Countercultural Catholic, chapter 5: False Diagnosis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2013

Ask a dozen Americans to explain the decline in the public influence of the Catholic Church, and at least ten will say that the sex-abuse scandal is the root cause. That standard narrative is handy but it’s wrong. The sex-abuse scandal did catastrophic damage to the standing of the Church; that is beyond dispute. But the decline of Catholic influence was already underway before the scandal erupted. The slump in Mass attendance, the emptying of the seminaries, the closing of parochial schools, the decreasing numbers of Catholic weddings and baptisms: all these trends were established in the 1960s and 1970s, long before the scandal of clerical abuse came to light. .

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


Of course, the pattern of clerical misconduct that was so dramatically exposed in 2002 had been hidden for years. As subsequent investigations have shown, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests reached its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is no coincidence that abuse was most prevalent at the same time that Catholicism went into retreat.

While it is horrifying that priests had molested boys, still more appalling—and far, far more damaging to the Church—were the revelations that bishops had ignored the warning signs, hidden the evidence of abuse, protected the molesters, ignored their victims, and, in case after sorry case, lied to cover up the problem. If bishops could betray their flocks, if bishops could lie, then how could the public—how could even faithful Catholics—place their trust in the hierarchy?

The hypocrisy that was laid bare in 2002 had apparently flourished for a generation. We must ask how and why the bishops allowed themselves to neglect their duties to the faithful.

As I explained in my book The Faithful Departed, I am convinced that most American bishops had slipped into a profoundly mistaken view of what constitutes the welfare of the Church. They had been trained to serve the interests of a clerical institution rather than a body of faith: the organization rather than the organism. They had devoted themselves to enlarging the scope of Church influence, rather than to intensifying the fervor of the Catholic faithful.

Taken to an extreme—and alas, it was taken to an extreme—the sense of clerical fraternity encouraged priests to protect abusive clerics from the just anger of the boys they had molested and the families they had betrayed.

This is not to say that priests could not work well with lay people. Good pastors never allowed their administrative duties to blind them to the welfare of their parishioners; good priests could sympathize with their clerical colleagues without ignoring the concerns of the laity. But good priests often were forced to swim against the prevailing currents of the clerical world. The priests who carried out their assignments efficiently—who handled paperwork quickly, ran successful fundraising programs, kept the parish plant operating smoothly—won the plum parish assignments, and were candidates for promotion. The quest for such admirable efficiency, however, might extract a cost. The priest might find himself cutting short his hours in the confessional or in spiritual direction; he might avoid entanglement in complicated marital problems that would absorb his time; he might think twice about preaching on a hot topic that could cause controversy within the parish.

The “efficient” pastor-administrator always had plenty of safe outlets for his energies. In the heyday of public Catholicism, in the 1950s, before the decline began, he might organize parish retreats and Eucharistic processions; he might organize and encourage parish organizations like the Holy Name Society and the altar guild; he might run a parochial school with a steadily growing enrollment. All these efforts were eminently worthwhile, and all of them produced concrete, statistically quantifiable results. But the statistics did not distinguish between a healthy parish and one that was going through the motions of faith. The retreats and parochial-school graduation ceremonies might be signs of apostolic vigor, but then again they might be nothing more than the flexing of Catholic muscle. Were they bringing people to the faith, and helping Catholics deepen their faith? Or were they celebrating the status quo?

The celebration of the status quo is the mark of a seasoned bureaucrat—as is the desire to preserve one’s one sphere of influence. Unfortunately, in the years before the current era of decline, a polished bureaucrat could rise smoothly up through the clerical ranks, while a dedicated evangelist encountered dozens of obstacles. An effective parish administrator would “manage” problems—which might mean avoiding them, or accepting a compromise, or postponing a resolution, rather than addressing the problems directly. To safeguard his popularity with his parishioners, he would steer clear of potentially divisive topics in his homilies. In other words he would not say things that his parishioners didn’t want to hear—even if they might need to hear it, for the welfare of their souls. The “efficient” pastor was concerned about “keeping the customers satisfied,” and tempted therefore to think of them as ecclesiastical consumers rather than pilgrim souls.

In the chaotic years after Vatican II—the late 1960s, the era of revolution in society as well as in the Church—the efficient parish administrator learned to follow proper procedures, to implement the latest approved programs so that everything would run—or at least appear to run—according to plans. The programs and procedures seemed to anticipate every pastoral contingency—except, perhaps, the unexpected possibility that the faith was slowly growing stale. Pope Francis described the problem well in his apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium:

And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.

Has the abdication of episcopal responsibility seen in the sex-abuse scandal been visible, has it done similar damage, in other aspects of Church life? Absolutely. When Catholic parents reported that a priest had molested their son, how did the hierarchy respond? Typically with flat denial, a claim that the parents were being uncharitable, a rush to hide evidence and squelch public discussion. That pattern of denial has changed. But what happens, even today, when a lay Catholic complains that his pastor is violating liturgical norms, or that students at a parochial school are being taught heresy, or that drug and alcohol abuse is rampant on the campus of the local Catholic college? All too often the response is similar to the old, flawed pattern that we saw in reactions to sex-abuse complaints: stout denial, a refusal to investigate or to examine evidence, a charge that the lay persons lodging the complaint are uncharitable.

Thus the rights of the laity are suppressed and the offenses continue. The sex-abuse scandal exposed a systematic problem in the American hierarchy: a failure of leadership that violated the rights of the faithful and allowed the spread of corruption. That pattern of misconduct has now been addressed, but only as it applies to the realm of clerical abuse. The deeper, more pervasive problem has not been resolved.

Previous: 4. A Heritage Stolen
Next: 6. The Enemy Within

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 20, 2013 6:12 AM ET USA

    Clerical abuse may have been addressed but has abuse been stopped? Hard to know. I like what you say about abuse being a diversion from the true cause for the decline in Catholic actions. It is very obvious that the leadership of the church is under attack and is failing. Perhaps they should spend more time on their knees rather than on committees. Perhaps St John Chrysostom was right that “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” Pray!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 17, 2013 9:40 AM ET USA

    There is a fascinating and widespread difficulty in apprehending reality in all this. Violations of rights so fundamental among institutional leaders so much more erudite, sensitive and compassionate- devoid of the intolerance of a more rigid era- is striking. If the temporal is the arbiter and the leaders view themselves as the answer to society's ills losing credibility is not an option. Deny and obstruct. One might find a quasi Pelagian spirit leading to disorientation and ruin- aka hell.