Every great period of reform in Catholic history has included a thoroughgoing reform of the priesthood and the episcopate.
That was true of the early Middle Ages, when celibacy became the norm in Western Christianity. That was true of the 16th century Counter-Reformation, led by reforming saints like Charles Borromeo. That was true of the 19th century reform of a European clergy shocked and demoralized by the collapse of the old regimes.
And, as the events of the past three months have made unmistakably clear, that will be true of the post-Vatican II Church. If Vatican II is not to become the twentieth century’s version of Lateran V — a Council that failed in its reforming mission because it inadequately measuredthe crisis facing the Church — a deep reform of the priesthood and the episcopate is imperative.
Some of that has been underway for more than a decade. One of the tragedies of the scandal-time through which we are living is that the good work of the past ten or fifteen years has become invisible. But anyone who thought that the reforms that have already taken place in the running of seminaries and the choosing of bishops were sufficient, and that the only thing needed was time and patience before they bore fruit, was seriously mistaken. What has been done thus far has been good. It is also manifestly inadequate.
The deeper reform that we need must begin with a correct identification of the nature of the problem.
It is not a problem of celibacy. The sexual abuse of innocents is in no way limited to celibates. The problem is one of vowed celibates failing to live the truth of their professed vocations.
It is not a problem of authority or authoritarianism. It is a problem of the pastoral authorities of the Church failing to exercise their authority effectively: in terms of sexually misbehaving priests, yes, but also in failing to confront adequately the culture of dissent that has contributed immeasurably to the ecclesiastical atmosphere in which sexual misconduct festers.
It is not, in the main, a pedophilia crisis. John Geoghan was a classic pedophile (someone with a disordered sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children) and pedophilia is unspeakable. As news reports have made clear, however, the great majority of victims of clerical sexual abuse in recent decades have been adolescent boys or young men. Clerical sexual misconduct is certainly not limited to priests who are homosexuals. But it can no longer be denied that the Church has a serious problem of homosexually-oriented clergy who are not living chaste celibate lives. The problem is compounded by an ecclesiastical apparatus that seems unable to confront this dimension of the crisis.
Finally, it is not a problem of the Church’s sexual ethic. A barely concealed subtext of the past three months’ debate has been the subtle suggestion, from the press and from the Catholic left, “This is what that repressed Catholic view of sexuality gets you.” Which is nonsense on stilts. The Church’s sexual ethic is an affirmation of the gift of sexuality, which is to be lived in mutual self-giving and receptivity between people who have made promises to each other and who cherish the gift of life that is intimately linked to sexual love. The Catholic vision of human sexuality has nothing to do sexual predation, which is a particularly odious form of sexual solipsism.
This is a spiritual crisis. John Paul II was exactly right in his Holy Thursday letter to priests: these scandals are “grievous” manifestations of the “mystery of evil” at work in the world. The scandals have psychological, legal, and political dimensions. But at the bottom of the bottom line, this is about sin. This is about wickedness. This is about our need for redemption. Unless we understand the crisis primarily in those terms, we are not going to fix what is broken.
A man who truly believes that he is an icon of Jesus Christ in the world, a living sacramental re-presentation in history of the eternal priesthood of the incarnate Son of God, does not behave the way clerical sexual predators behave. Focus on that, and both problems and solutions start to come into focus.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.