Although Father Richard Neuhaus of First Things does not like my book (he does not like my tone), he and I agree in our dislike of clericalism and our strong suspicion that it was a major cause of the abuse. In commenting on a survey of Catholic attitudes Neuhaus writes in the February First Things:

As for the impact of the sex-abuse scandals, 7 percent say it has decreased their commitment to the Church, 11 percent say it has increased their commitment, and 80 percent say it has had no effect on their commitment. Catholics are not Donatists. They do not believe that the truth of the faith or the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the impeccability or, for that matter, the moral probity of the Church’s ministry. On the other hand, it may be that those who increased their commitment were rallying to the support of respected priests who they believed had been unfairly smeared by association with the highly publicized delinquencies of a relatively small number of their fellows.    

Possible explanations abound. A less edifying explanation is that the old habits of a deeply entrenched clericalism kicked in once again. The Church is identified with the clergy and therefore to be defended no matter what. Clericalism is the shadowed side of Catholicism’s high view of Christian ministry. It confuses the priest’s sacramentally acting in persona Christi with priestly prerogative and immunity from criticism. It is the shadowed side that largely explains the patterns of denial, deceit, and evasion that produced the sex-abuse crisis in the first place, including the pattern of bishops who say, and in many cases may sincerely believe, that their “ministry of unity” takes priority over living in the truth.

Some older Catholics continue to idolize priests – it really is a form of idolatry – they want something divine they can touch – but most Catholics are aware that priests sin. Catholics just don’t care; it is too much trouble to insist that the clergy behave in a moral and honorable fashion, so they accept that some priest are corrupt and hope that the corruption won’t touch their families. No one likes someone who disturbs comfortable and convenient illusions, so those who point out the crimes of priests and the toleration of these crimes by the hierarchy are considered “shrill.”

Leave a Comment