End Notes: The Shame of the Shepherds

Revelations about the pedophilia of a disturbing number of Catholic priests reached a critical point in Boston recently. The spectacle of a cardinal archbishop brought to the bar of secular public opinion and required to answer questions from the hostile media sent a frisson of shame down the spine of Catholics throughout the country. Priests with a known history of pedophilia had been passed from parish to parish in the pathetic hope that the problem would somehow disappear. Many demanded that the cardinal resign. In his reply, he said that he was a shepherd, not a CEO, and a shepherd does not desert his flock. But the question is, What is he going to do about the wolves?

Should any bishop be surprised at the apparent lack of morality in significant numbers of the clergy? The problem is not simply how pedophiles have been reassigned. It is time to face up to the fact that during the past 35 years, our bishops have permitted a culture of dissent, largely defined by bizarre conceptions of sexuality, to flourish in the Church.

Nearly 20 years ago, Thomas Sheehan triumphantly announced that the liberals had won—we control, he chortled, the bishops’ conference, the chanceries, the universities, the seminaries, the magazines, religious education, everything. Now orthopraxy could replace orthodoxy. It is plain to everyone now that the praxis fostered by liberal Catholics is anything but orthos. For Sheehan was right, alas. The situation he gleefully described came about because bishops acted like CEOs rather than shepherds.

Theological dissent, which began in 1968 with the rejection of Humanae Vitae by moral theologians, is defined in terms of an attitude toward sexuality antithetical to Christian morality. Yet in 1977, in a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America, Catholic moral doctrine was systematically turned on its head. The neologism “homophobia” came to be used to characterize those—that is, faithful Catholics—who condemned homosexuality. This widespread subversion of Catholic morality and the undermining of the natural disgust with the unnatural went largely unchecked. And bad theory became bad practice.

This did not go uncontested. The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars was formed to prevent magisterial teaching from being kept from the faithful by moral theologians. Women for Faith and Family has been a watchdog of the bishops’ conferences, with special concern for the liturgy. Catholics United for the Faith has fought the good fight. What is common to these and other like groups? They were all given the cold shoulder by our bishops. They were counseled (when talked to at all) not to be strident and divisive. The situation Sheehan described was there for all to see, but to point it out was considered alarmist. The Church in America had gone into Vatican II as arguably the strongest in the world, vibrant, growing, devout. Look at it now. The dismantling has been from within and could not have been done without the collusion of our bishops.

By and large, faithful Catholics have had to look past local bishops to the bishop of Rome for direction during these dark days. If our bishops had taken their cue from Pope John Paul II, we would not be watching cardinals talking of pedophiles as sick and in need of counseling. Sins have been committed! The Church does not need the categories of pop psychology to examine its conscience now. Souls have been endangered. Sound doctrine has been in short supply.

The deepest irony of all is that the cowardice of bishops was largely due to a desire to be treated well by the secular media. It is this misbegotten policy that has delivered us over to the derision of our enemies. But it is the judgment of God we should fear. Bishops who do not fit the profile suggested here are those who do not cater to the media, who show a pastoral concern for the next generation of priests, and who have often started their own seminaries to avoid the problems mentioned. A kind of homeschooling.

For there have been heroes among our bishops; they have gone their own way, heeding John Paul II. Perhaps in the future, missionaries will be sent out from Lincoln and Omaha and Denver and Lacrosse to evangelize the lost sheep in our coastal cities. Meanwhile, mercy should be asked, not of the media but of the Almighty.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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