n October 31, 1517, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, Dr. Martin Luther, put the finishing touches on a series of bullet points and, legend has it, nailed the result to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany—the equivalent, for the time and place, of uploading a particularly explosive blog post. Luther’s was a protest against the sale of chits that were claimed to entitle buyers or their designees to shorter stays in Purgatory. Such chits, known as indulgences, were being hawked as part of Pope Leo X’s fund-raising drive for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica. The “Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” touched off a high-stakes flame war that rapidly devolved into the real thing, with actual wars, actual flames, and actual stakes. The theological clash that sundered Christendom didn’t just change the face of Western religion; it birthed the modern world.
Half a millennium later, the present agony of Catholicism is very far from being in the same league, even though the National Catholic Reporter has called it “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in Church history.” The crisis is not about doctrine, at least not directly. It’s about administration; it’s about the structure of power within the Catholic Church; it’s about the Church’s insular, self-protective clerical culture. And, of course, like nearly every one of the controversies that preoccupy and bedevil the Church—abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, celibacy, marriage and divorce and affectional orientation—it’s about sex.
It’s also about indulgence—the institutional indulgence, fitful but systemic, of the sexual exploitation of children by priests. The pattern broke into public consciousness in the United States a quarter of a century ago, when a Louisiana priest pleaded guilty to thirty-three counts of crimes against children and was sentenced to prison. Since then, there have been thousands of such cases, civil and criminal, involving many thousands of children and leading to legal settlements that have amounted to more than two billion dollars and have driven several dioceses into bankruptcy. In 1992, Richard Sipe, a Catholic psychotherapist and researcher who served for eighteen years as a priest and Benedictine monk, told a conference of victims that “the current revelations of abuse are the tip of an iceberg, and if the problem is traced to its foundations the path will lead to the highest halls of the Vatican.”
America’s liberal system of tort law, along with the enterprising reporting of journalists at newspapers like the Boston Globe, brought the problem to light earlier here than elsewhere. But it can no longer be dismissed as an epiphenomenon of America’s sexual libertinism and religious indiscipline. In Ireland, for example, where Church-run orphanages and other institutions for children are supported by the state, a government commission reported last year that
the Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities.
The past few years have seen a cascade of revelations from many countries, including, most recently, Germany, and in the past month the cascade has become a flood. Sipe’s prediction has come true. As Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger appears to have been at best neglectful, at worst complicit, in minimizing and covering up specific cases of abuse that came under his supervision.
The response of the ecclesiastical powers that be, once outright denial became untenable, has all along been an unsatisfactory mixture of contrition and irritation. From Benedict on down, Church fathers have made statements of apology and shame. Awareness programs have been launched, studies have been conducted, bishops have been obliged to resign. The Pope met personally with victims of abuse during his visit to the United States, in 2008, and even his critics agree that he has taken the problem more seriously, both before and since his elevation to the throne of St. Peter, than did his predecessor, the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II.
On the other hand, that’s not setting the bar very high. When serious discipline has been imposed, it has generally been in the wake of bad publicity, usually from outside the Church and always from outside the hierarchy. There has been a lot of bad publicity of late, and some of the reaction has been tinged with resentful paranoia. In an editorial,L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, accused “the media” of having the “rather obvious and ignoble intention of attacking Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators at all costs.” This was echoed, nearer home, by the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who, in his blog (yes, he has one), accused the Times of “being part of a well-oiled campaign against Pope Benedict.” Back in Rome, on Palm Sunday, the Pope himself spoke darkly of “the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”
The Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution, modelled on the political structures of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. It is better at transmitting instructions downward than at facilitating accountability upward. It is monolithic. It claims the unique legitimacy of a line of succession going back to the apostolic circle of Jesus Christ. Its leaders are protected by a nimbus of mystery, pomp, holiness, and, in the case of the Pope, infallibility—to be sure, only in certain doctrinal matters, not administrative ones, but the aura is not so selective. The hierarchy of such an institution naturally resists admitting to moral turpitude and sees squalid scandal as a mortal threat. Equally important, the government of the Church is entirely male.
It is not “anti-Catholic” to hypothesize that these things may have something to do with the Church’s extraordinary difficulty in coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse. The iniquities now roiling the Catholic Church are more shocking than the ones that so outraged Martin Luther. But the broader society in which the Church is embedded has grown incomparably freer. To the extent that the Church manages to purge itself of its shame—its sins, its crimes—it will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacher—and the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants. ♦