The deep and ongoing scandal of sexual abuse and its coverup in the Roman Catholic Church raises the most uncomfortable of theological questions: What does sexual abuse say about Catholicism itself, about the Catholic Church itself? And how do those who are or were affiliated with Catholicism live our responses to these questions?
This is an uncomfortable set of questions for at least two reasons: (1) Those who love, or once loved, their faith and their church often find it painful and disorienting to release or unlearn that love; (2) To even raise the question, much less to formulate possible answers that might make sense here and now, frequently risks retaliation in its many Catholic forms -- for lay ministers, for women, for religious, for priests, for theologians, for Catholic school teachers, and for bishops. Those who want a fearless and searching account of Catholic identity in face of all we have learned about Catholic power are often left on their own for answers.
I have no simple answers but want to raise the significance of the quandary, and indeed to propose a sharpening of the theological question. I think a key theological question is: What is it about Catholicism that has allowed abuses of many kinds to be propagated and covered up, and what are the ethical, religious and spiritual possibilities remaining for all of us who have, in whatever way, benefited from the Catholic structures and practices of power implicated in the abuse and coverup scandal?
I believe that one reason these kinds of theological questions are likely to have a new and perhaps permanent force among those who do or once did identify as Catholic is that an increasing percentage of Catholics are educated adults, and will not be made to be the kind of intellectually docile religious persons that older authority structures shaped people to be. The sexual abuse and coverup scandal, what I called in 2002 in America magazine our "Catholic Watergate," has become intensely public, now for almost a decade, at precisely the same time that more Catholics than ever claim the freedom of their own intellectual and spiritual life to make decisions about their religious and spiritual identity and practices.
There are and will be those who say the official Catholic Church is right and trustworthy no matter what, and there are and will be those who say that they do not recognize true Catholicism in what the Catholic Church has actually become. But who can read the detailed reports of any single searing episode of abuse and coverup and not be changed by it?
One crucial theological question today is: what does such change portend for Catholicism, for faith, spirituality, and religion? Or to return to my basic questions: What does sexual abuse and coverup say about Catholicism itself, about the Catholic Church itself? And how do those who are or were affiliated with Catholicism live our responses to these questions?
I would say that there is no way to know the answers to these questions right now, but I would also suggest that one contribution that theologians can make to this cultural moment, to this remarkable era of the public implosion of Catholic credibility and the profound confrontation with the realities of traumatizing pastoral structures and their accompanying theological rationalizations, is to begin to trace possible answers to these questions. I am trying to begin to do so here. For this work, theologians will need to pay even more discerning attention to everyday life, and will need models of calibrating everyday faith that are suited to this cultural moment. Whatever else happens, I would say, theologians must be about shaping thinking and forming persons with a passion for the truth and the courage and capacities to attempt to tell it about their own lives and institutions.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York