Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Catholics in Crisis

Power struggles have been characteristic of the Roman Catholic hierarchy throughout the history of the Church, but the Church typically kept its internal conflicts contained.  Recent events, though, have created the greatest threat to unity since the Protestant Reformation.  The open letter to Pope Francis from Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ² bears little resemblance to Luther's 95 Theses, but may prove equally disruptive.  Backed by American  Catholic conservatives, who have much more in common with Evangelical protestants than with the Jesuits and other relative liberals who back Francis, ViganĂ² is calling on Francis to resign.

While the current hostilities appear centered on who knew what about the sex life of the now-discredited Cardinal McCarrick, the real conflict is more fundamental: Francis and the liberals want to keep the Church relevant to modern worshipers; the conservatives want to keep it pure.  While  everybody condemns the priestly diddling of altar boys, it is the liberal suggestion that divorced Catholics might somehow receive Holy Communion that drives conservatives insane with rage.

To hold the interest of the laity, though, it's best to keep the conversation about sex; so the Church's worldwide pedophile problem gets the most attention.  The conservatives claim the root cause was too much tolerance for homosexuals, while the liberals blame "clericalism" — the idea that priests assert too much power and authority.

The Church always has attracted homosexuals because it has been a socially acceptable refuge for those temperamentally incapable of heterosexual family life.  Some know they are gay to begin with, some discover it in the single-sex environment of the seminary, and some are the self-hating variety whose militant denial makes them natural conservatives.

For the pedophile, though, joining the Church may be less about sanctuary than about opportunity —  the unquestioning trust the devout invest in those with "spiritual authority."  It is a power all too easy to abuse, so Francis and the liberals are right to blame "clericalism" — but blaming clericalism is not a solution.  Without his spiritual authority, a priest is just another ordinary man, and the power structure of the Church as a whole is undermined.

While nobody currently can be sure just who knew what about whom, it seems obvious that every institution that lays claim to moral authority feels pressured to cover up moral lapses; and that the broader and more complex the institutional structure, the more elaborate the coverups will be.  For now, Francis opts for silence, possibly concerned that anything he says could provoke genuine schism within his Church.  Whether or not he can come up with a better response remains to be seen.

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