In the NYRB (a publication which doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves), Garry Wills, ex-seminarian, gets to the heart of a decades-long horror — and ongoing institutional problem:
The grand jury report of Catholic priests’ predations in Pennsylvania is enough to make one vomit. The terrifying fact that hundreds of priests were preying upon over a thousand victims in that state alone makes one shudder at the thought of how many hundreds and thousands of abusers there are elsewhere in the nation, elsewhere in the world. It is time to stop waiting for more reports to accumulate, hoping that something will finally be done about this. Done by whom? By “the church”? If “the church” is taken to mean the pope and bishops, nothing will come of nothing. They are as a body incapable of making sense of anything sexual.
A wise man once told me that we humans are all at one time or another a little crazy on the subject of sex. A little crazy, yes. But Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time. These functionaries of the church are formally supposed to believe and preach sexual sillinesses, from gross denial to outright absurdity, on the broadest range of issues—masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests—and uphold the church’s “doctrines,” no matter how demented…
To be a priest is to be a company man, the company being the pope and the hierarchy. The farther one rises in the hierarchy, the higher the stakes. Pope Francis probably does want to do something about the priest mystique; but he is surrounded by loyalists of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and he is trammeled by his predecessors’ many years of priest-mystique maintenance, which is the principal task of many in Rome. Waiting for the pope to do something is to hope that the protector of the mystique will forswear the mystique.
Many victims of abuse by priests have made the mistake of reporting their charges to a bishop. They should have gone straight to a secular authority. To expect from the celibate clergy either candor or good sense on sexual matters is a fool’s game. The Vatican II Council proclaimed that the church is the people of God, not their rulers…
The laity should reclaim its centrality in the church. It has begun to do that in silent ways: for instance, by widespread disuse of the confessional (a medieval invention), by ignoring the ban on contraception (how otherwise could the birth rate of Catholics have declined so far, so fast?), by the number of Catholic abortions (registered by the Kinsey Institute), and by the drop in church attendance (after the pedophile scandals). Some Catholics, of course, have abandoned the church over one or more of these matters—as can be seen in the decline of the church in Ireland. But people like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League are upset at those who still consider themselves Catholic while ignoring “church teaching” on sexual matters, who go to communion without going to confession, who mock the absurdities called “natural law.”
Those who still want to stand with their Catholic brothers and sisters should not merely dissent in private ways, but should also speak up and demand what opinion polls show they really want for the church as the people of God. It is mandatory celibacy and male-only priesthood that is “unnatural.”…
Rot and dishonesty are hard to claw out, especially when given centuries to embed themselves in the traditions of the church. We can only hope that, this late in the game, they can be cured. There is no way of knowing but to try.
Can “the Church” change? My own parting with the Catholic faith of my parents was a non-contested separation; I stopped attending services as soon as I graduated from the neighborhood parochial high school, by which time the nuns who taught me had generally accepted that the relationship between me and the institution was never going to be a good fit. (It is not precisely a compliment when Dominican sisters say, “If only you’d been born a boy — you’d have been such a good Jesuit!”) But I genuinely respected those nuns, and the many and various Catholic works and workers of faith that I’ve witnessed in my life then and since.
There are many who think that people don’t actually need religion, and that whatever good religious organizations do could be performed as well or better by other groups. Me, I’m still and always a believer (even though not everyone considers animism a “real” religion, we’ve got the weight of human history on our side). And from personal observation, there are plenty of other humans who feel the need / compulsion for “faith” and its communal practice. Some of who, deprived of traditional outlets, end up as servants to doctrines as ugly and anti-life as the worst of Christian tradition, such as for instance Trump’s hardcore Deplorables.
Whether the modern Catholic Church is capable of “clawing out” the “rot and dishonesty” is the question… and I’m frankly not hopeful. At best, I would predict, there will be another Grand Schism, with the “best” (most progressive) section of the American Catholic church (further) abandoning all claims on the material wealth and property of the Vatican’s various global outposts. Leaving the “traditional” hierarchy of powerful (if no longer always white) men within and working with the established institution to hive off an ever-smaller, ever-more-explosive brand of Talibangelical-style cultists. Because this is the rotten heart of the Catholic-church problem, as with so many other powerful modern philosophic organizations now in crisis: There is a lot of wealth and power in the hands of a (generally white, generally male) few. The only way for those groups (such as, for instance, the Republica Party, or the Fortune 500) to survive over the longer term is to cede some of that wealth, but the individuals benefiting right now are the ones least interested in change for the good of their community’s long-term survival.