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.
The most obvious scapegoat is, of course, Cardinal Law. The Los Angeles Times has reported that several bishops want him to resign. But most of them want him to resign for the wrong reason. They may correctly believe Law mishandled the situation, but mostly they just want the scandal to go away and think that once the press has had its pound of hierarchic flesh the Church can return to normal. If they are right, then I hope Law stays.