It is hard to describe 2019 in glowing terms for the Church, whether in the United States or worldwide. I will not recite every gory detail here, but this year saw a further unfolding of the drama of sexual abuse, both the abuse itself and the deposing of several bishops and other clergy for covering it up. More of the same is likely to follow in the year to come. This has led to further discouragement among both clergy and the faithful.
Can anything good possibly come from 2019? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange packages. Though I have been a vocal critic of many of the events of the past few years, I would like to point out some positive effects of the ordeal. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.
The laity has found its collective voice.
Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a member of the clergy. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior, mentioning it was verboten. There was an almost excessive deference by the laity to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.
Though this began changing in the 1970s and 1980s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and was highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.
Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.
While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.
The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.
Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.
Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.
Clergy are more likely to correct one another and to speak more honestly to their bishop.
Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people, and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.
We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.
The recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop, not obsequiousness or fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.
We have learned the price of silence and compromise.
The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children today are raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits is deafening.
In 1968, many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stopped teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized, too controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.
We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish, and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.
It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.
Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.
The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts: here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is necessary in order for any solution to be credible.
Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself raised these concerns in 2018. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.
The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!
We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent, pubescent, and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.
Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.
Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.
There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.
The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.
Beware of over-correction! Above are some positive outcomes from the crisis, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to an extreme that may be equally undesirable. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:
- a laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops
- bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking
- the neglect of mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin
- the failure to address the sexual abuse of females by clergy (20% of victims)
- the disparagement of sexual attraction to the extent that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be demonized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.
Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may emerge from the ongoing crisis.