Repairing Scandal the Catholic Way
During his audience with Irish bishops on October 28th, Pope Benedict XVI urged them to repair the damage done by the sex abuse scandal, which appears to be similar to the one in the United States. “The wounds caused by such acts run deep,” the Pope said, “and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged." But how?
The Nature of the Scandal
The key to figuring out “how” is a proper understanding of the nature of the scandal in relationship to the constitution of the Church. The first point to make is that the scandal does not involve priests and women. Instead, it involves priests and boys. So this is precisely a scandal of homosexuality and pedophilia in the priesthood, and despite our culture’s championing of homosexual rights, the vast majority of Catholics rightly regard homosexuality as unnatural, and pedophiles as predators. A priesthood associated with these things is a priesthood that has failed.
The second point is that the scandal is not based on isolated incidents. Rather, the pattern is one of repeated homosexual acts extending over a significant period of time, often with the knowledge of bishops who were either unable or unwilling to cope with the problem. In a very few cases, bishops were the perpetrators. These facts, coupled with the ever increasing bureaucratic separation of bishops from priests and laity, have led to a certain suspicion among the faithful that bishops are too often little more than members of an exclusive club with very little zeal for souls. An episcopate with this sort of reputation is an episcopate that has failed.
The Hierarchical Principle
The essence of the hierarchical principle by which the Church is constituted is that each level of the hierarchy must create the conditions under which the level immediately beneath it can flourish. The Pope needs to create the conditions for a vibrant episcopate through sound appointments, appropriate discipline, and support in time of need. This will be far more effective than bypassing the bishops to appeal directly to priests or laity. In their turn, the bishops need to create the conditions under which their priests can flourish. They must choose sound candidates, ensure that they are well trained, make their duties clear, and support them in whatever it takes to perform those duties well. So too the priests must create the conditions for the laity to flourish, beginning with honoring their right to authentic Catholic teaching and proper liturgy, and also including key spiritual concerns such as serious sacramental preparation and sound preaching.
Properly formed, the laity will take care of most of the rest, striving for holiness, raising their children well, engaging in works of charity, and serving as leaven in the social order. The point, again, is that the most important thing that any level of the hierarchy can do is to ensure that the level immediately beneath it will prosper spiritually. Anything beyond this is a distraction from the hierarchy’s essential purpose. Nonethtless, we too often find ourselves in a confused Church in which bishops want to be politicians, priests want to be entertainers, and lay people want to take ecclesiastical control.
The Virtue of Forthrightness
What we need, and need desperately, is what we might call hierarchical forthrightness. To be forthright means to get straight to the point, without deviation, immediately. I have insufficient knowledge of the Irish Church to form a judgment. In the United States, however, the bishops have squandered their credibility through a deadly combination: first, lack of doctrinal, moral and liturgical discipline; second, incessant committee-drafted pronouncements on prudential social issues with too little grounding in Church teaching. In other words, the episcopal college has seldom forthrightly attended to its hierarchical responsibilities.
But even now a forthright application of the hierarchical principle could work wonders. Instead of setting up lay committees to supervise compliance with new abuse policies and spending millions of dollars on socio-sexual studies, the bishops need to make it clear that they know a lapse on the part of a priest when they see one, that they can discipline those responsible, and that they can effectively resist the efforts of those who seek to take advantage of the lapse to bankrupt the Church. Nor does this apply only to sexual abuse. Bishops also need to eliminate such priestly abuses as heretical preaching and liturgical tomfoolery. They need to insist that their priests represent the Church properly. And, yes, they need to back them to the hilt when these same priests find themselves under fire for doing so.
Rebuilding Confidence and Trust
In short, the key to restoring credibility is for each bishop to show that he understands his job and will do it. It is the primary responsibility of the bishops to provide us with good priests. Even in the debased culture of 21st century America, a handful of bishops around the country have dramatically increased vocations, proving that this is still possible. What about the others? Nothing will restore confidence among the laity like having a steady stream of vigorous priests who know how to celebrate Mass reverently, are willing to pack the confessionals, and can’t wait to preach the full and authentic Catholic Faith.
A forthright return to the basics of the hierarchical system is the only way. The bishops must eliminate bureaucracy, strip away administrative habits that distract them from essentials, and eliminate whatever detracts from their direct impact on the quality and quantity of their priests. They must first reignite their own spiritual fire and then go out and challenge young men throughout their dioceses to join them in their quest for souls. They must demand high standards of priestly training and priestly virtue, and then trust these same priests to form good parishes as well as good diocesan and parish schools.
Credibility will not be restored by grand statements, well-funded studies, or five-year plans. Rather, credibility must be restored bishop by bishop and priest by priest. In fact, wherever zealous bishops and priests are at work, credibility is already being restored. As with so much in life, the Catholic way and the only way are the same.
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