The Vatican and its defenders can argue that so closely associating women's ordination and sexual abuse does not make them the same. But Catholics in secularizing countries, many of whom understand that the form of the message is part of its content, will be at liberty to be critical -- when they are not exhausted already into indifference over the slow-motion implosion of an archaic clericalist structure. Just as the Second Vatican Council said that Christians share responsibility for making modern people atheists, those in Catholic power today share responsibility for making people secular Catholics. It is as if the more the purity and authority of Catholicism is defended from on high, the less Catholicism actually matters as a social and spiritual phenomenon.
This is far, far beyond a public relations issue. To cast things as a problem of public relations mistakes separates too cleanly the "content" of Catholicism from its "form" or "communication." Instead, the very form of communication should be thought of as a kind of theological content. It is not only that official Catholicism does not know how to communicate well in the contemporary media world. It is that too often what it has to communicate, and the way it does so, is not persuasive to an increasingly educated, worldly, and pluralistically-aware public. The victims, and the Catholic structures that created victimization, should have been the irreparable center of official Catholic focus. But the form and content of official communication about abuse and its structures shows that we have yet to witness that conversion of consciousness.
It is not as if the occasions for thinking of abuse victims and structures are far from anyone, Roman official or not, who has Internet access. This morning, I heard a song called "Wash Away Those Years," by the Christian-influenced rock band Creed. This band has never been popular with critics, but popular taste is of course another thing. "Wash Away Those Years" is a song that seems to be about sexual abuse, using Christian symbols to frame the abuse ("crown of thorns") and hope for life beyond it ("wash away...").
Thinking this morning about the state of Catholicism as I heard the song, I wondered if there were homemade YouTube videos taking this song as the occasion to witness to abuse. Indeed, it did not take long to find them on the Internet. Here is one. Here is another. While neither are explicitly about Catholicism, it was easy enough to find, again through YouTube, self-filmed testimonies from victims of Catholic abuse. It was hearing raw testimonies of abuse by victims-survivors at Voice of the Faithful meetings in the summer of 2002, in Boston, that my own awareness about Catholicism began to be educated in a new, awful, but fundamental way. Catholicism will need to accept that there is much to learn about itself, in depth, from these testimonies -- in person, in print, on the Internet. (It is obvious that this does not mean simplistic agreement with every theological image, claim, or theme present in disclosures of, or video meditations on, abusive experiences or structures.)
Some of the lyrics in the Creed song, which seems to have spoken to many, seem to speak directly to many of us who are witness to this slow-motion implosion:
"My anger's violent, but still I'm silent / when tragedy strikes at home
I know this decadence is shared by millions / remember you're not alone"
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States