What Went Wrong?
What went wrong, and why? Everyone in the room will rightly understand the question to refer to The Crisis, the daily revelation over the past eighteen months of numberless instances of priestly turpitude, episcopal mendacity, and the resultant bewilderment and fury of the laity. My own take on the problem, which I offer for your consideration, is that the Crisis is chiefly surprising in how unsurprising it is. No one who has been fighting the culture wars within the Church over the past twenty years can fail to recognize his own struggles with a hostile bureaucracy and conflicted hierarchy in the struggles of those pleading for relief from sexual abuse notwithstanding the disparity in the attendant journalistic drama. In fact, I’d contend that the single important difference in the Church’s failure regarding abusive clergy and the failures regarding liturgy, catechesis, pro-life politics, doctrinal dissent and biblical translation is this: that in the case of the sex abuse scandal we’ve been allowed a look over the bishops’ shoulders at their own memos. Deviant sexual assault has accomplished what liturgical abuse never could: it has generated secular media pressure and secular legal constraints so overwhelming that the apparat was forced to make its files public.
What we read in those files was shocking, true, but to most of us it was shocking in its sense of déja vu. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the housewife who complained that Father skipped the Creed at mass and the housewife who complained that Father groped her son had remarkably similar experiences of being made to feel that they themselves were somehow in the wrong; that they had impugned the honor of virtuous men; that their complaints were an unwelcome interruption of more important business; that the true situation was fully known to the chancery and completely under control; that the wider and more complete knowledge of higher ecclesiastics justified their apparent inaction; that to criticize the curate was to criticize the pastor was to criticize the regional vicar was to criticize the bishop; that to publicize one’s dissatisfaction was to give scandal and would positively harm discreet efforts at remedying the ills; that one’s duty was to maintain silence and trust that those officially charged with the pertinent responsibilities would execute them in their own time; that delayed correction of problems was sometimes necessary for the universal good of the Church.
This picture was meant to describe the faithful’s dealing with the normally operating bureaucracy, in which the higher-ups are largely insulated. Occasionally someone manages to break through the insulation and deal with the responsible churchman himself. In this case another maneuver is typically employed, one I tried to sketch eight years ago in an essay called “Tames in Clerical Life”:
In one-on-one situations, tames in positions of authority will rarely flatly deny the validity of a complaint of corruption lodged by a subordinate. More often they will admit the reality and seriousness of the problem raised, and then pretend to take the appellant into their confidence, assuring him that those in charge are fully aware of the crisis and that steps are being taken, quietly, behind the scenes, to remedy it. Thus the burden of discretion is shifted onto the subordinate in the name of concern for the good of the institution and personal loyalty to the administrator: he must not go public with his evidence of malfeasance lest he disrupt the process invariably hidden from view by which it is being put right. This ruse has been called the Secret Santa maneuver: “There are no presents underneath the tree for you, but that’s because Daddy is down in the basement making you something special. It’s supposed to be a surprise, so don’t breathe a word or you’ll spoil everything.” And, of course, Christmas never comes. Perhaps most of the well-intentioned efforts for reform in the past quarter century have been tabled indefinitely by high-ranking tames using this ploy to buy their way out of tough situations for which they are temperamentally unsuited.1
What I’ve put before you are two scenarios in which complaints of abuses are brought to those in authority and in which they seem to vanish the complaints, I mean, not the abuses. One hoped that something was being done behind the scenes, of course, but whatever happened always remained behind the scenes. As the weeks went by without observable changes in the abuse and without feedback from the bureaucracy, one was torn between two contradictory surmises: that one’s complaint had been passed upstairs to so high a level that even the bishop (or superior) was forbidden to discuss it; alternatively, that once one’s silence had been secured and the problem of unwelcome publicity was past, nothing whatsoever was being done.
Now the remarkable thing about The Crisis is how fully it confirmed the second suspicion. In thousands and thousands of pages of records one scarcely, if ever, is edified by a pleasant surprise, by discovering that a bishop’s or superior’s concern for the victim or for the Faith was greater than that known to the public, that the engines of justice were geared up and running at full throttle, but in a manner invisible to those outside the circle of discretion. Didn’t happen.
I think this goes far to explain the fact that when the scandals broke it was the conservative Catholics who were the first and the most vociferous in calling for episcopal resignations, and only later did the left-liberals manage to find their voices. Part of our outrage concerned the staggering insouciance of bishops toward the abuse itself; but part, I would argue, was the exasperation attendant on the realization that, for the same reasons, all our efforts in the culture wars on behalf of Catholic positions had gone up in the same bureaucratic smoke.
I take issue, then, with commentators who refer to the Crisis as an ecclesial “meltdown” or “the Church’s 9-11” or who use some similarly cataclysmic metaphor. Whatever there was to melt down had already done so for years, and that across the board, not just in priestly misconduct. Therefore, in addressing the question, “what went wrong, and why?” I need to try explain not simply the sex-abuse scandals but the larger ecclesial failure as well, weaknesses that existed even before the Second Vatican Council.
Paradoxically, one of the major factors in the corruption of clerical life at the end of the 20th century was its strength at the beginning of it. Here I quote from James Hitchcock:
A gloomy fact about clerical life is that, with the possible exception of the very early centuries, there was no time in the Church’s history when such life was idyllic. The Middle Ages had their share of misbehaving priests, and the ordinary parish clergy were uneducated and part of a peasant culture which was in some ways still pagan. The Counter-Reformation made strenuous efforts to improve the state of the clergy, not least through the establishment of that institution which ought to have been obvious but for some reason had not been the seminary. Even despite these efforts, clerical scandals and various kinds of clerical incompetence long continued, amidst occasional saintly priests and many others of solid piety and zeal. In the United States the period cl900-l960 can be considered a golden age of the priesthood, not merely in modern times but throughout all the Catholic centuries. (This golden age was not confined to America but existed in other countries as well.) While priests of that era certainly had their faults, by all measurable standards there was less ignorance, less immorality, less neglect of duty, and less disobedience than at almost any time in the history of the Church. More positively, priests of that era were generally pious and zealous, and those who were not at least had to pretend to be.2
Not only was the reality of priestly character in good shape, but the reputation of Catholic clergymen was likewise high. This brought with it several problems. First, being an honorable station in society, the clerical life provided high grass in which many villains and disturbed individuals could seek cover. I would estimate that between 50 and 60 percent of the men who entered religious life with me in the mid-70s were homosexuals who had no particular interest in the Church, but who were using the celibacy requirement of the priesthood as a way of camouflaging the real reason for the fact that they would never marry. It should be noted in this connection that the military has its own smaller but irreducible share of crypto-gays, as do roughnecks on offshore drilling rigs and merchant mariners (“I never got married because I move around so much it wouldn’t be fair on the girl...”). Perhaps a certain percentage of homosexuals in these professions can never be eliminated. I further believe that the most convincing explanation of the disproportionately high number of pedophiles in the priesthood is not the famous Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers3 Theory, but its reverse, proposed to me by a correctional officer at a Canadian prison. He suggested that, in years past, Catholic men who recognized the pederastic tendency in themselves and hated it would try to put it to death by entering a seminary or a monastery, where they naively believed the sexual dimension of life simply disappeared. It doesn’t disappear, and many of these men, by the time they found out they were wrong, had already become addicted. This suggestion has the advantage of accounting for the fact that most priests who are true pedophiles appear to be men in their 60s and older, and belong to a generation of Catholics with, on the one hand, a strong sense of sexual mortal sin and, on the other, strong convictions about the asceticism and sexual integrity of priestly life. To homosexuals and pedophiles I would add a third group, those I call “tames” men who are incapable of facing the normally unpleasant situations presented by adulthood and who find refuge, and indeed success, in a system that rewards concern for appearance, distaste for conflict, and fondness for the advantageous lie. In sum, the social prestige and high reputation that attached to the post-WW2 priesthood made it attractive to men of low character and provided them with excellent cover.
A second key factor in the present corruption is loss of the bishops’ ability for self-correction. This problem has institutional and personal dimensions. The model of episcopal collegiality in place since the Council has not increased the mutual good-will of the bishops, but has, paradoxically, made the appearance of good-will obligatory in nearly all situations. Once more I turn to James Hitchcock. Speaking of the Church’s necessary recourse to diplomacy in dealing with militarily superior nation-states, Hitchcock says:
It is ironic and discouraging that in the modern democratic era, when the Church enjoys the blessings of complete independence from political control, diplomacy still seems necessary, now often concentrated on internal ecclesiastical matters. It appears, for example, that the Pope is not free simply to appoint bishops as he sees fit, but that an elaborate process of consultation, of checks and balances, takes place, after which successful candidates are often people who have no highly placed enemies. The Holy See now appears to treat national episcopal conferences, and the numerous religious orders, almost as foreign powers. Scrupulous correctness is observed at all times, formal verbiage masks barely hidden disagreements, and above all potential “incidents” are avoided. ... This endemic practice of diplomacy within the Church has yielded small results. Abuses have been tolerated not for the sake of unity but merely for the appearance of unity, which itself soon becomes an over-riding concern.4
Because what matters most in this mindset is perception, the appearance of unity, it has become virtually impossible to remove a bad bishop without prior public scandal “public” here meaning notorious in the secular sphere, diffused through the mass media. When the scandal is sexual or financial, it seems the Holy See can move quickly to remove the offender. When the scandal is in the arena of heresy or administrative irregularity or liturgical abuse, there is almost never enough secular interest generated to force the Holy See’s hand. Bishops Milingo and Ziemann and Roddy Wright have many brethren; Bishop Gaillot has few. Intermediate reform measures like seminary visitations are doomed to failure for the same reason; there simply is no possibility in the present disposition for a hostile inspection, where the visitators try to “get behind” the administration and find the facts for themselves. To do such a thing would be to imply lack of trust in the administration and hence in the bishop responsible for it, and such an imputation is utterly impossible. The same is true in bishops’ dealings with universities, learned societies and religious congregations. The only permissible inspections are friendly inspections, where the visitators ask the institution under scrutiny for a self-evaluation, which, of course, will be overwhelmingly positive and which will render the chances of reform almost nil.
A third answer to “What went wrong?” concerns a factor that is at once a result of earlier failures and a cause of many subsequent ones: I mean sexual blackmail. Most of the men who are bishops and superiors today were in the seminary or graduate school in the 1960s and 1970s. In most countries of the Western world these places were in a kind of disciplinary free-fall for ten or fifteen years. A very high percentage of churchmen who are now in positions of authority were sexually compromised during that period. Perhaps they had a homosexual encounter with a fellow seminarian; perhaps they had a brief heterosexual affair with a fellow theology student. Provided they did not cause grave scandal, such men were frequently promoted, according to their talents and ambition. Many are competent administrators, but they have a time-bomb in their past, and they have very little appetite for reform measures of any sort even doctrinal reforms and they have zero appetite for reform proposals that entail cleaning up sexual mischief. In some cases perhaps, there is out-and-out blackmail, where a bishop moves to discipline a priest and priest threatens to report the bishop’s homosexual affair in the seminary to the Nuncio or to the press, and so the bishop backs off. More often I suspect the blackmail is indirect. No overt threat is made by anyone, but the responsible ecclesiastic is troubled by the ghost of his past and has no stomach for taking a hard line. Even if personally uneasy with homosexuality, he will not impede the admission and promotion of gays. He will almost always treat sexuality in psychological terms, as a matter of human maturation, and is chary of the language of morality and asceticism. He will act only when it is impossible not to act, as when a case of a priest’s or seminarian’s sexual misconduct is known to the police or the media. He will characteristically require of the offender no discipline but will send him to counseling, usually for as brief a period as possible, and will restore him to the best position that diocesan procedures and public opinion will allow him to.
Note: sexual blackmail operates far beyond the arena of sexual misconduct. When your Aunt Margaret complains about the pro-abortion teachers at the Catholic high school, or the Sisters of St. Jude worshiping the Eight Winds, or Father’s home-made eucharistic prayer, and nothing is done, it is eminently likely that the bishop’s reluctance to intervene stems from the consciousness that he is living on borrowed time. In short, many bishops and superiors, lacking integrity, lack moral courage. Lacking moral courage, they can never be reformers, can never uproot a problem, but can only plead for tolerance and healing and reconciliation. I am here sketching only the best-case scenario, where the bishop’s adventures were brief, without issue, and twenty years in his past. In cases where the man continues his sexual exploits as a bishop, he is of course wholly compromised and the blackmail proportionately disastrous.
A fourth element in the present corruption is the strange separation of the Church from blue-collar working people. Before the Council every Catholic community could point to families that lived on hourly wages and who were unapologetically pious, in some cases praying a daily family rosary and attending daily mass. Such families were a major source of religious vocations and provided the Church with many priests as well. These families were good for the Church, calling forth bishops and priests who were able to speak to their spiritual needs and to work to protect them from social and political harms. Devout working class families characteristically inclined to a somewhat sugary piety, but they also characteristically required manly priests to communicate it to them: that was the culture that gave us the big-shouldered baritone in a lace surplice. Except for newly-arrived immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines, the devout working class family has disappeared in the U.S. and in western Europe. The beneficial symbiosis between the clerical culture and the working class has disappeared as well. In most parishes of which I’m aware the priests know how to talk to the professionals and the professionals know how to talk to the priests, but the welders and roofers and sheet-metal workers, if they come to church at all, seem more and more out of the picture. I think this affects the Church in two ways: on the one hand, the Catholic seminary and university culture has been freed of any responsibility to explain itself to the working class, and notions of scriptural inspiration and sexual propriety have become progressively detached from the terms in which they would be comprehensible by ordinary people; on the other hand, few priests if any really depend on working people for their support. In a mixed parish, they are supported by the professionals; in a totally working class parish, they’re supported by the diocese i.e., by professionals who live elsewhere. That means not only does father not have to account for his bizarre view of the Johannine community, but he doesn’t have to account for the three evenings a week he spends in lay clothes away from the parish.
A related but distinct factor contributing to the Crisis is money. The clergy as a whole is enormously more prosperous than it was a century ago. That means the clergyman is independent of the disapproval of the faithful in a way his predecessors were not, and it also means he has the opportunities and the wherewithal to sin, and sin boldly, very often without detection. Unless he makes unusual efforts to the contrary, a priest today finds himself part of a culture of pleasure-seeking bachelordom, and the way he recreates and entertains himself overlaps to a great extent that of the young professional bronco. Too often, regrettably, the overlap is total. But even when a priest is chaste, by collecting boy-toys and living the good life he finds himself somewhat compromised. He may suspect a brother priest is up to no good by his frequent escapes to a time-share condo, but if he feels uneasy about his own indulgences he is unlikely to phone his brother to remonstrate with him. My own experience of religious life is that community discussion of “poverty issues” is exceptionlessly ugly partly because almost everyone feels vulnerable to criticism in some aspect or other of his life, partly because there’s an unspoken recognition that poverty and chastity issues are not entirely unrelated. As a consequence, only the most trivial and cosmetic adjustments are made, and the integrity of community life continues to worsen.
One more point, perhaps more fanciful than the others. I believe that one of the worst things to happen to the Church and one of the most important factors in the current corruption of the clergy is the Mertonization of monastic life. I may be unfair to Thomas Merton in laying the blame at his feet and I don’t insist on the name, but I think you all can recognize what I mean: the sea change in the model of contemplative life, once aimed at mortification a death to self through asceticism now aimed at self-actualization: the Self has taken center stage. This change is important because, in spite of 50-plus years of propaganda to the contrary, the monastic ideal remains a potent ikon in any priest’s self-understanding. Obedience, simplicity of life, and fidelity to prayer have different orientations in the case of a canon, a friar, and a diocesan priest, obviously, but they are all monastic in transmission and all essential to the clerical life. Where monastic life is healthy, it builds up even non-monastic parts of the Church, including and in particular the lives of priests in the active apostolate; where it is corrupt or lax, the loss extends to the larger Church as well it’s as if a railing were missing on one side of a balcony. When I was preparing for priesthood my teachers lamented what they called the “monastic” character of pre-conciliar seminaries and houses of formation (fixed times for common prayer, silence, reading at meals, etc.) complaining that such disciplines were ill-suited to their lives because they were destined not to be monks but pastors, missionaries, and scholars. But looking at the lives of my contemporaries one of the things I find most obviously lacking is an appetite for prayer created by good habits of prayer habits which are usually the product of a discipline we never had. The same is true of asceticism and self-denial generally. When laypeople enter priests’ quarters today, they rarely seem to be impressed by how sparse and severe our living arrangements are. They rarely walk away with the impression that the man who lives here is good at saying no to himself. Yet monks are, or used to be, our masters at saying no to the Self. Something went wrong. Putting the same idea in another perspective, it’s wryly amusing to read commentators on the sexual abuse problem recommend that priests be sent to a monastery for penance. What penance? Is there a single monastic house in the United States where the abbot would have the authority, much less the inclination, to keep a man at hard labor for twenty months or on bread and water for twenty days?
Let me sum up. I believe the sexual abuse crisis represents no isolated phenomenon and no new failure, but rather illustrates a state of slowly worsening clerical and episcopal corruption with its roots well back into the 1940s. Its principal tributaries include a critical mass of morally depraved and psychologically defective clergymen who entered the service of Church seeking emoluments and advantages unrelated to her spiritual mission, in addition to leaders constitutionally unsuited to the exercise of the virtues of truthfulness and fortitude. The old-fashioned vices of lust, pride, and sloth have erected an administrative apparatus effective at transmitting the consolations of the Faith but powerless at correction and problem-solving. The result is a situation unamenable to reform, wherein the leaders continue to project an upbeat and positive message of ecclesial well-being to an overwhelmingly good-willed laity, a message which both speaker and hearer find more gratifying than convincing. I believe that the Crisis will deepen, though undramatically, in the foreseeable future; I believe that the policies suggested to remedy the situation will help only tangentially, and that the whole idea of an administrative programmatic approach a “software solution,” if I may put it that way is an example of the disease for which it purports to be the cure. I believe that reform will come, though in a future generation, and that the reformers whom God raises up will spill their blood in imitation of Christ. In short, to pilfer a line of Wilfrid Sheed, I find absolutely no grounds for optimism, and I have every reason for hope.
1 “‘Tames’ in Clerical Life,” The Latin Mass, Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1996.
2 James F. Hitchcock, "Thirty Years of Blight," Catholic Dossier, July/August 1998.
3 The phrase comes from the subtitle of an article by William Saletan, "Booty and the Priest," in the on-line magazine Slate, posted Wednesday, March 6, 2002.
4 James F. Hitchcock, "Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results, Catholic World Report, May 1995.
Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J., is a lector in Biblical Hebrew at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He obtained a B.A. from the University of Chicago, an M.A. in classics and philosophy from Oxford, an M. Div. from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and a Ph.D. in Semitic philology from Harvard. He was ordained in the Society of Jesus in 1987. His articles have appeared in numerous academic journals and popular publications.
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