The rapidly unfolding crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is not a matter of concern to Catholics alone. Its true dimensions have yet to be measured, but we think it will prove to be a crisis on the scale of the Protestant Reformation, which began just over 500 years ago — an earthquake of 9.5 on the Richter scale. If so, resolution of the crisis will take decades to work through.
Resolution and absolution will require serious effort, and most likely require deep, structural reforms. Even if we are mistaken, the Catholic crisis is of such a magnitude that Christians of all denominations must take a serious interest in it.
We are both evangelical Christians with strong ties to the Catholic Church and deep respect for it. One of us was raised as a Catholic, was educated at Catholic primary and secondary schools, and has taught for the past 14 years at a Catholic law school; the other is a graduate of the law school and the business school of that Catholic university, and has many Catholic family members.
We also care deeply about our many Catholic friends, and the health of the Roman Catholic Church, which is an enormous force for good in this world. We also believe that what happens with the Catholic Church will affect Christianity worldwide. In other words, we have a stake in the matter.
Non-Catholics Should Pay Attention
Some Catholics may regard the crisis in their church as a purely internal matter, and consider outside commentary unwelcome and intrusive, even if it is well-meant. Likewise, many non-Catholic Christians may assume the Catholic crisis does not affect them at all, and perhaps even find in that crisis confirmation for their darkest views of Catholicism.
We do not accept that position. Non-Catholic Christians should take an active part in the conversation about the Catholic crisis. While they must be unfailingly tactful and sympathetic, they should also be as critical as is necessary given what is at stake. The well-known writer Rod Dreher, formerly a Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox, has posted frequently on the Catholic crisis, and is a magnificent model for other non-Catholic Christians to follow.
Among many reasons for non-Catholic interventions, three stand out in our minds.
1. The Victims
First, every Christian has a compelling obligation to protect the weak and vulnerable to the greatest extent possible. The victims of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church (as elsewhere) have often been children. While many victims have been compensated — if “compensation” for such injuries is really possible — and the Catholic Church in many places has instituted practices to guard against future abuse, it remains necessary to speak on behalf of those who have been victimized and those who may still be at risk.
All Christians, especially Catholics, should be angry. It is unbearable to think of what has been done “to the least of these” by those claiming to speak in the name of Christ. Many of the children targeted and abused came from broken and dysfunctional homes. Many are fatherless.
The church is charged with mending the emptiness that a broken family brings, not violently shattering a child’s world. God is the father to the fatherless. What would Christ, who overturned tables at the temple and chased out the moneychangers with a whip, do to those who sexually molest his children?
Far too many in the church hierarchy, including the pope, are not sufficiently angry. For example, this coming January, Cardinal Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyons in France, will be standing trial for allegedly covering up the crimes of a local priest who, in the 1980s, sexually abused Boy Scouts. A local priest has gathered more than 100,000 signatures to petition the pope to remove this cardinal.
Thus far, however, Pope Francis seems not to have responded to that petition. However, in 2016, despite knowing of the allegations against the cardinal, and apparently without meeting or hearing the victims of the priest’s abuse, Pope Francis praised Barbarin as “brave.” He also has not ordered a canonical proceeding against him.
We are not prejudging Barbarin’s guilt or innocence: that depends on the outcome of his case in January. But we think it is fair to say that Pope Francis’ handling of the affair indicates that he is — at best — over-eager to defend his hierarchy and insufficiently attentive to those who have suffered at their hands.
The pope is not the only member of the Catholic hierarchy who seems simply unable to register the severity of the injuries they cause to their victims, and others at risk from them. Recently, on a visit to a seminary, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, a Francis appointee, answered one anguished young candidate for the priesthood by saying, “While the church’s ‘agenda’ certainly involves protecting kids from harm, ‘we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this.’” His audience was reportedly dumbfounded: Surely the problem of sexual abuse of seminaries and children is more than a “distraction?”
In a similar vein, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras has excoriated a group of 50 Honduran seminarians for petitioning the Vatican to correct homosexual abuses going on in their seminary. We apparently are to believe that 50 seminaries are spreading malicious lies, while Madariaga, whose top aide resigned last July in the wake of charges of sexual and financial misconduct, is only speaking the truth.
Moreover, the victims of clerical abuse and the hierarchical concealment of them are not limited to those who have personally suffered sexual affronts. The financial costs to the Catholic Church of litigating and settling abuse cases have been staggering, and are now likely to escalate much higher. In 2015, the National Catholic Reporter found that the church had incurred $4 billion since 1950 in costs related to clerical sex abuse.
Research has also found that the church lost about $2.3 billion annually over the last 30 years due to scandal-related consequences, in the form of lost membership, and diverted giving. Specifically, there is a notable drop in giving in areas rocked by abuse. This makes sense. Why should good people give to pay for bad things?
Abuse litigation in the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone cost $740 million. Yet the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, under whose tenure (1985-2011) there were 500 alleged victims, is still considered a “priest in good standing” and has not been demoted by the pope.
These amounts will likely rise significantly in the wake of the recent report by a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing abuse in most (but not all) of that state’s Catholic dioceses, the overwhelming likelihood that similar investigations will occur in other states, and the risk that statutes of limitations will be amended to expose the Catholic Church to greater liability.
That means the American Catholic Church has had, and will have, far fewer resources to help the poor, to care for the sick, to shelter the homeless, and to educate children. These are victims too.
2. Concern for Fellow Christians
Second, even if you happen not to be a Catholic, surely you have Catholic family members, spouses, close friends, or colleagues who are Catholics. Almost half of the U.S. population has a “strong” connection to the Catholic Church. We have often found the Catholics closest to us to be dismayed by the situation in their church — angry, stunned, confused, or even in denial. Fellow Christians should share their agony.
The other Christian churches should want a healthy, robust Catholic Church, not the gravely weakened one of the present. American Catholicism was losing members alarmingly even before the current phase of the Catholic crisis. It is said that the second largest American denomination, after the Catholic Church, is ex-Catholics.
Not all of that decline is due to the clerical scandals; the general re-paganization of American society has surely played its part. But it seems likely that many former Catholics have abandoned their church (or at least are boycotting it) because of the scandals. The abuse scandals may also be playing a role in this re-paganization — after all, abuse of young boys was a pagan practice that early Christianity condemned and sought to stamp out.
In light of all this, non-Catholic Christians may be increasingly tempted to view Catholicism as a kind of pariah church within global Christianity. But that would not only be uncharitable; it would be unwise. To a great extent, the reputation of the Christian faith itself is besmirched when a large Christian denomination is engulfed in continuing scandals.
3. The Risk to Religious Liberty
When a large corporate body proves unable to govern itself, the chances are high that the government will step in. We saw this when financial institutions considered “too big to fail” were either shuttered by the government or subjected to deeply intrusive government regulation. The Catholic Church is heading towards the same predicament. Unless it can prove, very rapidly, that it is capable of managing its own affairs, it will come under increasing governmental scrutiny and control. Thereby it will pose a danger to the religious liberties of us all.
Already, the American Catholic Church is under the regulatory microscope. We’ve mentioned the stunning grand jury report from Pennsylvania. Attorneys general in five other states — Illinois, New York, Nebraska, New Mexico, Missouri, and now Kentucky — have been quick to take the cue.
These investigations may well reveal problems as deep, intractable, and serious as those discovered in Pennsylvania. That is, the systematic abuse of children was known to be occurring, and no one did anything about it.
Federal and state courts have already been involved, e.g., in diocesan bankruptcy cases. They are now likely to be trying larger numbers of criminal cases related to the abuse scandals, including some against ranking Catholic prelates. There is even a possibility that the Department of Justice may launch an anti-racketeering suit against the American Catholic Church.
Yes, there is a sturdy tradition of religious liberty in this country, and it enjoys constitutional protection in the First Amendment. But in the past several years, that tradition has been weakening, and government has asserted broader power to control decisions that churches once considered their own.
The Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” is a case in point. Given that growing numbers of Americans have severed their affiliations to any religion or church, the public (and the courts) may grow increasingly indifferent to arguments of behalf of religious liberty, and come to regard governmental regulation of all churches with greater acceptance. These trends will be aggravated if the largest American denomination seems scandal-ridden and unable to right itself. That makes the problems of the Catholic Church a matter of the highest concern for us all.
Gazing Into the Abyss
It is absolutely essential that Catholics grasp the depth of this crisis. As we have said, we think it will become as severe and as comprehensive as the crisis of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. With remarkable swiftness, Catholicism simply collapsed in what had been Catholic strongholds — most of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and very nearly France. In recent decades, Catholicism has likewise lost its grip in what had been bastions — like French Canada, Spain, Ireland, and Brazil.
Forty years ago, virtually the entire population of southern Ireland turned out to welcome Pope John Paul II. A few weeks ago, the Irish population essentially shunned the visiting Pope Francis, and the Irish prime minister gave him a stern lecture on his church’s reduced place in that country. What would St. Patrick, who, despite just escaping from slavery in pagan Ireland, returned to the island after hearing the screams of the damned in his dreams, think of the church today?
As goes Ireland, so will go the rest of Roman Catholic Christendom. The church in Germany has been rocked by scandal and there are thousands of known-victims. Already, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is under judgment in Chile, the United States, Australia, France, and Honduras. The crisis has long since gone global.
In fact, as the Catholic scholar Benjamin Wiker has argued, the current crisis is more threatening for the Catholic Church than the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. For one thing, the Reformation began in a society that was still overwhelmingly Christian. Some historians of the pre-Reformation period even argue that Christian piety was deepening and broadening in the run-up to the Reformation, and that the Christian laity was already assuming a more prominent role in managing church affairs (a development greatly accelerated by Lutherans and Calvinists). But the contemporary Western world seems rapidly to be losing whatever residual Christianity was left in it. That makes a Catholic recovery more problematic.
Second, the internet spreads news of the Catholic crisis within seconds into every house. Everyone knows everything. Pope Francis, who seems to prefer talking about plastics in our oceans over the systemic problem of child abuse, may count on a friendly and collaborative media to ignore or downplay the charges Archbishop Vigano recently brought personally against him. But even if information leaks out drip by drip, the Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican can no longer safely rely on secrecy and on silence to cover their misdeeds.
Just as the printing press was a major force in the spread of the Reformation in Martin Luther’s Germany, so internet journalism (and, who knows, even the mainstream media when the pope is no longer useful to their agenda) will sooner or later force the disclosure of the facts. So it will not do for Catholics simply to say, “We have been through this before. We will make it through again.” In the end, that belief may be vindicated. We sincerely hope it is. But in the meanwhile, they must be energetically fashioning responses that are truly commensurate to this crisis.