Avoiding another Roman fiasco in February

George Weigel

By peremptorily ordering the American bishops not to vote on local remedies for today’s Catholic crisis of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops, the Vatican dramatically raised the stakes for the February 2019 meeting that Pope Francis has called to discuss the crisis in a global perspective. How the Americans taking decisive action last month would have impeded Roman deliberations in February — the strange explanation offered by the Vatican for its edict — will remain an open question. Now, the most urgent matter is to define correctly the issues that global gathering will address. As there are disturbing signs that Those Who Just Don’t Get It are still not getting it, I’d like to flag some pitfalls the February meeting should avoid.

1. The crisis cannot be blamed primarily on “clericalism.”

If “clericalism” means a wicked distortion of the powerful influence priests exercise by virtue of their office, then “clericalism” was and is a factor in the sexual abuse of young people, who are particularly vulnerable to that influence. If “clericalism” means that some bishops, faced with clerical sexual abuse, reacted as institutional crisis-managers rather than shepherds protecting their flocks, then “clericalism” has certainly been a factor in the abuse crisis in Chile, Ireland, Germany, the U.K., and Poland, and in the McCarrick case (and others) in the United States. There are more basic factors involved in the epidemiology of this crisis, however. And “clericalism” cannot be a one-size-fits-all diagnosis of the crisis, or a dodge to avoid confronting more basic causes like infidelity and sexual dysfunction. “Clericalism” may facilitate abuse and malfeasance; it doesn’t cause them.

2. The language describing the crisis must reflect the empirical evidence.

“Protecting children” is absolutely essential; that is the ultimate no-brainer. But the mantra that this entire crisis — and the February meeting — is about “child protection” avoids the hard fact that in the United States and Germany (the two situations for which there is the largest body of data), the overwhelming majority of clerical sexual abuse has involved sexually dysfunctional priests preying on adolescent boys and young men. In terms of victim-demographics, this has never been a “pedophilia” crisis, although that language has been cemented into much of the world media’s storyline since 2002. If the Rome meeting ignores data and traffics in media “narratives,” it will fail.

3. Don’t ignore the devastating impact of a culture of dissent.

Ireland and Quebec demonstrate that sexual abuse occurred in the pre-conciliar Church. Still, the data suggest that there was a large spike in abuse in the late 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s: decades when dissent from Catholicism’s settled moral teaching was rampant among priests, tacit among too many bishops, and tolerated for the sake of keeping the peace. That appeasement strategy was disastrous. February meeting-planners have said that the Church needs a change of culture. Does that include changing the culture of dissent that seems to have been involved in spiking the number of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops? Then let the bishops gathered in Rome in February issue a clarion call to fidelity to the Church’s teaching on the ethics of human love, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. And let them affirm that ethic as a pathway to happiness and human flourishing, rather than treating it a noble but impossible ideal.

4. Forget bogus “solutions.”

How many times have we heard that changing the Church’s discipline of celibacy would reduce the incidence of clerical sexual abuse? It’s just not true. Marriage is not a crime-prevention program. And the data on the society-wide plague of sexual abuse suggests that most of these horrors take place within families. Celibacy is not the issue. The issues are effective seminary formation for living celibate love prior to ordination, and ongoing support for priests afterwards.

5. Resist playing the hierarchy card.

Drawing on lay expertise does not diminish episcopal authority; it enhances it. Bringing lay expertise to bear on this crisis is essential in getting at the facts and to restoring the badly-eroded credibility of too many bishops — and the Vatican. The leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference understood that, and the majority of American bishops were prepared to act on that understanding with serious remedies. The February meeting must be informed of those remedies — and it should consider how Roman autocracy made a very bad situation worse.

COMING UP: Cleansed and conformed to God’s will

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“Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted” has long been one of my favorite hymns. Its tune, taken from the 16th century Genevan Psalter, is eminently singable. The hymn text — when not corrupted by that politically-correct scoundrel, “alt.,” — is even better. For Francis Bland Tucker’s lyrics put 21st-century congregations in touch with the second generation of Christians, and perhaps even the first, by combining various phrases from an ancient Christian prayer book and catechism, the Didache.

Scholars continue to debate whether the Didache, more formally known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, comes to us from the second or first Christian centuries, but the weight of academic opinion now favors the earlier date. Thus, the Teaching (“Didache” in Greek) links us to what biblical scholar Raymond Brown called “the churches the apostles left behind:” the Christians who were taught by those who were taught by the Lord himself. Singing “Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted,” we are praying as second-generation Christians, formed by those who had known the Lord Jesus and were witnesses to his resurrection, prayed.

That should be both a consolation and a challenge as the Church prepares to begin a new liturgical year in this season of Catholic grief and anger. Why? Because the primitive Eucharistic Prayer found in the Didache, and the hymn that Father Tucker wrote from it, remind us that the Church is always in need of purification: “Watch o’er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy/save it from evil, guard it still/Perfect it in Thy Love, unite it/cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.”

That the Church needs cleansing is not much in doubt as Advent 2018 dawns. And that cleansing will necessarily involve everyone in the Church. All of us are called to live chastity as the integrity of love. All of us are called to support each other in meeting that lifelong challenge — by prayer, counsel, example, and fraternal correction when necessary. No one should doubt that, in this matter of the integrity of love, living “cleansed and conformed” to the divine will can be difficult, especially in today’s cultural circumstances. That is all the more reason for intensified prayer and penance in Advent and throughout the Church year, asking the Lord to watch over his Church in mercy, saving it from evil and guarding it from the Evil One.

Reaching too easily for “Satan” as the explanation of a Church crisis or a historical disaster should be avoided. Ignoring Satan is just as dangerous, however. And the Evil One is surely a factor in sowing the evil with which the Catholic Church is contending today. Sexual predation has as many causes as there are sexual predators, but each act of sexual abuse is a manifestation of evil and of a victory for the Evil One. Malfeasance among bishops — whether it be rooted in cowardice, a false notion of the imperatives of institutional maintenance, or personal corruption — is not just a matter of managerial mistakes; the failures of the shepherds touch the mysterium iniquitatis, the “mystery of evil,” and that should be recognized at every level of the Church’s life. The people who wrote the Didache knew that, it seems. So should we.

At the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of a new year of grace, the Church reads from the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testaments. Whether the seer is Daniel in Babylon or John on Patmos, the message is similar: do not flee from difficult, even horrific, situations, but live responsibly even when things seem to fall apart — perhaps especially in those moments when the foundations seem to be crumbling. Here, too, is a lesson for this season, in which so many Catholics are saying, “I have to do something.”

That’s true; we all do. We must all intensify prayer and penance. We should all be inviting to church those who have left out of boredom, anger, confusion, or disgust. We should all support the good priests and bishops we know, and we should firmly call clergy who are wayward to a change of heart and a change of life. It may seem as if Jesus is asleep in the storm-tossed boat, and we should call to him for help. But he also expects us to do something, and “something” will always be close at hand.