What the crisis is notGEORGE WEIGEL
To fix what is broken in the Catholic Church in the United States requires a clear understanding of what the current crisis is not, as well as a clear understanding of what it is.
What were these misunderstandings?
It was said, for example, that the crisis was a crisis of celibacy. It was not.
It was said that the crisis was due to the Catholic Church's "authoritarian" structures. But the Catholic Church's structure is not "authoritarian."
Some activists charged that the crisis grew out of a failure to "implement Vatican II fully," code for the de facto transformation of Catholicism into another liberal Protestant denomination. How this would have prevented the two-edged crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal leadership failure was not self-evidently clear, not least because liberal Protestant denominations have their own serious problems of clergy sexual abuse.
Especially in its early months, the crisis was frequently described in the press as a "pedophilia crisis" or "crisis of child sexual abuse." The available data, however, suggest that classic pedophiles are as rare among Catholic priests as in the general population, and that the primary form of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in recent decades has been the homosexual molestation of teenagers and young men.
It was frequently suggested, if not openly asserted, that clerical sexual abuse is ongoing and widespread, although there is no reliable data to support this claim.
Traditionalist Catholics, some American Catholic churchmen, and more than a few Roman officials claimed that the crisis was created by the mass media a "feeding frenzy," as one U.S. cardinal put it. Yet even a feeding frenzy requires something to feed on.
Catholic dissidents frequently and loudly proclaimed the crisis the product of the Catholic Church's inhumane, repressive sexual ethic. Yet the counter-claim that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse was one grim by-product of the general breakdown of sexual morality in society was at least as plausible a hypothesis, given that clerical sexual predators had committed acts the Catholic Church flatly condemns.
A brief examination of each of these misunderstandings should help clarify just what the crisis is, as well as what it is not.
At the most basic, empirical level, the claim that the crisis was caused by celibacy made no sense, for the crisis was self-evidently triggered, not by faithful celibates, but by men who had failed to live the celibate vows they had made. To blame the crisis of sexual abuse on celibacy is about as plausible as blaming adultery on the marriage vow, or blaming treason on the Pledge of Allegiance. It just doesn't parse.
The confusions on this front went much deeper than the empirical, however.
It is not easy to understand, much less appreciate, a lifelong commitment to celibate chastity in a culture that regards sex as another contact sport: a culture of "self-expression" in which sexual pleasure is a "right" and the mastery of one's sexual desires is often deemed "repression." Read through the lens of the sexual revolution, celibacy is peculiar at best and pathological at worst. Thus the connection was quickly made between the Catholic Church's practice of priestly celibacy and the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. Celibates, it was suggested, were especially prone to sexual predation because they were maladjusted psychologically and required some form of release, however perverse, for their sexual tensions.
The data simply do not support these claims. Celibates do not dominate the national registry of sex offenders. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment are frequently committed by married men. A man given to sexual predation is unlikely to be restrained by marriage. The related suggestions that celibacy is the primary problem in the crisis of sexual abuse, and that a married clergy would be less given to sexual abuse, also demean marriage. The implication is that marriage is a crime-prevention program, not a covenant of mutual love and self-giving.
Grappling with the Catholic understanding of celibacy also means recognizing that Catholicism, like all great religious traditions, is not a simple business. It takes a serious effort to get inside the Catholic Church's self-understanding and see how the pieces of the mosaic fit together. That kind of effort is especially important when dealing with so countercultural a Catholic practice as priestly celibacy. Unless the effort is made, however, the terrible simplifiers win the day and both history and theology get distorted in the process. That is what happened here.
It was often said during the break-out of the crisis that celibacy is merely a "discipline" with no innate connection to the priesthood. Moreover, one frequently heard, mandatory clerical celibacy was a relatively late development in Catholic history. What was made binding throughout the western Church in the twelfth century could be changed by the Church in the twenty-first century, in a return to the more ancient practice of a married clergy.
Both the theology and the history were seriously awry on these points. The situation is much more complicated, and thus much more interesting.
In the Letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul describes the relationship of Christ, the eternal high priest, to his Church as the relationship of a spouse to a beloved bride: Christ the redeemer gives himself to his spouse freely, unreservedly, faithfully, and unto death. If a Catholic priest is not a religious bureaucrat who conducts certain kinds of churchly business, but rather an icon a living representation of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, then the priest's relationship to his bride, the Church, should be like Christ's the priest is to give himself to the Church freely, unreservedly, faithfully, and unto death. And he must be seen to be doing so. His commitment to his bride must be visible in his way of life, as well as in his heart and soul.
That is why the Catholic Church places such a high value on celibacy. Chaste celibate love for the Church is another "icon" of Christ's presence to his people. The Christ whom the priest makes present through his sacramental ministry at the altar and in the confessional is acting, not simply in the name of Christ, but in the person of Christ. According to ancient Catholic usage, he is "another Christ," an alter Christus, whose complete gift of self to the Church is an integral part of his priestly persona. Celibacy is thus not "extrinsic" to the Catholic priesthood, a mere matter of ecclesiastical discipline. There is an intimate, personal, iconic relationship between celibacy and priesthood.
The history of clerical celibacy bears this out. Recent historical studies have demonstrated that, when the Second Lateran Council made clerical celibacy legally binding for the entire western Church in 1129, its decision was the endpoint of a lengthy period of development and a ratification of what had long been understood to be the norm for priests. It was not, primarily, a matter of Lateran II trying to address certain medieval issues of property-law and inheritance. A law, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often the last step in the crystallization of a community's convictions on a subject. According to contemporary scholars, that is what happened with Lateran II's legislation on celibacy in 1129. The law of clerical celibacy adopted in the twelfth century gave legal form to a longstanding practice that had been promoted and defended as an important facet of priestly life for centuries. The practice of priestly celibacy in fact goes back to the Church's origins. It was not an invention of the Middle Ages.
Yes, the western Church ordained married men to the priesthood in the first millennium, as the eastern-rite Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Church ordain married men as priests today. At the same time, however, the western Church in the first millennium typically required those married men, with the consent of their wives, to refrain from "using the rights of marriage" after their priestly ordination, in order to express through continence the iconography of the priest's unique relationship to the Church as his bride. When the history is read like this, things look different today. It was not the western Church that went off on a tangent by making celibacy a general requirement in the twelfth century. It was the eastern churches that continued to ordain married men without a promise of sexual abstinence, that diverted from the main trajectory of development (a point further underscored by the fact that the eastern churches only ordain celibates to the fullness of the priesthood, the episcopate). That, at least, is what the contemporary scholarship suggests.
A tangled historical and theological question like this cannot be easily settled. The fact that there are faithful, effective married priests in the Catholic Church (either eastern-rite priests, or converts from Anglicanism or Lutheranism) certainly must be part of any discussion of priesthood and celibacy today. What any serious person can grasp, however, is that celibacy for the Catholic Church is essentially something positive, not negative. It is the embodiment, in a self-sacrificial way of life, of a complete gift of self to Christ and the Church. Celibacy tells us what a man is for, not what he's against.
The celibate, who freely chooses not to do something very good marry also ennobles marriage. The sacrifice of a good reminds us just how good something is. To understand celibacy undertaken "for the Kingdom" as a deprecation of marriage and of sexual love is to misunderstand celibacy, marriage, sexual love, and the Kingdom of God.
An "authoritarian" church?
Both secular commentators and Catholic dissenters charged that the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal leadership failure was due to the "authoritarian" structures of the Catholic Church. The problem with this argument is that the Catholic Church is not an authoritarian institution, nor are its leaders authoritarians.
An "authoritarian" is someone who makes someone else do something purely as a matter of willfulness: you do this because I say so. An authoritarian does not give reasons for his or her decisions or commands. Similarly, the subjects of an authoritarian ruler have nothing to say about what they're being commanded to do. Indeed, there are no "subjects" of a genuinely authoritarian regime, only "objects" to be manipulated at will by the ruler.
That is not the way the Catholic Church works.
The Catholic Church believes that it has a "form" or structure given to it by Christ. That structure is composed in part of truths: truths about God, truths about human beings, truths about our relationship to God and God's relationship to us. The pastoral authorities of the Church the college of bishops, with and under the headship of the Bishop of Rome are the custodians of this authoritative tradition, which binds the Church, including popes and bishops, across the centuries. Popes and bishops do not make things up as they go along. Doctrine is not a matter of papal or episcopal whim or willfulness. Popes and bishops are the servants, not the masters, of the tradition the truths that make the Church what it is. Thus the pope and the bishops are authoritative teachers, not authoritarian despots.
Moreover, the Catholic Church believes that the truths it has been given by Christ free us as well as bind us. They are liberating truths. To accept the Church's teaching as authoritative and binding is only a "restriction" on my freedom if I imagine freedom to be the unbridled exercise of my imagination and will. (And in that case, I have chained myself to my own willfulness.) If freedom has something to do with learning to choose what is genuinely good, for myself and for others, then the truth about what's good for me and for others isn't a restriction. It's a means of liberation. The opposite of "authoritarian" isn't "autonomous" or "willful." The opposite of "authoritarian" is authoritative.
The Catholic crisis that broke into public view in early 2002 does, in fact, have a lot to do with the way authority is and isn't exercised in the Church. It certainly had a lot to do with abysmal failures by some of the Church's pastoral leaders its bishops to exercise the authority that is theirs. The crisis should also raise the question of whether the ways in which the bishops of the United States have functioned corporately in recent decades have impeded their individual capacities to be authoritative teachers and true heads of their local churches. These are questions to be explored later.
But the crisis did not have anything to do with the fact that the Catholic Church believes that it is formed and bound by an authoritative tradition. If anything, the opposite is the case. The crisis was caused in no small part by confusions and ambiguities about the truths that make the Church what it is, confusions and ambiguities too prevalent among the Church's priests and bishops.
A failure to implement Vatican II?
Almost four decades after the Second Vatican Council concluded its epic work, an aging, intellectually sterile, and numerically shrinking cadre of Catholic dissidents continues to insist that every problem in the Catholic Church today is caused by a failure to implement the Council's teaching and "spirit." This failure is typically described as a failure to "democratize" the Church, or to "share authority." Those to be "empowered," in what the dissidents wrongly imagine to be "reform," are typically intellectuals or activists.
It seems of little consequence to those who have chanted this mantra of democratization and power-sharing for more than thirty-five years that Vatican II solemnly reaffirmed the supreme authority of the pope as chief pastor of the Church, or that the Council taught that local bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, enjoy full ecclesial authority. The vocabulary of "empowerment" and "power-sharing" also fudges the full and complex truth of the Council's teaching on the priesthood of all the baptized and the priesthood of the Church's ordained ministers. For while Vatican II affirmed the ancient truth that all the baptized share in the priesthood of Christ and exercise that common priesthood in prayer, the Council also affirmed the unique character of the ordained priesthood as being different in kind, not simply in degree, from the priestly character of the laity. Dissidents rarely if ever mention the Council's teaching that celibacy has an important relationship to priesthood. For those convinced that the "spirit of Vatican II" requires the Catholic Church to become another American "denomination" in its approach to doctrine and in its structures of authority and responsibility, what Vatican II actually taught seems of little consequence.
The sixteen documents of Vatican II can, of course, be read in different ways within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. The history of the Council, its intentions and tensions, is just now being written. The Catholic Church will be debating the meaning of Vatican II for decades, perhaps centuries. That is perfectly understandable, and perfectly acceptable. Ecumenical councils always take decades, even centuries, to digest.
What is neither understandable nor acceptable is the dissidents' suggestion that Catholicism should follow the self-destructive path charted by liberal Protestant denominations that have been hemorrhaging congregants for decades. Christian communities that deconstruct themselves doctrinally and morally have been failing dramatically since the Second World War, to the point where liberal Protestantism will be a mere fraction of world Protestant Christianity by the middle of the twenty-first century. If good fences make good neighbors, as poet Robert Frost suggested, clear doctrinal and moral boundaries seem to make for vibrant Christian communities. The answer to the two-edged crisis of clerical sexual abuse and inert episcopal leadership cannot be found in making Catholicism's boundaries so porous that no one is certain what constitutes fidelity or infidelity. On the contrary, it is precisely such porousness that has helped create the current crisis.
The crisis has everything to do with the authentic implementation of Vatican II, and with the failure of the Church's leadership to do just that. But what the dissidents mean by the implementation of Vatican II is more accurately described as the demolition of Catholicism.
A "pedophilia crisis"?
The sexual molestation of young children is the most revolting aspect of the broader problem of clergy sexual abuse as the failure of bishops to deal effectively with this dimension of the crisis is one of the most incomprehensible aspects of the broader problem of the failure of episcopal leadership. Because the Archdiocese of Boston was the first focus of media attention in the crisis, and because two Boston abusers, John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, sexually molested children (a practice Shanley advocated in the North American Man-Boy Love Association, one of whose mottos is "Eight is too late"), the crisis was quickly labeled a "pedophila" crisis or "crisis of child sexual abuse." Given the Geoghan and Shanley cases, this was understandable. As further evidence of the breadth of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse came to light, though, it also became clear that the description was inaccurate.
Pedophile priests in the classic sense of men who habitually abuse prepubescent children are not the majority of clerical sexual abusers; they are, in fact, a small minority of malfeasant clergy, although they are arguably the most loathsome form of the clerical sexual predator. That the shorthand of a "pedophilia crisis" was still being used in the Washington Post, by Reuters news service, and by other media outlets months after even gay activists were conceding that the overwhelming majority of the abuses reported involved homosexual men molesting teenage boys or young males suggested that the moniker "pedophila crisis" served agendas other than factual accuracy. Were the crisis of clerical sexual abuse to be described accurately as a crisis whose principle manifestation was homosexual molestation other questions about gay culture might well be raised. This, evidently, some did not wish to do, including dissident Catholic moral theologians.
A simple test is a virtually infallible indicator of whether a person or institution is capable of understanding the current crisis and is willing to address it at its roots. It matters not whether the person is Catholic on non-Catholic, bishop, priest, or layman; it matters not whether the institutions is a newspaper, newsmagazine, television program, or talk show. Does that person or institution describe the demographics of clergy sexual abuse accurately, avoiding the all-purpose label, "pedophilia crisis"? If they do not, there are other agendas in play.
A media-created crisis?
As the crisis unfolded in the first half of 2002, Vatican officials, a few American churchmen, and some Catholic activists of a traditionalist bent were suggesting that the problem of sexual abuse, while real and serious, had been manufactured into a public crisis by an overwrought American media. Some of these critics suggested that the press was indulging its post-Watergate addiction to institutional scandal, and had simply turned its guns from the beaten-dead horse of the Enron Corporation to the Catholic Church. Others went farther, suggesting that the press were determined to bring down the one institution in the United States that refused to buckle to political correctness in matters of abortion, euthanasia, cloning, stem-cell research, and "gay marriage." This latter charge was frequently heard with reference to the Boston Globe, which for years had published a wide variety of anti-Catholic columnists (some of them, like veteran Catholic dissident James Carroll, ex-priests). When the Globe broke the Geoghan and Shanley stories and followed those up with an editorial call for the resignation of Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, more than a few Catholics (including some who were highly critical of Cardinal Law's handling of the crisis) thought it possible to connect the dots between the Globe's attitude toward the Church over the past twenty years and its present position on the crisis. One also looked long and hard on the editorial and op-ed pages of the New York Times for anything other than the rawest attacks on Catholic doctrine and practice, from dissident Catholics as well as the Times' regular stable of lifestyle-libertine columnists.
Responsible reporters, columnists, and editors admit that there were problems with coverage of the crisis in the first half of 2002. At the beginning, press coverage created the impression that pedophile John Geoghan was the typical clerical sexual predator, when in fact he was not only atypical among priests but abnormal among sexual abusers who had undergone extensive therapy. This, in turn, led to fears that the crisis of clergy sexual abuse was ongoing, massive in scope, and out of control, when, in fact, few instances of abuse from the 1990s came to light. Thus the media generally missed the story of those reforms in seminary recruitment and training, and in diocesan clergy personnel policies, that seem to have proven effective in preventing sexual abuse. At the same time, the early coverage of Geoghan, and of the Boston archdiocese's efforts to settle with his victims privately, fed a panic atmosphere in some Catholic quarters about the "safety of the children."
As indicated previously, the press was late, and then reluctant, to acknowledge the truth embedded in its own reporting, that homosexual molestation of teenagers and young men was the most prevalent form of clerical sexual abuse. To take but one example, for two weeks in April one reporter for a prominent national daily repeatedly tried and failed to get this phrase past her editors: "Those who raise the issue of homosexuality in connection with the scandals note that very few of the abuse victims have been female." When the facts of the matter could no longer be avoided, the pendulum sometimes swung in the other direction, with reporters and columnists blithely citing the exaggerated estimates of a 30 to 50 percent gay Catholic clergy bruited by former Cleveland seminary rector, Father Donald Cozzens. (The most knowledgeable social scientist studying these questions, Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, argues that "men with gay inclinations" are found in the priesthood in the United States at a rate substantially higher than in the average male population, but not in the range of Father Cozzens's figures.)
No one could blame reporters for seeking the opinions of Catholic dissidents on the crisis; they, too, are part of the story. Still, reportorial probes into the possibility that the crisis had roots in the Catholic culture of dissent were rare. So were explorations of how the infatuation of bishops and seminary faculties with the claims of psychological and psychiatric therapists had contributed to the crisis. Some of the therapists who were arguably responsible for the recycling of clerical sexual predators were themselves frequently quoted as authorities; evidently, their past performance was deemed irrelevant, so long as they now hewed to the line that the Church's commitment to celibacy and its critique of the sexual revolution were at fault in the current crisis.
Criticism of Pope John Paul II's "silence" by reporters, editorial writers, and columnists seemed strained. The Pope had in fact spoken and written extensively about the reform of the priesthood for twenty-three years. Moreover, it made no sense to expect that the Pope could function as a kind of super-personnel manager for every Catholic diocese in the world. The media also created story-lines by which it then judged the Church's performance. To take but one example: it was the press which first decided that "zero tolerance" was the issue at the American cardinals' meeting in Rome on April 22-23, 2002, and then judged the cardinals' performance by a standard that the press itself had designed. That several cardinals fell into this trap surely says something about their competence, but it does not change the essential facts. In this instance and others (and not unlike the way the media functions in big-time political or corporate scandals), reporters appoint themselves prosecutor, jury, judge, and appeals court, passing judgment on laws they themselves have promulgated.
That all being said, it was a serious mistake for some Catholic leaders and Catholic traditionalists to argue that the crisis was created by a media feeding frenzy. It was not. The crisis was, and is, the Church's crisis. Even if much of the media tended to read the crisis through typical secular and political filters, two indisputable facts remained: clergy sexual abuse was a serious problem in the Catholic Church for decades; many bishops did not recognize the problem, or recognizing it, failed to act on both the problem and its sources. When those two facts intersected, the facts produced a crisis. The media did not produce the crisis.
Moreover, as more than one Catholic highly critical of the bishops' performance (and, needless to say, of clergy sexual predation) pointed out, the Church owes the press a debt of gratitude. Because of the press, some sexual predators have been arrested and jailed. Because of the press, the authorities were able to locate predators like Paul Shanley and former Dallas priest Rudy Kos before they could do any more damage to young minds and souls; in both instances, Church leaders had failed to protect either the Church or society. Because of the press, the Catholic Church has been forced to recognize that it is in more trouble than its leaders and people might have imagined. Whether that blunt recognition is taken to the next level whether it extends to a similarly blunt recognition of the roots of the crisis and a committed grappling with the thoroughgoing reforms necessary to turn a crisis into an opportunity for renewal remains to be seen. That, no one will know for years. But even the most ardent Catholic must freely concede this: It is very unlikely that the Catholic Church in the United States would be asking these questions without the goad of the press. And for that Catholics should be grateful. In all of this, Catholics must believe God's saving purposes are somehow being worked out. If God could work through the Assyrians in the Old Testament, God can certainly work through the New York Times and the Boston Globe today, whether the Times and the Globe realize what's happening or not.
This is not a media crisis. It is a Catholic crisis a crisis of fidelity. It certainly seemed like a media feeding frenzy at times. It is delusional and self-destructive for Catholics to believe that that sums up the matter.
Is the Catholic sexual ethic at fault?
Secular critics and Catholic dissidents alike argued that the crisis was the byproduct of what they imagined to be the Church's hoary, "medieval" sexual ethic. On this view, there was a direct line between the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church's teaching that natural family planning is the morally appropriate way to regulate births, and the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. The critics and the dissidents were right. But not in the way they imagined.
That, however, is a story for the next chapter.
As with the charge that the crisis was caused by celibacy, the claim that the Church's sexual ethic was the root cause of the crisis missed an obvious fact: Sexual abusers are manifestly and unmistakably not living the Church's sexual ethic. On the contrary, they are doing what the Catholic Church condemns. More than one Vatican official, puzzled at the drumbeat of reportorial inquiries in March 2002 about "the Pope's attitude toward clergy sexual abuse," must have been tempted to reply, simply, "He's very much against it." What else could he be? What else could the Church be?
As articulated by Pope John Paul II in his groundbreaking "theology of the body," the Catholic sexual ethic holds that sexual love is a matter of self-giving, not self-assertion as indeed all genuine love is a matter of self-gift, not self-assertion. Moreover, the Catholic Church teaches that to give oneself to another through sexual love within the bond of faithful and fruitful marriage is an icon of the interior life of God himself for God the Holy Trinity is a community of radical self-giving and receptivity. Journalists tend to reduce the Catholic sexual ethic to prohibitions on contraception and homosexual activity without asking about the affirmations that undergird those prohibitions. Most Catholics have never heard of John Paul II's "theology of the body," and Catholic dissidents tend to dismiss it because it leads to conclusions about contraception, premarital sex, and homosexuality they cannot tolerate. The fact, though, is that the Catholic Church has a higher view of human sexuality than the editors of Playboy or Cosmopolitan. The Catholic Church teaches that our sexuality teaches us deep truths about ourselves and about God. Neither Hugh Hefner nor Helen Gurley Brown would dare make such a claim.
If there is a failure here, and there clearly is, it is the failure of the Church's pastors in the United States (and elsewhere) to teach the Church's sexual ethic as an ethic that affirms and celebrates the gift of sexual love. Popular impressions notwithstanding, Catholics in America are not regularly dunned with sermons about the evils of certain sexual practices. The truth of the matter is that most Catholics in the United States could count on one hand the number of sermons on sexual morality that they've heard in the last decade. Some could count on one finger.
This, in turn, suggests another dimension of the crisis: The Catholic Church in the United States has not learned to be comfortably countercultural in teaching its sexual ethic and in calling the people of the Church to the adventure of fidelity. Catholics are, very occasionally, urged to walk the walk of chaste sexual love as the Catholic Church understands it. Catholic bishops and priests almost never talk the talk of the Church's sexual ethic in persuasive, compelling ways that see and then raise the stakes posed by the sexual revolution. It can be done. A few scholars and an increasing number of young Catholic couples who have learned the "theology of the body" in Catholic renewal movements can, and do, talk the talk. When they do, skeptical secularists and committed feminists find in the "theology of the body" a genuine contribution to human thought and a defense of the moral foundations of civilization, not a repressive rejection of sex. Perhaps the Church, in the wake of this crisis, can begin talking the talk to itself about these matters.
George Weigel. "What the crisis is not." chapter 3 in The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 35-56.
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel. All rights reserved. The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church ISBN 0-465-09260-8.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
© 2002 George Weigel
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