties and have since been declining, largely because of pressure from insurance companies that insist that churches more carefully screen people working with children or else lose their insurance.
Why are there so many more reported instances of sex abuse in Protestant churches? Anson Shupe, an Indiana University professor who has studied the matter, says, “To me it says Protestants are less reluctant to come forward because they don’t put their clergy on as high a pedestal as Catholics do with their priests.” Abuse is more frequent among church volunteers than among clergy. Some larger congregations are now fingerprinting and doing a criminal background check on anyone over eighteen who works with children. Says one pastor, “If the check comes back with a blemish, they’re not working with kids. That’s all there is to it.” The story quotes others who have dealt with the problem and say that “churches are the perfect environment for sexual predators, because they have large numbers of children’s programs, a shortage of workers to lead them, and a culture of trust that is the essence of the organization.” In short, some of the very strengths of the churches are also their weaknesses.
Again, what happens in other religious communities in no way excuses what has happened in the Catholic Church. And yes, it may be unfair that the media tend to depict the sexual abuse of children and young people as a “Catholic problem.” Unfair but, for reasons frequently alluded to in these pages, hardly surprising. Leaving aside all the other factors-old-fashioned anti-Catholicism, eagerness to discredit a traditional morality most publicly represented by the Catholic Church, and so forth-look at it from a purely journalistic viewpoint: nobody is going to win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing rude things done to a fourteen-year-old boy in the basement bathroom of, say, Second Baptist Church in Indianapolis. Not even if the elders were informed and tried to hush it up.
The same story about a priest is obviously very different. With the priest the bishop is somehow implicated, and with the bishop the archbishop is somehow implicated, and with the archbishop the cardinal is somehow implicated-and, as everybody knows, all roads lead to Rome and so the story leads to You Know Who, the representative of the oldest and largest institution in the world. And the institution that bears the moral and spiritual authority that the modernity project has been trying to overthrow for three centuries. Catholics should not complain about the unfairness. It comes with the territory.
The Hermeneutics of Love
The suspicion did cross my mind that Alan Jacobs is not playing fair. If, as he has done, you write a book titled A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, you might seem to be saying that any reader who does not love the book has not understood it. But I know, as do the readers of his marvelous essays in these pages, that Alan Jacobs is an eminently fair-minded person. So I think he would allow that it is possible to understand his book and yet not like it very much, never mind love it. Fortunately, I do not have to worry about that possibility since I like the book very much, and urge others to read it, lovingly. It is just out from Westview (186 pages, $18 paper).
Reading with love entails risks, according to Jacobs, including the risk of not being in command of the text. At several points, he quotes Iris Murdoch: “Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused.” And Murdoch again: “Art and morals are one . . . . Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Although Jacobs enters into lively exchange with the usual mandarins of contemporary criticism-Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Jacques Derrida, John Milbank, et al.-every page is under the long shadow of Augustine, who explained in De Doctrina Christiana that love of God and neighbor is required to understand Scripture. Augustine makes the remarkable claim that “Whoever finds a lesson in the text that is useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.” What we would ordinarily call a misinterpretation may be a “right” interpretation if it serves love, which is, according to Scripture, both God’s purpose and being.
In sharpest contrast is a Cartesian hermeneutics that requires a distancing or alienation from the text. Here the posture is one of neutrality and devotion to objectivity. Jacobs finds merit in Hegel’s observation that the demand for neutrality generally means that the interpreter of a text should expound its meaning as if he, the interpreter, were dead. Hans-Georg Gadamer (who recently died at age 102) argued that the notion of objectivity had its roots in the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. The Reformers had to defend their own interpretation of the Bible, Gadamer noted, and were up against Catholic theologians who appealed to the indispensability of tradition. Jacobs, a Protestant, writes: “The Reformers found themselves obliged by their polemical situation to show that they could specify a set of reliable safeguards against error-safeguards which would serve a similar liminal function to the concept of ‘tradition’ in the Roman Catholic Church-and this need to provide safeguards and eliminate error came to dominate the hermeneutical tradition for the next several centuries. The chief goal of theological hermeneutics naturally, then, comes to be associated more closely with ‘getting it right’ than with a deepening of understanding or a growing in love.” That may be a bit harsh, but I expect there is a good deal to it. It must be added that there were also Catholic interpreters who used Scripture and tradition in order to win an argument. The difference is between using, even exploiting, the text and serving the text in love. Between the reader and the text, it is a matter of who submits to whom.
A Hard Saying
My problem with parts of Jacobs’ argument may have something to do with the fact that this office receives hundreds and hundreds of books for review. New stacks grow faster than old ones can be-always judiciously!-whittled down. I expect we give more attention to books than any comparable journal in the world. (Yes, you’re right: there is no publication that is really comparison).
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