Bishop Accountability
  Can the Church Survive?
The discovery of sin.

By William F. Buckley
National Review
April 1, 2002

Time magazine's cover line is "Can the Catholic Church Save Itself?" And, in the spread, author Frank McCourt is quoted: "The church is going to lose children and families, and it's doing this to itself. If this all continues, the church will disappear."

On this thought, a Catholic might say: If the Church disappears, it will be God's fault. Christians believe that He founded the Church. If it is to disappear because of scandalous behavior by a cohort of American priests, then perhaps the whole idea of Christianity was, after all, an epiphenomenon. One that lasted a very long time, and engaged the loyalty of scholars and martyrs, but proved of insufficient stamina to survive the triumphant claims of secular concerns.

It becomes clearer every day that the fraternity of American critics has discovered sin. The broader community was initially aroused by a president who bent under the demands of libido, but struggled for, and attained perspective by impeaching him not for sin, but for clerical felony. The uproar today has substantially to do with clerical ineptitude. The bishop who did not report the priestly abuser to the police is being held responsible for incremental abuses, much as a parole board might be held responsible for letting out someone who then reengages in crime. You can't sue a parole board, but you can sue a diocese, and this is being widely done. The consequences of such suits can be dire. A lawyer persuades a jury that the damage done to a plaintiff when he was 14 years old entitles him to $5-10-15 million, and the jury goes along. Perhaps the plaintiff has spent years in psychological therapy. Perhaps he is just plain mad, as in the case of Frank Martinelli of Connecticut, who was paid $1 million and then said he'd have asked for nothing at all, if he had just gotten an apology.

But people are asking for new distillations of policy, social, civil, and theological. We begin with celibacy. Almost everywhere we are told that Catholic reliance on it for its clergy should end. Perhaps it should, though we are left wondering why this should have taken 20 centuries to discover; yet there is no obvious appetite to probe what it is in these years that anachronizes the call to celibacy. There is no reason to suppose that the libido was less active in the year 1902 than today. What is acknowledged, but not very deeply explored, is the quite general conviction that sex is king. Then there is the accompanying question of homosexuality, or, more reliably mentioned, homophobia. Fifty years ago, in my own college with an undergraduate body of 5,000 male students, one could not recall a single homosexual. Now, they are expected to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade. And we know, too, that there were indeed homosexuals on campus. They were certainly not encouraged to give rein to their impulses; perhaps better said, they were intimidated in the matter. Resentment is firm against homosexual advances toward children, but the question is not explored whether that crime — which was then, continues to be, and will be in the future, a sin — has increased in proportion to the toleration of the practice at an adult level.

At the civil level, we gravitate to the conclusion that episcopal responsibility for order in religious communities cannot be relied on any more. Cardinal Egan of New York has said that henceforth he will relay all reported abuses to the police, but advises that he will do so only when the family of the aggrieved consents: It is by no means proved by the scandals that every adolescent boy or girl is willing to take the stand to describe what happened, and submit to the cross examination of the insurance company's lawyer. What certainly will happen is an end to the forlorn conviction by many dioceses that psychological counseling was all that was required to protect against the recurrence of the crime.

The dominant sadness of the day is the bereavement of the Catholic community over the triumph of sinful temptations in so many men prepared to give over their lives to the spiritual service of others. Which teaches us — what, exactly? Fr. Andrew Greeley accosted the question some years ago, commenting, "The question is not whether the Catholic leadership is enlightened but whether Catholicism is true. A whole College of Cardinals filled with psychopathic tyrants provides no answer one way or another to that question." And the most direct answer to the question posed by Time magazine on its cover, "Search for the perfect church, if you will; when you find it, join it, and realize that on that day it becomes something less than perfect."

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