Can the Bishops Heal the American Church?

The Catholic Church in America is at a watershed. The current crisis is the culmination of decades of bad management, errant theology, and sinful behavior. It is partly about sex and partly about bishops. It is also about deluded therapies and an institutional Church that often goes flopping along with the mainstream on moral issues. The crisis is mostly, however, about active homosexuals in the priesthood. Anyone (including an archbishop) who does not admit this is simply part of the problem.

The media have framed the issue as one of pedophilia, that is, the sexual abuse of prepubescent children. But the large majority of the cases in question involve not pedophilia but the sexual abuse of teenage boys. Sexual attraction to male adolescents is technically called “ephebophilia.” But don’t expect Mike Wallace to use this term on 60 Minutes. Not because it is a mouthful, but because the media prefer not to treat homosexual behavior as the issue. Still, it is the issue, and if the hierarchy does not root it out—if it takes the easy approach of instituting “new procedures” for dealing with abuse only after it has occurred—then the devastation is going to continue.

In the Wake of Humanae Vitae
Let me tell you a story. Two decades ago, a friend of mine attended a large social gathering sponsored by a diocese in the Northeast. At one point, all the local seminarians arrived, and as the music was cranked up, they all began to dance with one another. My friend expressed puzzlement to somebody familiar with the way things were under the local bishop, and the reply was, “Of course, all the seminarians are gay.”

The institutional Church has been deeply corrupted by the sexual revolution. Ralph Mclnerny was absolutely correct in his April 2002 “End Notes” when he wrote that many of our problems can be traced to the widespread theological dissent against Humanae Vitae. That 1968 encyclical was the defining moment of modern American Catholicism. It put famous theologians into open rebellion against the Holy See. It made heterodoxy normative in many, if not most, Catholic institutions. In the wake of the dissent, many in the clergy began to issue permission slips to the laity for all sorts of sex­ual behavior. So why not give one to themselves?

I hope we are beyond the point where any discussion of homosexual behavior that is not entirely favorable is deemed “homophobic.” We are not talking here about priests with a homosexual orientation who are struggling to live the virtue of chastity. We are talking about active homosexuals who have broken their vows. We are talking about a lifestyle that is often marked by compulsive behavior. Homosexuals have a more serious problem with promiscuity and lack of restraint than do heterosexuals (see, for example, Spence Publishing’s Homosexuality in American Public Life, edited by Christopher Wolfe). Forty percent of homosexual sex today is reportedly unprotected—this after two decades of safe-sex instruction. Active homosexuals also constitute a relatively high proportion of sexual molesters. And they have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood.

How did this happen? At some point in the early 1970s, a gay insurgency within the Church began to gain control of at least part of the official Catholic apparatus. Once in place, this network expanded. Many seminaries were turned into “pink palaces” where young, devout, heterosexual men felt distinctly vulnerable. And this is not just a diocesan problem: Many religious orders run seminaries with openly homosexual cultures.

Is it surprising, then, that these scandals have occurred? If you allow into the priesthood men who in many cases have already chosen to flout Catholic moral teachings and are disposed to mix sodomy with their ministerial rounds, which include contact with teenage boys, there are going to be incidents of sexual abuse.

Where the Bishops Went Wrong
And let’s be clear about this: There is no greater scandal on this planet than a priest sexually violating a minor. Christ used the strongest possible language to condemn the abuse of the “little ones.” Such acts are the equivalent of spiritual and psychological murder. They are often perpetrated on confused youths who hunger for a father figure and never fully recover from the betrayal of trust.

Just as scandalous has been the handling of these incidents by bishops and administrators. And this brings us to a larger problem in the American Church. For decades, our episcopate has been in the hands of mildly “pastoral” men who (with honorable exceptions) chose not to see what was happening on their watch. This is true even of some visibly orthodox bishops. It is good and honorable to uphold Catholic doctrine in the public arena, but it is much more difficult to confront diocesan officials who dissent from Catholic teaching. Even in so-called orthodox dioceses there can be found legions of heterodox administrators who have ruined seminaries and made a hash of CCD and Pre-Cana programs. This is where the courage of many bishops fails: They would rather get on with their administrators—some of whom maybe openly contemptuous of the magisterium—than be a sign of contradiction. They simply let things happen.

The grossly negligent response of certain bishops to incidents of sexual abuse is of a piece with this “I’m okay, you’re okay” style of episcopal management. Sexual predators have been shifted from parish to parish, their crimes buried in chancery files, and the families of victims in some cases bullied or bought into silence. Bishops have treated the threat of bad publicity, rather than the predators, as the problem. Their response to these wolves loose in the sheepfold has been bureaucratic rather than spiritual and moral.

Even now, I am not sure that some bishops really get it, given the solutions they are venting after meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome. The crisis is not going to be solved just by instituting new procedures, or tightening up reporting, or using more psychological testing. It will disappear only when bishops understand the responsibilities of their office and are not afraid of striking at the root of the problem—which is going to involve, among other things, firing vocations directors, cleaning up the seminaries, and defrocking (with Rome’s permission) a number of priests. We are not talking about witch-hunts, and due process is important. But why should so many teaching centers of the Church be in the hands of people who not only reject Catholic doctrine but don’t seem to mind priests breaking their vows?

One of the benefits of the current scandals is the exposure of the therapeutic culture that has invaded the Church. The Catholic landscape is dotted with therapy centers that purport to treat sexually abusive priests. These centers give bishops the illusion that they are doing something about the problem. But they are often staffed with “experts” who are sympathetic to the gay agenda. These therapists are quick to label their patients as normal and harmless after a few months of counseling and send them off for a new parish assignment. It is worth noting that in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association officially decided to stop treating the homosexual orientation as a problem. In any event, anybody who knows anything about sexual pathologies knows that the rates of recidivism are high after treatment. The credulity of those who have bought into these programs for so long is truly astonishing.

What the Bishops Must Do
The current crisis presents an enormous opportunity for reform and renewal within the Church. There is also a great potential for error. One popular proposal is to allow priests to marry. But there is a good reason why celibacy is a Church discipline. On a practical level, the Church discovered early on that diocesan priests could not fully do justice to the vocation of priesthood and the vocation of marriage, both of which involve a total gift of self. Also, think about it: If the Church were to allow priests to marry, within a decade or so there would be a lot of divorced priests—some clamoring for remarriage. If the sexual revolution is going to adversely affect single priests, it will certainly affect married ones.

There are things the hierarchy can do right now to address the crisis, and there are other policies that will take years to implement. First, the American bishops have to admit that this is their problem, not Rome’s. One of the ironies of the current crisis is that for years parties in the American Church, including bishops, have complained about Vatican “interference,” implying that they have more to teach Rome than vice versa. But the moment the scandals broke, the cry became, “Why doesn’t the Vatican do something?” The Catholic Church is not an American corporation, and the bishops are not functionaries of the pope; they are the heads of the Church in their diocese and are fully responsible.

And they need to do a serious housecleaning. They need to ask a number of incorrigible offenders to leave the priesthood. They may have to close some seminaries or transfer their management to orthodox orders. I recently talked to one young man who described life in the East Coast seminary from which he was expelled for orthodoxy: lavish parties, plenty of liquor, never any silence, an openly gay vice-rector, a liturgy professor who assigns Protestant textbooks on the Eucharist and refers to the Blessed Sacrament as “bread” and transubstantiation as a “theory.” The only “good” news was that not all his fellow seminarians were gay: One had a girlfriend who regularly visited his bed with the tacit approval of his superiors.

In the case of the abuse of minors, there should be a “one strike and you’re out” policy. The severity of this approach does not violate the Catholic understanding that all sinners are capable of change and repentance. It is simply a prudential recognition that a disproportionate number of sex offenders are likely to bide their time and strike again. We have a duty to protect our youth, and this means we have no business experimenting with more therapies and simply hoping for the best.

The bishops should also consider incorporating Rev. John Harvey’s Courage program in seminaries and treatment centers. Courage is a spiritual support system that helps men with a homosexual orientation to live an interior life of chastity. It works. Yet Catholic bishops and administrators are often hostile to Courage, preferring programs that are more to the taste of gay activists.

The bishops might also consider finally implementing the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which, among other things, are an antidote to the clericalism that still plagues the Church in this country. In too many dioceses, there is an impenetrable clerical culture that does not involve orthodox lay Catholics with real expertise in areas like management and organization—and theology, for that matter. I am not suggesting the “clericalization” of the laity, but it is important for both clergy and laity to grow out of the habit of viewing the Church as a juridical machine run by a self-enclosed hierarchy. The current crisis would not have been so bad if the hierarchy had worked with consultative lay bodies that act as a reality check.

Like the Sons of Noah
What is the proper response of the laity to the crisis? Above all, it should be one of prayer and trust in God. We should also examine ourselves as Catholics. The laity constitute 98 percent of the Church, and these scandals among the clergy did not occur in a vacuum. Do we pray for priests? Do we foster vocations among devout and intelligent young men? Are we supportive of parish priests, who have very difficult jobs and often only hear complaints? Are we charitable toward their human failings?

Sometimes it is a good thing for the laity to behave like the sons of Noah, who covered their father’s nakedness with a cloak. St. Catherine of Siena, who lived in a time of great crisis in the Church, reports Christ as saying in one of her mystical dialogues: “It is my will that the sins of the clergy should not lessen your reverence for them…because the reverence you pay to them is not actually paid to them but to me.” Our outlook in these matters must be supernatural. Our attention should primarily be on God rather than the sins of others.

That said, the Church has serious work to do in putting its house in order. St. Catherine also wrote: “It is essential to root out from the garden of the Church the rotten plants and to put in their place the good ones.”


George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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