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Last year, the Irish government published the Murphy Report detailing sexual abuse cases among the clergy, and more damningly, cover-ups by the bishops. Then there was the dustup over a cleric from Pope Benedict’s old diocese in Germany, who was reassigned while in sexual rehab. Now we see very sad and ugly revelations about a Belgian bishop, along with the usual history of negligent oversight: bishops dismissing plausible accusations from faithful Catholics as mean-spirited gossip and leaving the abuser free to continue.

I won’t be at all surprised if there are more revelations, perhaps many more, and some of them even uglier. As David Hart once observed, human nature often disappoints.

But there is a deeper story, one missed by the mainstream media. I’m more and more convinced that we are witnessing an important moment of sociological change, of which the European scandals are as much symptoms as cause.

From time immemorial the leadership of the Catholic Church has been part of the European elite. It is the nature of elites to protect their collective status, which requires hiding faults, winking and nodding at various sins, being “realistic” about the harder requirements of their traditions, co-opting public authorities, and fixing more serious problems and transgressions behind closed doors, while interpreting criticism and exposes of problems as destabilizing attacks on the institutions of the elite.

Over the last year or two, when faced with what seems to them to be a strangely aggressive campaign against the failures of the hierarchy in the sex abuse scandals, Vatican officials have tended to mutter about “plots” against the church. Doubtless some very powerful people would like to torpedo the Catholic Church.

One wonders, for example, about Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times , who famously described himself as a “collapsed Catholic” and pictured the Church as a force of “absolutism” opposed to “tolerance.” But in the main the notion of a coordinated, conscious plot seems implausible.

Nonetheless, the feeling of coordinated pressure is quite real. Recall Hillary Clinton’s infamous grips about a “vast right wing conspiracy.” A new sociological fact she did not recognize”the emergence of an articulate and politically powerful conservatism in post-sixties America”felt like a conspiracy. The Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican bureaucracy are also facing changed social circumstances that constellate into something of such force and consistency that it feels to those on the inside like a plot against them.

In the old days, chief investigators, mayors, judges, as well as media moguls, thought of the bishops as key partners in the elite governance of society and culture. You don’t embarrass partners in public. Instead, you work things out through back channels. The Church was happy with this arrangement.

Now, in part because of her own negligence and culpable mismanagement, but more significantly because of the dramatic decline of cultural relevance, the Catholic Church no longer enjoys the perks and protections of elite status. In fits and starts, powerful actors in Europeans societies are making all sorts of decisions”who to investigate and how hard, what to report and how hard”that can only be read as a judgment that the Church doesn’t get a pass anymore.

The Belgian story is perhaps clearest. I find it very hard to believe that when he was active whispers about Bishop Vangleluwe’s pedophilia didn’t reach people at high levels in the Belgian government. It’s not a big country. And I wouldn’t be surprised if officialdom held back, following the unspoken rules of elite society.

Then, BOOM. Police raids, computers impounded, and holes drilled into crypts so that spy cameras can be inserted. Perhaps the chief investigator’s office was as blindsided as the Vatican, suddenly waking up to the fact that the Church is now outside the magical circle of elite society, and that elite society, always attuned to changes in status, demanded the Church be treated differently. Scrambling to action, they overcompensated with heavy-handed tactics.

My point is not to criticize the Belgians. Nor do I want to give another analysis of the roots of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Instead, what I want to point to is the important”lastingly important”change in the Church’s place in the world the scandal has revealed.

After World War II, the Catholic Church assumed a very important role in the political and social life of a re-constructed Europe. This was especially true in Italy and Germany, where de Gasperi and Adenauer’s successes, which were both narrowly won and of tremendous importance of post-War Europe, grew out of close cooperation with the Catholic Church.

And to a great extent, the impetus for reform at the Second Vatican Council came not from an effort to regain relevance, but instead from an acute sense of responsibility for reshaping the Church so that she might better fulfill her central place in Europe’s future. It was not to be. It is a cold sociological truth that since the Council drew to a close in 1965, European culture has gone in different direction, so much so that it is a commonplace among Vatican officials to speak of the Church as counter-cultural.

I don’t think, however, that the Catholic hierarchy has grasped the sociological and institutional consequences of counter-cultural status. If you’re not a player, you’re much more vulnerable: more vulnerable to being flayed by public opinion, more vulnerable to journalistic Jihads, more vulnerable to politically aware governmental officials who see that skewering bishops can advance careers, more vulnerable to angry protesters and bitter victims.

So, yes, of course the Catholic Church has brought the current scandals upon herself, with a great deal of blame going to the hierarchy. But the social impact, the lasting consequences, the feeling that a great deal it in peril? No, it’s not a function of sin within the Church, however horrifying the sexual abuse might be on its own terms. Instead, the scandals reveals a change that is part of a realignment within European societies.

Put simply: the Church has become largely disestablished on the ground, with few going to church (a social reality the consequences of which were masked, perhaps, by the remarkable charisma of John Paul II), and therefore it can no longer retain the privileges of social establishment, one of the most important of which is protection from debilitating criticism.

If I’m right about the larger dynamics at work in the current round of scandals, the Church is in for a tough season. The expulsion from the elite makes her leaders supremely vulnerable.

They will be soiled not only by the sins of the past (and present)”sins that arise with frightful immediacy out of the wickedness of the human heart”but also by the compromises of exercising power in a fallen world. Palms need to be greased. The sins of important allies require being covered up. Coalitions have to be built on less than idealistic foundations.

All this will continue. The Church cannot just drop her portfolio of establishment responsibilities and their corresponding assets. But now expelled from the elite, in the future these compromising social responsibilities must be exercised without the protections that flow to the elite. Indeed, German or Belgian or Italian authorities will be very tempted to make an example of the Catholic Church so as to divert attention from their own compromises and corruption.

The long term danger? As expulsion from the European elite creates more and more vulnerabilities, an atmosphere of crisis will allow liberals within the Church to rally, promising to restore the Church’s secular status by realigning her governance and doctrine”and particularly her moral teaching”with the methods and values of the twenty-first century secular elites.

This will be a tempting promise. It’s painful to slide down the ladder of status. Life at the top is not only more comfortable, it’s safer. Life would be easier if the New York Times and the Belgian police saw the Church as part of their club. Moreover, as the editorial policy of the Times in recent weeks has made clear, the secular elites will support the Catholic liberals.

It’s not as though Pope Benedict is unaware of this danger. He has identified the renewal of the liturgical life of the Church as the way to create ballast to weather what is likely to be the most important social change in European Catholicism since the French Revolution”or more accurately, the dramatic final act of changes initiated in 1789, if not in 1519.

But even Benedict’s renewal can only do so much. The Vatican also needs a more flexible central command, one capable of coordinated, intelligent responses to challenges. Her governing structures and bureaucracies are superannuated forms of a system originally designed to run a Church thoroughly intertwined with European society, not a vibrant, active, and counter-cultural Church. The Church needs a leadership that know they are always at a disadvantage, and that they can no longer rely on deference or favors if she is to meet the storm, and it will be a storm, of social disestablishment and elite hostility.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible . Keller’s comments can be found in his 2002 column Is the Pope Catholic? .

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