The Scandal: A Historian's Perspective

Has there ever been anything like it in the history of the church? That is a question I have been asked a number of times since the sexual abuse scandal swelled to its present din. Not a day goes by without allegations of improper conduct by Roman Catholic clergy. Not a day goes by without evidence appearing that bishops have acted improperly or with what is portrayed as callous unconcern for the victims. Scandal it is, and a scandal in which the media have, for better or worse, rubbed our noses for what seems like forever. Crisis, grave crisis, they insist. A staff writer for a prominent national newspaper asked me a few weeks ago whether the church was on the verge of another Protestant Reformation.

Has there, then, been anything like it in the history of the church? Simply on general principles, I have to answer in the negative. Despite what we sometimes hear, history does not repeat itself. Each event, each historical situation is unique, not a replay of something earlier, and will itself never be repeated.


I have to admit, however, that there are recurrent patterns. Human beings are the agents of history, and human patterns for both good and ill, for virtue and vice, fall into a limited number of categories. There are, therefore, events and situations that are on some level comparable to other events and situations. Sometimes comparing them throws light on both. Such comparisons begin by noting similarities, but they must end by noting the profound discrepancies. History does not repeat itself.

Is there any scandal in the past that is in any degree comparable to the scandal today? Scandals aplenty there have been, about which Christ himself warned us. How could it be otherwise, since we all, including pope, bishops and priests, confess at every Mass that we are sinners? But has there been any with which to compare this one? I have wracked my brain and searched my memory. A few possibilities occurred to me: the Great Western Schism, the Reformation or, on a less sensational scale, the way the Renaissance popes rewarded their children and grandchildren with church property. I have had to reject these and other candidates that occurred to me.

Nonetheless, the process of comparing and contrasting has helped me come up with 10 characteristics of the present crisis. I am sure there are more, but these are at least a start. I describe them below in the hope that they may provide some perspectives on what is happening. My premise, however, is that no one of these traits or characteristics stands on its own. Only when we see and understand all 10 of them as converging into a single historical reality does the uniqueness of the present situation manifest itself. Each of these traits or characteristics, in other words, influences and conditions all the others. Even when I mention for one of them some historical parallels, I do so with the understanding that, because of the totality we are dealing with, the differences outweigh the similarities.

The first characteristic of our present situation that struck me was that this is not a scandal arising from isolated instances of misbehavior of clergy or prominent laity, as when Father X makes the front page for drunken driving. The scandal has not occurred because the Archdiocese of Boston mishandled the Shanley case. No, characteristic of this scandal is its extent, with case after case after case popping up in a dismaying number of dioceses in different parts of the country. Not every diocese has been affected, by any means, but a shockingly large number have, especially in dioceses along the East Coast, the most densely Catholic section of the United States.

The sheer number of cases has led to a second characteristic, a growing and widespread persuasion that the scandal has occurred not simply because of the moral weakness that touches us all, including bishops, but because there is some underlying systemic cause. Critics differ as to just where the system went wrong. In the United States the scandal has raised questions about clerical celibacy. Is obligatory celibacy the system that underlies the scandal?

Reassurances from psychologists and sociologists that no connection can be shown between sexual deviations and celibacy have not made the question go away. Whatever the merits or demerits of the question, it points to a widespread sense of systemic dysfunction. Although for other reasons, it might be better for Bishop X to resign, such a resignation is not in and of itself the solution to the problem. Nor, many people seem to think, will “more of the same except more so” do the trick. Not more of the system, but a change in the system is expected.

Which system or part of the system needs to be changed? That is the absolutely crucial question. The hysterical atmosphere of the moment and the pressure for a solution now do not make for sober analysis. Indeed, they make for witch-hunting, scapegoating and advancement of partisan agendas. All at once, during the recent meeting of the American cardinals in Rome—at which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was present—infidelity to the magisterium in the pulpits and seminaries was identified as a root cause of the crisis. There’s a connection? Yet another papal visitation of the seminaries was therefore mandated. In that same week, two leading American ecclesiastics said or hinted that the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood was the cause. There’s a connection? This orientation, the Vatican spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, suggested some weeks earlier, might render ordination to the priesthood invalid.

The focus up to now, however, has been not on doctrinal infidelity, not on seminaries, not on sexual orientation, not so much even on serial sexual offenses, as on the performance of certain church leaders. The crisis has unfolded as a crisis of authority. That is a third characteristic. The system in question is the authority system. The problem is not that bishops in the spotlight were not doing their jobs as they understood them, doing their jobs according to the best lights of their consciences, but that there was something amiss in the way they understood their jobs, something amiss in their consciences—collectively. They were following patterns of behavior and judgment encouraged by a system in which priorities operated that many people now judge unacceptable. At present it seems to matter little that other institutions followed, and still follow, these same patterns. Something more is expected, it appears, of church leadership.

Even within the framework of priorities, bishops and cardinals seem to have mismanaged resources, acted on poor advice given in closed clerical circles, misspoken themselves and sometimes been less than honest, even with their fellow bishops, when they sent priests with bad histories to work in other dioceses. Issues like how they manage their internal processes and how they themselves were chosen for their office have now appeared in a newly unfavorable light.

In the present crisis, moreover, those most under siege seem to have little reserve of respect and affection to call upon to sustain and support them when they most need it. They have not won the minds and hearts of their people and their cities the way the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin did in Chicago, which sustained and supported him when he was accused of abuse. Whatever in the system is responsible for this situation, it has resulted in a radical decline of trust and confidence in ecclesiastical leadership.

This shaken confidence must be put in the larger context of the betrayals of trust in the public sphere that Americans have experienced in the past 50 years. The official lies told about Vietnam, the conspiracies of Watergate and the perjuries of Monicagate have taken their toll. Skepticism and cynicism about the honesty of persons in power has never been greater in the United States. The hermeneutic of suspicion is rampant among people who never heard the word hermeneutics. The church no longer seems worthy of exemption from that hermeneutic. Power corrupts, to paraphrase Lord Acton (1834-1902), and ecclesiastical power corrupts ecclesiastically. No more benefit of the doubt—for doctrine, discipline or any public statement. That is my fourth characteristic.

The fifth characteristic is the availability in the public sphere of such a great abundance of documentary evidence—boxes and boxes of files, now in the offices of public officials across the nation. Rumors might swirl, as they do in every scandal, but today beyond the rumors we have “the facts,” that is, hundreds or thousands of letters and memos that can be used to prove either innocence or guilt, prudent management or mismanagement. Processes of justice are of course imperfect, and evidence can be abused and misconstrued. But the presence of these documents in such quantity is certainly a characteristic of this scandal. Not only are there lots of documents, but they are, at least to some extent, open to public scrutiny. They cannot be spirited away until the crisis passes.

During the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when two and then three popes contended for recognition as the authentic successor of Peter, conscientious rulers throughout Europe tried to commandeer documents that might show them the way to an equitable judgment as to which candidate was legitimate. Some were able to gather large dossiers, but they could never get the quantity and quality required to make a sound judgment for their realm. Today both the quantity and the quality are there.

“Public scrutiny” means in the first instance scrutiny by public officials. It also suggests scrutiny by the larger public, which leads into the next characteristic: the almost instantaneous diffusion of news and information about the scandal by the media. In its extent, its aggressiveness, its immediacy and its graphic details, that diffusion is unprecedented. If you are interested in this scandal, you have plenty of information sent your way every day. Some of the information is even new, not just a repetition of stories already in circulation for weeks. The reporting can be selective, superficial, hostile and self-righteous, but somewhere in it there is usually reliable information. That information is not restricted to a ruling elite, but to a large extent reaches us all. We can hardly avoid “knowing what is going on.”

It is sometimes hard to realize what a difference “modern means of communication” have made. How many people in Europe in 1483 knew that young King Edward V and his brother were murdered in the Tower, probably by their uncle, Richard III? One hundredth of one percent? That would be a generous estimate. But in August 1997 the whole world knew, almost as it happened, that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in Paris in a tragic accident.

Practically nobody in Europe knew about the murders in the Tower. Practically nobody wanted to know. Who cared? Yet when Diana died, lots of people cared. Tears were shed in Berlin and Kansas City. The media not only supply us with news “as the stories break”; they have not only created in us an almost insatiable appetite for news; they have at the same time fostered the belief that, however remote from our daily experience the stories may seem, we should care.

In implying that we should care, the media sometimes have an easier task of it, which is certainly true regarding the current scandal. They have mobilized opinion, posing without surcease the same accusatory questions. For months, doggedly, The Boston Globe pursued the Geoghan case, which was the spark that eventually set off the nation. We can in this instance trust the polls. The scandal has become the concern of the Catholic collectivity in the United States, laity as well as clergy and hierarchy, which is another of its characteristics.

In the United States, such concern carries with it the implication that responsibility for a solution rests at least in part with the collectivity. That is the eighth characteristic. Our tradition of democracy in the United States, with its insistence that all citizens bear responsibility for the public weal, provides the larger sociopolitical framework for this sense of duty. Catholics are therefore asking the typical American question, what can we do about it?

They in fact do not have many options open to them. They cannot cast any ballots or introduce any constitutional amendments. They can withhold money, which some are doing or threatening to do. In any case, there is agitation. No more of just pray-pay-obey. Historians have long pointed out how passive contemporary Catholicism seems in comparison with earlier eras, but the giant at the moment shows some sign of life. If the giant, once awakened, is made to feel powerless, he could get ugly.

I believe there is evidence that this agitation, this sense of responsibility is as much due to Vatican II’s teaching on the church as it is to the American political experience. The impact of the council on the Catholic collective mentality in this regard is my ninth characteristic. I admit I am drawing an inference. My basis for it is the clear line of demarcation Catholics are drawing, as the polls show, between their loss of confidence in church leadership and their robust confidence in their Catholicism.

The scandal has not shaken their faith. Who knows what the future will bring, but right now Catholics, despite their embarrassment and frustration, are not leaving the church in droves. On the contrary, parish life seems to be thriving. The polls are in agreement: some 90 percent of Catholics, an overwhelming figure, have confidence in the parish priests who directly serve them. They respect and have affection for them.

American Catholics love their church, but it is the church they experience every day in the priests they know and in the other Catholics in the pews with them—the church as “the people of God,” not as a hierarchical institution. It is not by any means that they see these two as unrelated to each other, but they know, quite correctly, that the second is subordinate to the first and has no claim to existence except to further the first. The church is not its ruling class.

This is a distinction many Catholics could not have made before the council. Large numbers of Catholics at the time of the Reformation were in practice aware of the distinction and made it, dismayed though they were by the behavior of popes and bishops. The ecclesiology of the subsequent centuries, however, obscured this distinction badly, especially from the 19th century until the mid-20th. Critics may grieve that the teachings of Vatican II were never properly propagated, but this message about the church as a horizontal as well as a vertical reality seems to have come crashing through clear and strong. Catholics may not be able to quote the council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (1964), but they got the point of that document: the church is defined in the first instance not through hierarchy and clergy, but through all its members, without regard to ecclesiastical status or office.

My final characteristic is the intervention of secular courts. In times gone by in Catholic countries, clergy could be sued only in ecclesiastical courts. Even in the United States until quite recently, our courts were reluctant to become involved in cases involving clergy and church affairs. That has now changed drastically. It is by no means inconceivable that bishops may at some point be forced to testify in court concerning their handling of certain cases, a fate they have done everything to avoid up to now.

What this means is that “the system” is changing, not so much because of measures voluntarily undertaken by church leadership, but because of outside pressure. Cries of outrage can be ignored, a court summons cannot. The courts are thus pressing the bishops for new policies of self-regulation. They are proving to be a powerful catalyst for “reform.”

This is by no means unprecedented in the history of the church. I am again reminded of the Schism. After 30 years of failed efforts to persuade one or the other of the two contending popes to resolve the issue themselves, their cardinals tried to do it in 1409 at the Council of Pisa. When that only worsened the situation by producing a third pope, the Emperor Sigismund put such pressure on one of them that he was forced to convoke the Council of Constance. The council, soon convinced that all three had to go, extracted resignations from two of them and excommunicated the recalcitrant third. The council then proceeded to elect a new pope, who immediately won almost universal allegiance. The emperor and the council saved the papacy from itself.

The Council of Constance tried, moreover, to build safeguards into the system to make the church and the papacy more responsive to problems before they became grave. To that effect it legislated that councils henceforth were to meet at specified intervals. The popes honored that decree in the two subsequent instances, but then inertia, other complications and papal distaste for the measure sent it into oblivion. An immediate problem had been solved, but, for better or worse, the system did not fundamentally change.

Those are my 10 characteristics. Coming up with them confirmed me in my opinion that there are no clear parallels in the past for our situation.

But let me try to address another question. In magnitude, how does this crisis/scandal stack up against earlier ones? Is it, as I was asked, leading to the equivalent of another Protestant Reformation?

I have learned from sad experience how fallible my skills are in predicting the future, but I am willing to venture that, at least until now, we are far from anything so cataclysmic. This is front-page news in the United States day after day, but elsewhere it has received relatively little notice—“an American problem.” On a crisis scale from one to ten, the Reformation—along with the Schism, the Investiture Controversy, the French Revolution—would top the list, and our situation would be very much toward the bottom. No matter what the final outcome, it will for sure appear in every future history of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is hard to say if it will be mentioned in more general histories, even more general histories of the church.

The situation is, however, serious and volatile. It could still have repercussions on the larger church. Labeling it an American problem might turn out to be nothing more than a convenient, self-serving ploy. Our crisis could conceivably have an impact on the discipline of clerical celibacy, though I can hardly describe how unlikely I think a significant change in that regard to be within the foreseeable future. But if it or something of similar magnitude should result, the crisis rating of our situation would much improve. This is, obviously, sheer speculation. Nobody’s crystal ball is murkier than the historian’s.

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