The Betrayal: How to Save the Church

BY: Michael Sean Winters
The New Republic


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But the church cannot preach sexual ethics in a vacuum; one reason its message has failed so utterly is because American Catholicism has reduced religion to morality and specifically to sexual morality. Unfortunately, because the liberalism of the public sphere requires that we set our dogmatic claims aside, the Church's cultural position invites just such a reduction. In an article in the Catholic quarterly Communio, theologian Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete commented: "It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum."

Few would argue that the Church's moral teachings, standing on their own, are persuasive in today's culture. But they were never meant to stand on their own. What is distinctive about Catholicism is not the manner in which its members copulate, but how we pray and to whom. This core sense of wonder at the admittedly large claims of the Catholic faith--that God himself came down from Heaven, was born of a virgin, walked upon the Earth, died, and rose from the dead--and the wonder they must necessarily inspire to those who hold them, are what the Church must reclaim if its credibility is to be restored. Unless a bishop or theologian can trace his views on moral issues to the empty tomb of Easter morning, there is nothing distinctively Christian or Catholic about them.

Most American bishops are not first-rate theologians, and they do not perceive the limits imposed by the "natural law" theory to which the Church has wedded its moral teachings. Natural law has produced a very act-centered morality, a kind of Catholic utilitarianism, when the historical role of Catholicism has always been to insist on the transcendence of the human person, on the belief that utility is not the ultimate criteria for human choices. Yet natural law's anthropology is so hyperteleological that the wonder before creation, and before one's fellow creatures, that is proper to the soul is lost, and the relationships that follow are diminished in their richness, their humaneness. Surely the most important thing to know about the human person from the story of Genesis is that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and it is that belief which, through the centuries, has been the surest bulwark against dehumanization. Until the radicalism of Catholicism's claims about the creation of mankind and the mercy of God are better preached and understood, the bishops should be more reticent about what the natural law does and does not permit. To cite one horrific example, through a quirk in current Church law, you can murder your spouse, go to confession, remarry, and continue as a communicant; but you cannot divorce your spouse, go to confession, remarry, and continue as a communicant. I am no moral theologian, but that strikes me as messed up.

How can the Church climb out of this mess? First, by not blaming scapegoats. The left has blamed celibacy, and the right has blamed gay priests. But these are attempts to hitch prior ideological wagons to the pedophilia scandal's horse--akin to Karl Rove suggesting on September 13 that the best response to terrorism would have been, say, a cut in the capital gains tax. Making clerical celibacy optional would not eliminate the opportunities for moral compromise; it would simply create different ones: With the first abandoned wife, everyone would be clamoring for the good old days. As for attacking gay priests, the last thing the Church needs now is a witch-hunt of any sort. It is never a good day for an auto-da-fé.

Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who serves on two Vatican commissions, recently told The New York Times that the blame lies with the 1960s--as if pedophilia were unknown in earlier times. Glendon and other right-of-center social critics identify a 2,000-year-old faith with the Church of their grandparents, and they worry over the slightest alteration, as if the Church has not survived in large part because of its ability to adapt. As John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in discussing human psychology and the development of Christian doctrine: "[T]o live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Glendon is right that the '60s changed much in our society and culture when it comes to sexuality--just not in the way she darkly imagines. For instance, before 1960 it is doubtful that Glendon would have sat on a Vatican commission or, for that matter, on the faculty of Harvard Law. The struggle for women's equality that characterized the '60s also insisted that sexuality be viewed from nonmale points of view. It turns out that a male boss squeezing his female secretary's tush was never much fun for her; as a result of listening to women's thoughts about sexuality, such behavior is now called harassment and it is against the law. That represents a moral achievement. Similarly, it turns out that little Johnny never much liked it when Father groped him either. The sophisticated Europeans who mock American Puritanism need only wait until little Giovanni and little Jean-Marie have had enough as well: The pedophilia crisis has already hit Ireland, but it will find its way to the rest of Europe. It is America's sexual revolution itself--the sexual revolution Glendon so despises--that has helped create the universal revulsion to the current pedophilia scandal.

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