Our Catholic Watergate

As revelations of new victims of clerical sexual abuse spill into the news daily, we must face one mare discomforting truth: this scandal has sobering generational overtones. Many, if not most, of the victims are Gen-Xers, born in the 1960’s and 70’s. To be sure, those coming forward range in age from young to middle-aged adults, and it is premature to draw firm conclusions about the generational wreckage of this crisis. Yet in order that our ecclesial trauma not become an excuse for pastoral lethargy, it is essential to ask what this crisis means for today’s young Catholics. Answering this question not only challenges the church to respond in ministry to young adults in the present, it may help the Catholic Church in the United States anticipate the impact of these events on future Catholic practice.

For the post-Vatican II generations, this is our first major church crisis. We do not remember the birth control debates of the late 1960’s, and we know neither what Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) teaches nor what it means. The daily news of the manipulation and control, seduction and rape of boys and girls, young men and women by some of our priests is the first major test of our fidelity to the church. This is our Catholic Watergate, an unholy brew of duplicity and desecration, sealed sickeningly by desperate clergy with threats of hellfrom Cardinal Bernard F. Law calling down God’s wrath on the media to priests who scared boys with threats of eternal damnation for breaking silence.


Much as young adults are more likely than other generations to vote a split ticket or keep major political parties at arm’s length, ours is a cohort already well stocked with ecclesial independents. Young Catholics are notably unwilling to be roped into any clearly demarcated camp of traditional Catholic ideology, liberal or conservative. Before the present crisis, we were already very likely to make up our own minds about church teaching, to claim spirituality against religion, to express dissatisfaction through detachment rather than dissent, to choose a privatized Catholic identity over protest. The sexual abuse fiasco will only deepen these already-existing trends.

However, the deepest response I observe in young adults around the country and among my own students at Boston College is that the collapse of the church’s credibility necessarily affects our own definition of what it means to relate to the institutional church as a Catholic. This is no esoteric debate over the nature of the churchthis is a matter of lived ecclesiology. Among many young adults, the dysfunctional dynamics that undergird the sexual abuse scandal, having so particularly and personally afflicted our generation, are understandably being generalized to the church as a whole. The effect is to render passé any practical adherence to traditional Catholic understandings of the necessity and centrality of the institutional church for salvation, such as indefectibility, infallibility, even the hierarchy itself.

Thus, this crisis is moving young Catholics closer to a more classically Protestant understanding of the church as deeply sinful, as ever in need of reform and, most important, as ultimately something to be set aside if it interrupts one’s relationship to God. This Protestantizing trend was already part of young Catholic identity before this crisis, heavily marked as that identity has been by American evangelical traditions.

This development in ecclesiology as lived by young Catholics is not necessarily to be lamented; Catholic identity is not and cannot be a fixed and final thing. All religious traditions, including Catholicism, because they are brokered by humans, are fundamentally susceptible to change and growth. After this scandal, the American Catholic identity of the future, led by today’s young Catholics, will be a deeper admixture of historically Catholic and Protestant understandings of the church.

That Catholic identity itself is fundamentally open to change and development does not let young Catholics off the hook. This is not a time for passively observing our own evolving relationships to the church. This is a moment for profound generational self-examination. If ever there was an occasion for young adults to seize the opportunity for their own voices to be heard, it is now, in this present roiling storm. It may be tempting for many Catholics who care about the future of the church to be smug about the tendency toward a privatized evangelical Catholicity that we see among many young Catholicsthinking that this will insulate us against a despairing cynicism and ensuring that we will stay with the church through this crisis of credibility. Yet our own credibility as young Catholics is on the line. As younger generations, we have never faced a challenge to our adult Catholic identity. Will we take this opportunity to claim our church, to give ourselves more fully and responsibly to this tradition that bequeathed Jesus to us, or will we let it pass in favor of a secret satisfaction at watching the institution collapse? Will we share in the costly grace of reconstructing the church or choose the cheap grace of indifference?

The church has an opportunity to invite greater participation from young adults in the midst of this shameful crisis. Much hinges on whether we who represent the church can invite young adults into a Vatican II way of being church that is adequate to our present. The council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) offered a very optimistic interpretation of the church-world relationship, encouraging a teaching and learning dialogue with the world, vital contact and exchange between the church and different cultures. It is true that young adults are more given to this dialogue than ever. They understand, with some vocal exceptions, that pluralism is our reality and that no one today practices faith in a racial, ethnic, sexual or religions vacuum. For the majority of young Catholics, taking cultural diversity seriously today is not only a mark of maturity, but of reality.

But this conciliar sense of church-world dialogue will be believable for post-scandal young Catholics only if the church itself undertakes such dialogue from a chastened and humble position in the public square. To be sure, an optimism about church-world dialogue was already threatened for young adults by the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001, newly marking the world as a considerably more dangerous place. Now, however, not only is the surrounding culture a potentially poisonous well of death; a well of spiritual death has made its home inside our own church. When the church and the world are so unstable, how can one possibly teach and learn from the other?

From the church’s side, this can happen only when the church puts its own idolatrous self-image of perfection at risk and admits its need of the world to correct its own sinfulness. Seen in this light, recent official church statements about the scandal have things entirely backward. It is not the church that will teach the world how to deal with sexual abuse; it is precisely the world that has taught the institutional church that sexual abuse is a crime and morally intolerable. The church must have the humility to admit that it learned from the world on this issue, and has much more to learn.

What would it look like for the church to be bold yet humble in the public square, in a way that will invite and not further alienate young Catholics, in a way that will be more likely to restore credibility to an institution increasingly and literally in-credible? Let us face the fact that there can be no new official Catholic pronouncements on sexual morality, for at least a decade, that young Catholics will take seriously. Our church must undertake a decade-long fast with regard to sexual teaching. But it cannot give up its teaching role altogether; that would be utter capitulation and cause for deepened desolation on the part of the faithful. The official church now has an opportunity to turn its teaching focus to social issues such as the environment, race and ethnicity, and economics, about which the church has not yet entirely squandered its public credibility. The tremendous loss of respect for the church shall have to be overcome by the whole church, which is all of the faithful, through a prophetic and self-sacrificing serving of the world. A respect that it has taken only a few months of headlines to liquidate may take generations to recoverand then, only partially.

There are understandable reasons for letting our mission to young Catholics lie fallow at this time. Yet I think the opposite is the wiser but more difficult course. Intentionally welcoming young Catholics has never been harder to do. That means that this is the most authentic timeperhaps ever in the life of the American churchto do so. We can take this opportunity to listen, by sponsoring forums for young adults on how this crisis affects their sense of their Catholic identity, and by inviting young adults into all levels of church governance. And we can take this opportunity to teach: about Vatican II’s notion of the hierarchy of truths (not all official teachings are equally binding), about celibacy (as a unique charism) and about sexuality (as both gift and mystery).

In this way will our church be a church in this modern world, a world we have forced to call us to account for our embarrassing abuse of spiritual power.

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