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The release yesterday of a state grand jury report on the widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses only serves to confirm—as if further confirmation were necessary—that there is a deep moral rot in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, and one that will not be easily eradicated.
“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
Even in a faith founded upon the notion that there is no such thing as an unforgivable sin, should the penitent be sincere, what has been occurring in the church over the past 70 years or so would surely test the mercy of Christ himself.
No need to go over the nauseating details. The Church—and clearly not just in Pennsylvania—has descended into a nest of predatory perverts, largely but not exclusively homosexual, but child-molesters all. Even worse, its upper administrative reaches, the bishops, have conducted a cover-up under the guise of “compassion” and “protecting the Church,” denying, obfuscating, and lying about the extent of the problem—even as some of them were charter members of the racket. Their sanctimony is even more sickening than the sins they concealed, if such a thing is possible.
Sexual peccadilloes have always been part of every human institution, including the Catholic Church. The priapic cleric has been a staple of creative pornography since Rabelais and de Sade, and the list of sins attributable to the popes alone would make a harlot blush. Such tales of dissipation and license fueled the animosity against the Church, especially in France, and the French Revolution’s violent destruction of the ancient regime was as much directed against the Church as it was against the monarchy. To this day, laïcité is one of the French Republic’s guiding principles, and it’s no accident that into the Gallic spiritual void left by ostracized Christianity has rushed recrudescent Islam. Satan, like Nature, abhors a vacuum.
For an American Catholic—worse, an Irish-American Catholic—the fall of the Church over the latter half of the 20th century has been especially dispiriting. For the sexual scandals of the American church have come up precisely at the end of the long dominance of Irish prelates; one reads the surnames of the accused over the past 20 years, when the scandals first broke in Boston (of course), with a mounting sickness and sense of loss and betrayal.
This was not the church I grew up in; this was not the church for which I was out the door at 6 a.m. on some weekdays, bicycling up the hill in order to serve at morning Mass when duty called. This was not the church whose pews were filled every Sunday with large families, wearing the best clothes they had, the men’s heads uncovered and the women’s adorned, to pay homage and respect not only to the risen Lord, but to a long and glorious religious and cultural tradition.
I cannot say for certain when the rot set in, but I can say when my disillusionment first set in: with Vatican II and the papal reigns of John XXIII and Paul VI. After the ascetic papacy of Pius XII, who shared the same grim visage as John Foster Dulles and James Jesus Angleton, so common to men of that period, the roly-poly Cardinal Roncalli seemed a Kennedyesque breath of fresh air. And yet some of the outward changes he and Paul instituted in the Church—the abandonment of the Latin rite was one that most affected this altar boy—seemed arbitrary and superfluous; we would have called them “virtue signaling” today.
The theological implications of the wider reforms were lost on me at the time (the opening of dialogue with the Jews was long overdue), but what I did sense from my limited perspective was that in making the Mass more “inclusive,” the authority of the Church, as expressed in the universal Latin Mass, said by the priest with his back to the congregation (and thus leading them in worship instead of addressing them as a primus inter pares), was being lost in the interest of a transient accommodation to vogueish concerns. For whatever reasons, Church attendance began to dwindle, then plummet, not long thereafter.
I am not saying that Vatican II directly occasioned the rise of the pedophile priests. But as vocations cratered—if the Church could so lightly cast off centuries of rite and dogma, why should novitiates bother to sign up?—and the priestly ranks thinned out, new recruits had to come from somewhere. And an all-male order with easy access to children of both sexes was tailor-made for the molesters, who realized there was no point in hanging around schoolyards when the schoolyards would hang around you.
Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability. Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.
To their eternal discredit, neither St. John Paul II nor Benedict XVI fully addressed the issue during their pontificates, being content with the bishops’ shell game, and blind to the damage the actions of the molesting priests were doing to the bedrock of the Church—the laity. The current Pope, Francis, has made some of the right noises, but until the Bishop of Rome evinces clear and forceful interest, the rot will continue to fester.
Around the same time as the Lutheran revolution, which split European Christianity in twain and set off centuries of religious warfare, the Catholic Church instituted the Counter-Reformation, which addressed some of the institutional problems identified by Luther and others. The Council of Trent specifically tackled the moral problems of the Renaissance church, including the indolent corruption of the clergy. Perhaps the time is right once again for a counter-reformation: this one against the unintended consequences of Vatican II, a public repudiation and purge of the priestly ranks, a restoration of the Latin rite, and a clear and unwavering commitment to the fundamental moral precepts of Christianity.
Something’s been lost. And if the Church is to have any future, it must be found again.
Photo Credit: Andreas Arnold/picture alliance via Getty Images