Since January, when the Boston Globe broke the story about Bernard Cardinal Law’s handling of cases of sex abuse by former priests, an almost continuous series of disturbing stories has been repeated nationwide. In the wake of revelations of sexual abuse, nearly 300 priests and bishops have been removed from their ministry or resigned.
The shock at the magnitude of these abuses has been matched, if not surpassed, by the anger at the way some bishops dealt with cases—moving guilty priests to new parish assignments without informing parishioners, using legal negotiations and out-of-court financial settlements to keep victims from making allegations public, giving the impression they were more concerned about protecting the church’s reputation than children.
It’s created a backlash. Laity are protesting, demanding more of a voice in church matters. They’re collecting funds and distributing them on their own to Catholic charities, bypassing church channels. Abuse survivors are fighting back. In Kentucky alone, approximately 150 lawsuits have already been filed against church officials. Nationally, as much as $1 billion may be paid in settlements, says Thomas P. Doyle, a military chaplain who co-authored a 1985 report on clergy sex abuse.
With such serious and ongoing struggles, questions abound: Where does this scandal leave the church? Can this be overcome? What is its future? Only time will truly answer these questions, but a peek at the church’s past may also provide a preview. In its 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has endured numerous crises. Most were effectively resolved, and the church often evolved into a stronger institution morally and structurally.
As the current crisis reminds us, the church’s call to holiness is—and always has been—an ongoing challenge. Through its two millennia of history, many examples of grace and goodness, as well as sin and corruption, can be found. Thus, studying the present crisis through an historical lens can be quite instructive. One point of reference: the events leading up to the 16th century’s Protestant Reformation, when there were repeated calls for the church’s reform “in head and members.”
At the time, papal nepotism and corruption were manifest. From 1378-1414, three different popes claimed simultaneously to be the true pope, each giving away or selling benefices in order to secure allegiances. During the papacy of Leo X between 1513-1521, some 2,000 church jobs “were literally sold over the counter at the Vatican,” Thomas Bokenkotter observed in A Concise History of the Catholic Church. “Even a cardinal’s hat might go to the highest bidder.”
Bishops acquired multiple bishoprics to increase their wealth, meaning they were regularly absent from other dioceses, thus allowing spiritual decay and priestly misconduct to multiply. Clerics were immune from the normal jurisdiction of civil magistrates, despite committing felonies. Monks and nuns failed to live according to their religious orders’ rules. Men were ordained despite being ignorant of scripture and theology. Priests lived openly with mistresses. Even Pope Alexander VI was openly promiscuous, fathering six sons and three daughters with different women.
Not all of these mirror the issues of today, but some parallels can be drawn.
Then, as today, moral misconduct was not an isolated event.
Then, as today, clerics guilty of misconduct were not necessarily more numerous than those in other occupations, nor were their crimes more heinous. Yet abuses certainly seemed worse—and still do today—when committed by clerics. As Owen Chadwick observed in The Reformation: “The clergy were the keepers of the public conscience.”
Then, as today, the failure of church leaders to curb corruption and effect real reform during the councils of Constance, Basel and Lateran V fueled discontent among church members. They became more critical, impatient and outspoken in support of reform.
Then, as today, the stories of misconduct were disseminated widely through the media. With the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century, it became possible to print multiple copies of treatises more quickly and economically than ever. This made it possible for Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses to be distributed throughout Germany in a matter of weeks.
Then, as today, many people of faith persevered in their pursuit of holiness despite egregious cases of misconduct. Some, such as St. Catherine of Siena, combined personal virtue and love of the church with a critical call for church reform. The same is true today—Archbishop Oscar Romero being an example.
Of course, differences between then and today exist, many of them significant. The Reformation involved doctrinal matters—issues believed to affect one’s eternal destiny—and not simply matters of moral and ecclesial reform. The Reformation was also fueled by politics and nationalistic aspirations. But does this history provide any insight into the future of the church? I think so. When the crisis of the 16th century couldn’t be silenced by papal admonitions of Luther and others, the church convened a general council at Trent. It addressed the doctrinal issues so important to Luther and Calvin as well as the church’s moral and administrative problems.
Trent mandated the establishment of seminaries, where priests could be properly trained; it promoted a careful study of scripture and the dissemination of biblical knowledge; and it required bishops to make authentic preaching of the gospel their chief duty. It also required members of religious orders to adhere assiduously to a pious lifestyle; it exhorted bishops and prelates to live modestly; and it gave bishops the authority to remove from the active priesthood those clerics guilty of “grave crimes” and the power to hand them over to the civil court.
The 25th Session of the Council in December 1563 specifically addressed the public scandal of priests and bishops cohabitating with mistresses. If they didn’t reform their moral lives, such clergy were subject to penalties that ranged from losing one-third of their income to suspension, excommunication or imprisonment.
The measures enacted by the Council of Trent rooted out many pastoral, moral and administrative problems because the church’s leaders dedicated themselves indefatigably to making those measures effective. The reforms strengthened the church and enabled it to confront subsequent challenges with renewed vitality.
In response to the present crisis, Pope John Paul II summoned U.S. cardinals to Rome in April, where he called sexual abuse a sin and a crime. He expressed the hope that the church, through its response, would demonstrate “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
In June, the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas, where Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered a fervent apology to survivors of abuse and promised effective measures to prevent future abuses. The bishops approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and established norms for dealing with sexual abuse allegations. A national review board comprised of prominent Catholic lay leaders was appointed and charged with monitoring the bishops’ implementation of the policies.
The promulgation of legislation by itself will not resolve the problems, of course. At the very least, church leaders must demonstrate through consistent and long-term actions that their words in Dallas were sincere. If church leaders want to avoid the permanent disaffection of large numbers of Catholics, they must not only enforce this charter, but also create structures and procedures by which the laity can be more fully engaged in the church’s decision-making processes.
A key difference between the crisis today and the crisis in the 16th century is the ecclesiology—the understanding of the church—that has taken hold among contemporary laity. The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” promulgated by Vatican II in 1964, broke down the wall between clergy and laity, which the Protestant Reformers had breached nearly 450 years earlier. The Catholic laity have since assumed a much more active role in the life of the church. Whereas most Christians were illiterate at the time of the Reformation, the “democratization” of education has created a laity today who can read the scriptures, theological traditions and media reports for themselves. Education and the spirit of the Enlightenment, coupled with the American emphasis on civil liberties such as freedom of speech, have made Am-erican Catholics outspoken in their criticism of church problems. They want change. They want the church to be more open, less secretive; more participatory, less authoritarian.
Despite these aspirations and the pronouncements of Vatican II that undergird them, the perception lingers in some quarters of the church that the proper role of the laity is simply to “pay, pray, and obey.” It was barely a century ago that Pope Pius X claimed that the church is “essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock . . . [and] the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”
Yet as the first national convention of Voice of the Faithful in July made clear, many American Catholics are unwilling to be docile followers when their bishops are perceived to be poor leaders. The 4,200 Catholics from about 40 states who gathered in Boston for the convention resonated when James E. Post, a Boston University professor and president of Voice, declared: “Today we assert our right and our responsibility as baptized Catholics to participate in the decision-making processes of each parish, each diocese and the whole Catholic Church.”
Vatican II acknowledged the legitimacy of such lay responsibility. Yet it suggested lay input should be channeled through church structures. But what happens when the structures don’t exist or are inadequate? What happens when the laity, as in Boston, begin to collect money for church ministries from Catholics who are unwilling to give that money to the local cardinal for disbursement, and the cardinal, in turn, forbids archdiocesan charities to accept that money?
History teaches us that the church needs dedicated leaders who will confess to any crimes committed, make restitution and establish and enforce procedures to ensure abuse is unlikely to recur. But we can’t just look to the past. We also need to discern the current signs of the times, such as a deep desire of many Catholics for greater transparency in church structures and greater lay participation in decision-making. The Vatican II assertion that the church is the entire people of God—and not simply the clergy or the hierarchy—and its admission that the church is human and sinful, and not simply a divine sign and instrument of communion with God, must be reaffirmed.
The urgency of the task that faces the church and the humility with which it must be confronted are expressed well in the words of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” It confessed that the church “is well aware that in the course of its long history it has not lacked members, both clerical and lay, who have been unfaithful to the Spirit of God. Even at present the church is not blind to the large gap which exists between the message which it delivers and the human frailty of those who are entrusted with the gospel. Whatever may be the verdict of history on these failings, we ought to be aware of them and assiduously combat them to prevent their harming the spread of the gospel.”
Church reform is not simply a human-inspired agenda, nor can it be effected by a single part of the church. As the body of Christ, the church needs the full participation of head and members in responding to the call of Christ who, in the words of Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” summons the church to “that continual reformation of which she always has need.”