BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2003
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Fidelity Crisis -- There's more to the American Church's travails than malfeasant bishops and criminal priests


As the Long Lent of 2002 stretches into another year, it is reasonable to ask ourselves a question of proportion: Are Catholics in fact living through the most serious crisis in the history of the Church in the United States? What about the lay trusteeship battles of the pre­Civil War period? The struggles to assimilate immigrant communities? The Civil War itself (in which Catholics were the only Christian community not to divide into northern and southern branches)? The attacks by the Know-Nothings of the antebellum era and by the anti-Catholic bigots of the late 19th century? These were all genuine crises. But the Long Lent of 2002, which seems likely to continue for some time, is an even more serious crisis, I think. Struggles about the control of Church property have gone on for centuries; anti-Catholic prejudice has been a staple throughout history. This crisis is different.

It is different because it is self-generated, rather than caused by the Church’s external critics or enemies. And it is different because it is the product of another, deeper crisis—a spiritual crisis, a crisis of fidelity. Moreover, the crisis has become a major obstacle to the Church’s public witness at precisely the moment when the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person is so desperately needed in our society and culture.

In the thought-world of the Bible, “crisis” has two meanings. A crisis is a cataclysmic upheaval—the familiar sense of the term. But the Bible also speaks of “crisis” as opportunity, a moment ripe with the potential for deeper conversion. The cataclysmic aspect of today’s Catholic crisis is all too familiar: A scandal of clerical sexual misbehavior was transformed into a genuine crisis by a parallel failure in governance by the bishops of the Church. But what about the opportunity?

The opportunity embedded in this crisis is to complete the reform of the Church according to the teaching of Vatican II as authentically interpreted by Pope John Paul II. The opportunity, in other words, is for a genuinely Catholic reform of the Church—not the transformation of Catholicism into another American “denomination,” not Catholic Lite. Only the authentic reform of Catholic belief and practice will enable the Church to become what it must in 21st-century America: a vibrant evangelical movement that proclaims the Gospel in and out of season and that, in doing so, helps rebuild a culture of life capable of sustaining the great American experiment in democratic self-government.

What the Crisis Is
The scandal of clergy sexual abuse has many dimensions: psychological, legal, even political. But viewed from inside, as Catholics should view it—that is, considered theologically—the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and misbehavior is rooted in a crisis of priestly identity. A priest who truly believes himself to be what the Catholic Church teaches he is—an icon, a living representation of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ—does not behave as a sexual predator. The crisis of priestly identity that followed the Second Vatican Council led to a crisis of priestly discipline, including sexual self-discipline.

But the crisis has also been one of episcopal leadership. It is instructive to note that the deepest anger of Catholics in the past year or so has been reserved for bishops—specifically, for bishops who seem to have done little or nothing to address the problem of sexual scandal; bishops whose primary efforts seemed directed at keeping the scandals out of the public eye; bishops who seemingly did little to reach out to victims.

Catholics intuitively understand that strong episcopal leadership is essential in the Church. Catholics similarly understand that with bold—even adequate—episcopal leadership, marked by a willingness to face facts and undertake genuine reforms, a pattern of clerical sexual scandal need not have developed into the greatest crisis in U.S. Catholic history. It did so because of the bishops’ failure to lead; and that failure was the product of a crisis of episcopal identity.

The failures of governance that turned a significant and urgent problem of clerical sexual abuse into a full-blown crisis touched all three of the bishops’ classic roles: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. Too many bishops have failed to ensure that the true relationship of the Catholic priesthood to celibate chastity has been effectively taught in seminaries. Too many bishops have failed to move swiftly and decisively to see that clerical sexual predators are no longer a danger to the Church. Too many bishops have failed to act as pastors to the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and as agents of repentance and reconciliation in their local churches. Too many bishops, in other words, have reacted to the multiple problems posed by the meltdown of priestly discipline and the outbreak of sexual abuse as managers, not as apostles.

At its core, though, the Catholic crisis today is one of discipleship—a crisis caused by an insufficiency of saints, a deficit in sanctity. And because sanctity is every Catholic’s baptismal vocation, all of us have a responsibility to help turn crisis-as-cataclysm into crisis-as-opportunity.

We exercise that responsibility in different ways, and genuinely Catholic reform means recognizing that. Genuinely Catholic reform doesn’t involve lay Catholics becoming pseudo-clerics, or ordained Catholics becoming laicized in their understanding of what it means to be a priest or bishop. At the bottom of the bottom line, this crisis will become an opportunity if all people of the Church make it the occasion to live more thoroughly, intentionally, radically Christian lives—if Catholics believe that the adventure of orthodoxy, the adventure of fidelity, is the greatest of human adventures, and if Catholics live that belief daily.

The famous Gospel scene of Peter and Jesus on the Sea of Galilee is instructive. When Peter keeps his eyes fixed on the Lord, he can do what seems impossible: He can walk on water. When he averts his gaze from Christ, when he begins looking elsewhere for his security, he sinks. We, too, can do the impossible if we keep our gaze fixed on Christ—and that is as true of the Church as it is of individual Christians. When we look elsewhere, we sink. And a Church flailing about in the white water of late modernity is not the reformed Church that John XXIII called for in opening the Second Vatican Council, 40 years ago this past October.

What the Crisis Is Not
It is just as important to understand what the crisis is not as to understand what it is. This is not a crisis of celibacy, or a crisis caused by celibacy. At the most elementary level, and in its scandal dimension, the crisis was caused by men not living the celibate commitment they promised to Christ and the Church. To blame the crisis on celibacy makes as much sense as blaming treason on the Pledge of Allegiance.

It is similarly spurious to suggest that this crisis wouldn’t have happened if the Church had a married clergy. In the first place, denominations with married clergy have their own serious problems of clerical sexual misconduct and abuse, and some of the accounts that we have suggest that these problems are at least as bad as what we find in the Catholic Church. At a deeper, theological level, to suggest that marriage would “prevent” sexual predation traduces that covenant of mutual love and receptivity to a crime-prevention program.

Nor is this a crisis caused by the Church’s alleged “authoritarianism.” To begin with, a scandal of sexual misconduct was turned into a crisis precisely because of failures to exercise genuine authority by the ordained heads of local churches. Beyond that, the charge makes no sense because the Catholic Church is not an “authoritarian” institution. Rather, the Church is a communion of disciples formed by an authoritative tradition and accountable to that authoritative tradition.

So too, descriptions of this as a “pedophilia crisis” are misplaced. That tag quickly got applied to the crisis because of the Geoghan case in Boston, which did involve classic pedophilia, the sexual abuse of prepubescent children. Still, the fragmentary empirical evidence available from the cases that have been brought to public attention in the past year suggest that this disgusting form of sexual predation is not the most prevalent form of clerical sexual abuse, which involves the homosexual abuse of teenagers and young men by priests.

And despite charges by some Catholics here and around the world, this is not a crisis created by the media. The media have created distortions and exaggerations, to be sure: Giving the impression that the sexual abuse of the young was a major, ongoing, and widespread fact of life in Catholicism in the United States was a disservice to the truth. But there is also a case to be made that the Church owes some elements of the media a debt of gratitude for forcing to the surface issues that many Church leaders themselves seemed reluctant to deal with.

Finally, this is not a crisis caused by the Church’s sexual ethic. As with celibacy, the empirical case is clear: In its scandal dimension, this is a crisis caused by a catastrophic failure to live the truth of the Church’s sexual ethic. And that failure, in turn, was influenced by a failure to understand and celebrate the Church’s sexual ethic, which lifts up and ennobles the gift of sexual love within the bond of faithful and fruitful marriage. The truth of the matter, brilliantly displayed in Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” is that the Catholic Church has a more deeply humanistic view of human sexuality than the worlds represented by Playboy and Cosmopolitan—worlds in which sex has been reduced and traduced into simply another contact sport. If we take history seriously, can we doubt that the toxic effects of the sexual revolution have themselves played a role in the crisis of clerical sexual misconduct?

Permit me to suggest, then, that Catholic universities and colleges where the Catholic sexual ethic is treated intellectually as a curious medieval artifact, and where the Church’s sexual ethic has no discernible place in the ordering of college life, are not institutions from which we can expect adequate analyses of the current Catholic crisis, or adequate prescriptions for genuinely Catholic reform.

How the Crisis Happened
The roots of today’s crisis are obviously complex, involving both institutional and personal failure.

Let me suggest, though, that the best way to understand why this happened when it did and how it did is to understand it as an ecological crisis: a crisis caused by a deeply damaged Catholic ecology that, like all damaged ecologies, eventually produced mutations and diseases. The damaged ecology of the Church has multiple causes, but we can begin to get a grip on the problem by recognizing that a culture of dissent in the Church, which broke out in earnest in the wake of the 1968 encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae, led to a kind of invisible schism in Catholic life—a rupture that was to have profound behavioral consequences.

Let me be quite clear about what I mean here. By “culture of dissent,” I do not mean that normal and healthy questioning and probing of the truths of the faith that is the lifeblood of theology. Nor do I mean the struggle all of us experience to be faithful disciples, a struggle that is part of the dynamics of the spiritual life. Rather, by “culture of dissent” I mean the claim, advanced by theologians, priests, religious, and some bishops, that in certain matters (such as the morally appropriate means to plan one’s family and regulate fertility) the Church’s supreme teaching authority was in fact teaching falsely and misleading the people of the Church.

It is one thing to say of a matter of doctrine or moral teaching, “I do not understand” or “perhaps we need to think about this truth in a more refined way” or “perhaps the pastoral implications of this truth need to be more carefully explored.” It is something else entirely to say, “The teaching authority is teaching falsehoods and leading the Church into error.” To say that is to make more than an intellectual judgment. To say that is to declare oneself out of full communion with the Church. As we have come to see, that invisible schism has had all sorts of consequences.

In many American faculties of theology and seminaries after the Humanae Vitae controversy (and then again after the 1994 apostolic letter on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), men learned to lead lives of intellectual and spiritual self-deception. Because most bishops were not prepared to ordain men who were public dissidents, candidates for the priesthood (and sometimes the bishops who ordained them) learned to lead a form of double-life, overtly accepting, or at least not publicly challenging, official Church teachings—on conjugal morality, on sexual morality in general, on the possible ordination of women—that they did not accept and had no intention of teaching or promoting in pastoral life. This self-deception had enormous consequences. Unwilling to enforce doctrinal and moral discipline, bishops came to think of themselves as discussion-group moderators, whose primary task was to keep everyone in play and reasonably happy; and we have seen the results of that. Some priests’ consciences became deadened, as intellectual self-deception helped prepare the ground for behavioral self-deception; and we have seen the results of that. Lay Catholics, and indeed some priests and bishops, came to think of Catholic truth as a kind of smorgasbord from which one could pick and choose as tastes dictated. The net result of all this was that the ecology of the Church was damaged severely, as Catholic Lite displaced classic Catholicism, and the Church got comfortable (or so we thought) living with the reality of fractured communion.

That is not all that happened, of course, to create today’s crisis. Clerical predators and malfeasant bishops made choices for which they, not “the times,” are responsible. Clericalism was also at work in the erosion of priestly discipline and episcopal governance. And yet, if we take history seriously, it becomes clear that the culture of dissent is a very large part of what happened. Historically knowledgeable and realistic people can understand that clerical sexual corruption has been and always will be a problem in the Church. But there is no explaining the breadth of the corruption that was brought to public attention in the past year or so, or the lack of effective leadership from some bishops in responding to it, without taking full account of the invisible schism that the culture of dissent created in the Catholic Church in the United States. To be sure, that schism first took place privately, inside the minds and souls of many clergy and some bishops. What has now been made unmistakably clear are the schism’s grave institutional effects.

The Path to Reform

So, what is to be done?

Let me focus on two points: seminary reform and the selection of bishops.

Some seminary reform has taken place in the past decade and a half, with good results. A further step forward would be to reform vocation recruitment procedures so that the first questions asked about a man’s candidacy for the priesthood have to do with the quality of his discipleship, not with his scores on the Myers-Briggs personality profile. Is this man a converted Christian disciple who has given his life to Jesus Christ? Has he manifested a capacity to deepen others’ relationship to Christ, or to introduce others to the Lord? Returning such questions to the fore means confronting the degree to which vocation work in the United States has become dominated by psychological and therapeutic, rather than theological, categories and concepts in the past several decades. I am not suggesting that personality screens and psychological testing are not important parts of the recruitment process. I am suggesting that when the basic questions of effective discipleship are not put first, a skewed evaluation process results.

Similar reform is needed in the process of forming men to lead chaste celibate lives in seminaries. In recent decades, education for chastity has been dominated by seminary psychologists and psychiatrists. This must end. The insights of such professionals are helpful, but it is holy, chaste priests who will best form other men for lives of chaste celibate witness in the Church and the world. That formation must be intellectual and spiritual; throughout the formation process in seminaries, theology must once again take precedence over psychology as the crucial intellectual framework.

Then there is the question of reforming theological education itself. Seminarians formed in an intellectual climate in which it is simply assumed that modern thought is superior to all previous forms will not view Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure as men they should get to know. Seminarians to whom it has been suggested, subtly or directly, that “tradition” is a synonym for “obfuscation” will never get a sense that the Church’s tradition lives and develops as a conversation across centuries and cultures—and they will not be able to present it as such to their people when they are priests. Intellectually ill-formed priests contribute, overtly or inadvertently, to the notion that every issue in the Catholic Church is really an issue of power, when in fact the serious issues being contested are all issues of truth.

These confusions must be remedied if the future priests of the United States are to speak intelligently to one of the most well-educated Catholic populations in the Church’s history. The remedies include securing faculty members for seminaries who are unimpeachably orthodox, who understand the distinctive nature of theological education in a seminary, and who themselves lead lives of holiness as priests, religious, or lay Catholics. It is not a matter of intellectual repression but of common sense to insist that every member of a seminary’s teaching and formation faculties accept, and be prepared to defend, the most bitterly contested teachings of the Catholic Church today, including the Church’s teachings on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and the Church’s sexual ethic. Nor is this a matter of banning speculative theology from seminaries; seminarians must understand that theology is a developing science. But all such speculation must take place within a determined conviction to “think with the Church,” and within a clear understanding that the rule of faith is determined by the Church’s pastors, not by the Church’s theologians.

The second area of reform that I would highlight has to do with the criteria that guide the nomination of bishops. The current criteria are obvious from the form letter that the papal nuncio sends to the bishops, priests, and lay people asked to comment on a prospective candidate, in which questions are asked about a priest’s character, his fidelity to the Church’s teaching, his spiritual life, his habits, and so forth. All of this is unexceptionable. It is also insufficient.

The criteria must be expanded and sharpened so that the selection process takes better account of the cultural climate faced by any man who would teach, govern, and sanctify as a Catholic bishop in the United States in the 21st century. That climate is saturated with fears about being considered “intolerant” or “insensitive”—labels readily attached to anyone asserting moral truths that cut against the grain of freedom-misunderstood-as-license. Moreover, it is a cultural climate deeply influenced by bureaucratic models of governance, which affect everything from the local scout troop and parish council to General Motors, the United Auto Workers, and the Pentagon. It is, in sum, an atmosphere in which it is very easy for a bishop to think of himself as a mitered referee, whose primary responsibility is to keep “the dialogue” going and everyone reasonably content.

This is not a model of episcopacy that would have made sense to Ambrose or Augustine, Athanasius or John Chrysostom, Francis de Sales or Charles Borromeo. It is a model of episcopacy that is wholly inadequate to the deep reform of the Catholic Church in the United States according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council. Authentically Catholic reform is going to require bishops of vision, determination, and grit, willing to challenge the flaccidity of our culture and the effects of that softness on the life of the Church.

The object of the selection process is to find apostles, men with the convictions necessary to undergird their own courage to be Catholic and the evangelical fire to inspire that courage in others. With that goal in mind, the following should be added to the standard list of questions asked of knowledgeable people about a prospective candidate for the office of bishop:

• In his life and ministry, does this priest manifest a personal conversion to Jesus Christ and a deliberate choice to abandon everything to follow Christ?

• Does this priest preach the Gospel with conviction and clarity? Can he make the Church’s proposal to those who do not believe? With charity, can he instruct and, if necessary, admonish Catholics who have embraced teachings contrary to the Gospel and the teaching authority of the Church?

• Has this priest ever been a pastor? Did the parish grow under his leadership? If his primary work has been as a professor in a seminary, did his students flourish under his tutelage?

• How does this priest celebrate Mass, in concrete and specific terms? Does his liturgical ministry lead his people into a deeper experience of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen?

• How many men have entered the seminary because of this priest’s influence? How many women have entered consecrated religious life? Does he encourage lay movements of Catholic renewal and the development of popular piety? In sum, is he a man who can call others to holiness because he manifests holiness in his own life?

• Does this priest have the strength of character and personality to make decisions that will be unpopular with other priests and religious, because those decisions are faithful to the Church’s teaching and liturgical practice?

• Is this priest well-read theologically? Does he regard theology as an important part of his vocation? Can he “translate” the best of the Church’s theology, ancient and contemporary, into an idiom accessible to his people?

Answers to these more pointed questions will help the responsible authorities of the Church determine whether a candidate is a man of conviction and courage. A 21st-century Catholic bishop in the United States must have the courage to be countercultural, but in ways that call the Church and the culture to conversion. The task is not to find men who will lead us into the catacombs. It is to find men who will be apostles, leading the Church toward a springtime of evangelization.

Beyond the question of criteria for choosing bishops, the past year has made clear the need to evaluate critically the structure and functions of the bishops’ national conference, which was unable to deal with the scandal of sexual abuse effectively in the 1990s, and whose actions this past year have not been without serious problems. Is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as now constituted an aid or a hindrance to effective episcopal headship in the individual dioceses? Does its thick bureaucracy impede sharp-edged analysis of the Catholic crisis? The norms for dealing with abusive priests that were approved at the bishops’ meeting in Washington, D.C., last November—norms that should have been adopted a decade ago—have given bishops instruments to deal with the most noxious weeds in the Catholic garden. But is the conference capable of addressing what must be done to revitalize the soil of our garden, so that it is less likely to produce noxious weeds in the future? I doubt it, and so, I believe, do perhaps one-third of the bishops of the United States.

A Call to Excellence
In the mid-1930s, as totalitarian shadows lengthened across Europe, Pope Pius XI memorably said, “Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.” That saying, a favorite of Dorothy Day, might also be our watchword in the months and years ahead.

We all fail, sometimes grievously. That is no reason to lower the bar of expectation. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and we try again. Lowering the bar of spiritual and moral expectation demeans the faith and demeans us. So does Catholic Lite.

Catholics today are capable of spiritual and moral grandeur, and indeed want to be called to such greatness. That is what Vatican II meant by the “universal call to holiness,” and that is what is available to all of us in the Church, whatever missteps the institution of the Church makes. Sanctity is available. And sanctity is what will transform crisis-as-cataclysm into crisis-as-opportunity.

In that universal call to holiness, and in the generous response to it that can be forthcoming, lies the future of genuinely Catholic reform.

George Weigel is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His syndicated column “The Catholic Difference” appears in more than 50 U.S. newspapers. The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, his most recent book, was published in 2002.

Photo: Outside the archbishop’s residence in Boston on the day of Cardinal Law’s resignation, December 13, 2002. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Top of page


. . .
. » Lost generation
  »  Fidelity crisis
  »  The diplomat
  »  Rodeo drive

Special Section:
The Church in the 21st Century

  » “Courage to Be Catholic”: View the complete lecture
  » Humanae Vitae
  » Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2003 The Trustees of Boston College