Culture change in the Church

There has been much advice given to the Catholic Church in regard to the sexual abuse scandals. There are, though, only two real options. The Church can become more Catholic, or less Catholic.

Much commentary favours the latter approach. If the Catholic Church were to become less distinctively Catholic — begin to teach as false what she now teaches as true, modify her traditional practices, adopt democratic modes of governance — she would fix the problem. Though rarely put so bluntly, the advice to Catholics is to become more like Protestants.

The alternative is for the Church to become more fully who she already is — a preacher, a teacher, a mother, a mediator, a ruler. The sexual abuse scandals are a result of the Church’s infidelity to her own identity and mission. That demands the response of being more Catholic, not less.

Obviously that’s the case for the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Sin, especially such grievous sin and criminal activity, is a betrayal of the graces of baptism and ordination. The scandals, though, have been as much about a failure of governance and oversight; it’s from the Greek for “overseer” that we get the word “bishop”.

In the 1960s, like much of society and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church simply abandoned her disciplinary life. Doctrinal dissent was not corrected, but often celebrated. Liturgical abuses, both minor and outrageously sacrilegious, were tolerated. Bishops simply stopped inquiring into priestly asceticism, prayer and holiness of life. Non-Catholics often have an image of the Catholic Church as a ruthlessly efficient organization with a chain of command that would make the armed forces jealous. The reality for most of the 1960s to 1980s was the opposite. A priest could preach heresy, profane the Holy Mass, destroy the piety of his people and face no consequences. The overseers decided to overlook everything. It is any surprise, then, that when accusations of criminal immorality emerged they too were dealt with inadequately, if at all?

Pope Benedict, in his bluntly-worded letter to Irish Catholics last week wrote that the bishops “failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.” Too many bishops weren’t Catholic enough. They failed, for example, to follow the clear direction of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that a cleric who commits sexual sin with a minor “is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”

A culture of laxity had so infected bishops that their disciplinary muscles had severely atrophied. It was not as if they were vigilant rulers in all aspects, but perversely indulgent of sexual abuse. Indulgence was shown to abuses of all kinds. So latitudinarian had the clerical culture become that even modest attempts at doctrinal discipline were widely mocked — or do we forget that the progressive press, inside and outside the Church, calling Joseph Ratzinger “God’s Rottweiler”?

The great task for the Holy See then has been to restore those disciplinary muscles. On doctrine, a universal catechism was issued in 1992 to make plain the orthodox teaching of the Church. In the liturgy, instruction after instruction has declared the age of endlessly inventive innovations to be over. The Holy See wrested control over translations of the Mass away from national bishops’ conferences, deeming a failure three decades of rhetorically insipid, theologically dubious and linguistically dishonest work.

On sexual abuse? In the late 1990s Cardinal Ratzinger launched a review of how such cases were being handled. In 2001, he and Pope John Paul II lost patience. That year — before, it should be noted, the explosion of the American scandals in 2002 — local bishops were told they no longer could handle the canonical aspects of such cases on their own authority. All cases of sex abuse had to be reported to Rome. The age of majority was raised from 16 to 18, the statute of limitations was extended and often lifted altogether, and speedier dismissals from the priesthood were authorized. If local bishops would not govern, then the Holy See would intervene directly.

Like doctrine and liturgy, the attempt was to effect a culture change — precisely because any existing rules are useless in a culture of laxity. It takes time to change a culture, but what does culture change in the Church look like?

Since 2001, Rome has dealt with some 3,000 cases stretching back a half century or more. Canadian bishops were
ahead of the curve; since 1989 there have been strict protocols in place. The current one for the Archdiocese of Toronto requires reporting abuse to civil authorities within one hour. Just last week my superiors dispatched a letter to another diocese I intend to visit testifying to my probity — including criminal checks, sobriety and soundness of morals. That’s now routine.

On Tuesday, the American bishops released their annual national audit of all charges in the last year. It reports that there were 398 new allegations in the entire United States last year. Six of them were from current minors; the rest were older incidents only now being reported. Over 70% of alleged offenders are already deceased, suspended from ministry, or dismissed from the priesthood. In a Church of some 60 million Catholics, aggressive action has seen the problem reduced to six cases of alleged current abuse. That did not make the news.

The backlog from the sins, shame and secrecy of the past is still to be dealt with. It will take some time. The victims’ pain endures, the Church’s shame remains. The abdication of discipline in the Church has taken a terrible toll. Slowly though we are becoming more Catholic and restoring the years that the locust hath eaten.