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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

People of the church must take it back

1/22/2002

John J. Geoghan is at the bar of justice, and Cardinal Bernard Law's reputation as the man responsible for the archdiocese - and its children - is battered. But a deeper church problem has yet to be addressed. Even if Geoghan is punished (likely), and even if Cardinal Law resigns (unlikely) - an underlying culture of Catholic dishonesty will still be in place.

The problem goes beyond Cardinal Law, beyond the likes of Geoghan, and even beyond the dependable good will of almost all Catholic priests. The scandal in Boston reveals that clergy and laity alike are at the mercy of a so far unaddressed disorder that infects the priesthood in particular, and, more broadly, Catholic attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

It would be simplistic to attribute the moral paralysis that has been a mark of church responses to priestly child abuse to any one characteristic of Catholic culture, whether celibacy, or the all-male priesthood, or a Jansenist suspicion of sexuality that breeds repression, or the contradiction between increasingly self-respecting homosexuals among the Catholic clergy and a Catholic moral theology that continues to preach contempt for homosexuality. But taken together, such notes of contemporary Catholic conflict are indicators of the dysfunction that results when the gap between preached ideals and life as it is really lived becomes too wide -- especially if the ideals are false.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the church's great attempt to deal more honestly with the contradiction between a religious culture still firmly rooted in the Middle Ages and a Catholic people who had come of age in the modern world. Tremendous progress was made in church attitudes toward liturgy and theology. Interreligious dialogue advanced not only among Christians but with Jews.

The church questioned its own exercise of power. Pope John XXIII trusted his fellow bishops and the people to help bring about such basic changes, but his successor, Pope Paul VI, made a momentous -- and, history suggests, disastrous -- decision to reserve two great questions to himself, trusting no one. The questions concerned birth control and priestly celibacy. In both cases the pope later handed down absolute decisions -- against birth control ("Humanae Vitae," 1968), and for celibacy ("Sacerdotalis Caelibatus," 1967).

As noted by numerous critics, such as Garry Wills, Hans Kung, and Eugene Kennedy, these pronouncements led to a tragic Catholic decline. Loyal Catholics, faced with the recent child-abuse scandal, want to defend the many faithful priests who are men of impressive virtue, yet it is these very priests who carry the burdens of dishonesty and collapse caused by these two church policies. Catholics simply do not believe that birth control is evil, nor, in my experience, do most priests -- yet the rule stands.

A related "idealism" has cost the church its credibility on all matters of sexual morality, from the so-called evils of masturbation to the rejection of condoms even to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Catholic leaders will oppose contraception even if that means a rise in abortion rates. To protect the ideal of marriage for life, priests are expected to encourage women to stay married to men who beat them. The Catholic lie about divorce, of course, is enshrined in the word "annulment." Regarding sex generally, a Catholic culture of dishonesty reigns.

Similarly, Catholics have watched the priesthood literally collapsing around the harried men who still serve -- while the Vatican rejects the service of married men and, most outrageously, refuses to ordain women on the ludicrous grounds that all of the Apostles were male.

The Vatican has said that its pronouncement against women priests is forever and infallible -- yet most Catholics reject it. Meanwhile, more than half the parishes in the world have no priest, and what priests remain are aging fast.

Why this crisis? Because virginal sexlessness is deemed morally superior to an actively erotic life -- an inhuman idea that opens a gap, an ethical abyss, into which the most well meaning of people can fall.

None of these factors, taken alone, leads to the sexual abuse of children by priests, but when that horrible crime occurs, this broad culture of silence, denial, dishonesty, and collapse makes it far less likely that the church, from the hierarchy to people in the pew, will respond honestly and wisely. That is why the Geoghan case must lead to more than recriminations aimed at individuals. The abuser punished, yes. The cardinal repentant, yes. But this scandal must lead to a new awareness of what it means to be Catholic -- no longer at the mercy of the moral paralysis of church leaders, or the corruptions they defend.

The Catholic people, whose instinctive response to the abuse crisis has been clear as a bell, must take the church back, demanding broad reform -- for the sake of the church's soul and, more important, for the sake of the children.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 1/22/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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