The Catholic Church is currently facing a watershed moment, its most serious since the Reformation — when Martin Luther prompted the schism which split Christians into Catholics and Protestants. The disturbing revelations of clerical sexual abuse have left the Faithful and the world at large reeling, in a state of shock. From Australia and France to Chile, Germany and Ireland to the United States, the stories of child molestation by the clergy unravel relentlessly. A US grand jury report recently documented 1,000 children abused by 300 priests, over a period of seven decades, in the state of Pennsylvania alone.
The disclosures are disconcerting not only because they have unearthed a persistent history of abuse, but because they have implicated high-level Church officials in both the abuse and its cover-up. Last November, dozens of federal law enforcement officers swooped down upon the offices of the Archdiocese of Houston Texas, searching for evidence in a clergy sexual abuse case that has entangled Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who also serves as president of the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The former archbishop of Washington DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, resigned from the College of Cardinals amidst credible accusations that he had sexually abused a minor and harassed seminarians under his supervision. The McCarrick exposé was especially troubling because he had played a prominent role in the Church’s response to previous scandals. A predator fox was put in charge of the coop, cried one victim of abuse. How can justice be served this way? And in early January this year, the Associated Press published a blistering report by correspondent Tim Sullivan on the rape of nuns in India and the enveloping silence of church elders.
The monumental tragedy has cleaved the Church into those who would prefer to sweep such transgressions under the rug, and those who would rather divulge them completely so that they can be expunged viscerally from the Church’s womb. The rift divides Catholics into conservatives and progressives — the former are particularly prominent in the US, where highly mobilised, neo-traditionalist Catholics are demanding Pope Francis’ resignation. They postulate that the Pope represents a threat to Church teachings on marriage and sexuality, in that he is promoting a “pro-gay ideology” which “encourages homosexual networks” among the clergy — and this in turn is responsible for the abuse. Church progressives defend Francis against such allegations, but without the doggedness of those demanding his resignation — in part because they also view his track record on the crisis as weak.
The current situation unfolds against a backdrop of pervasive institutional corruption. The Papacy has consistently opposed key reform proposals in the decades before the crisis broke. It has rejected any attempt to decentralise and modernise a Roman Curia whose structure has changed little since its foundation in 1588, following the Council of Trent. It remains a career system without real accountability, not only when it comes to abuse, but also in terms of the governance and pastoral leadership of local churches entrusted to bishops.
Experts maintain that the Curia is seriously understaffed for the duties it is supposed to perform: the selection, vetting, appointment and supervision of an episcopate that today comprises some 5,100 Catholic bishops around the world. The Faithful also advocate a more pragmatic approach to issues affecting their lives. They contend that the gap between teachings and modern culture is stark and wide, arguing that debates should not be about obscure doctrinal questions for specialists, but ordinary subjects dealing with gay, divorced, and remarried Catholics, contraception and pre-marital cohabitation. A simple question which keeps resurrecting itself over and over again: Why do the wealthy, and people in positions of power, manage to get annulments and permissions to remarry easily, while the middle class and poor are obligated, under dread of mortal sin and damnation, to endure difficult marriages with abusive spouses, and eschew contraception?
Through measures such as the decentralisation of the marriage dissolution process and a new set of procedures for Bishops’ Synods — all part of the pontificate’s push towards a less clerical and Rome-dependent church — Pope Francis has visibly tried to change course and allow for more devolution. The most visible change has been his decision to create more cardinals from the so-called global South. But it could well be a situation of too little, too late.
The sexual abuse crisis has accelerated what is already occurring: the drift away from a model of religious experience which the younger generation finds increasingly unintelligible in this modern day and age. The numbers of Catholics are declining steadily. According to a new Gallup poll of the American church, scarcely 39 per cent of American Catholics say they attend services during any given week. A significant down-slide from the 80 per cent of the 1950’s. Even older Catholics, who are typically more religiously committed than the youth, have stopped going to Church as often. And in sharp contrast, Evangelism and Eastern religions, organised by private individuals, ad hoc groups and foundations, are gaining traction around the globe.
The Church’s declining moral authority is only a part of the larger picture. Financial ruin provoked by compensation claims is another — as evident in several Western archdioceses. The abuse scandal also highlights the fact that the church is running out of priests as vocations collapse: analysts predict that within a decade or two, the celibate model and the exclusion of women from the priesthood will be unsustainable in many parts of the world.
Pope Francis has summoned the presidents of the All Bishops’ Conferences for a summit next month to discuss the issue of clergy sex abuse and how to protect children — proof that he realises that the scandal is universal and that inaction threatens to undermine his legacy. But it is imperative that the visionary Pope should also encourage an examination of concerns that are out of sync with the 21st century’s social and cultural patterns — if the Church is to continue as a meaningful component of Christian life.