The Fruits of Dissent Why the Church Needs Some Papal Magnum Force

What we've learned from the continuing revelations of predatory homosexuals and pedophiles having infiltrated the Catholic priesthood is that far from being the authoritarian institution of black legend, the Catholic Church, in America in particular, has tolerated dissent to the point of criminality. When a Catholic priest can publicly embrace the agenda of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, as the now notorious Father Shanley in Boston did, and have his superiors treat this as a tolerable eccentricity, something is seriously wrong. And that wrong will not be righted by the introduction of more liberalism into the Church.

Had Church leaders insisted on and enforced Church teaching on sexual morals there would be no scandal. That some Church leaders have failed to do so is a betrayal of their calling and their congregations. That is the real reason why Cardinal Law of Boston must in good conscience resign; and why the pope, in recalling the American cardinals to the Vatican, essentially knocked their heads together. The pope's action was a vote of no confidence in the American bishops' handling of the scandals. The cardinals themselves confessed the American bishops' abysmal failure as shepherds of their flock. In the cardinals' statement at the conclusion of their Vatican woodsheddding, they noted that "the pastors of the church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care." No kidding — that's a simple, partial job description of a bishop.

What the Cardinals Said

It should be noted as well, however, that the media have woefully misreported the alleged failure of the cardinals' document to endorse a "one-strike" policy for abuse. Both Bishop Gregory, the president of the American bishops, and Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, endorsed a one-strike policy at the press conference releasing the document (they were the only two Americans present). Cardinal McCarrick even said it was the clear wish of the pope to institute such a policy.

What the cardinals' document actually says is that the bishops should institute a "special process" to dismiss "serial, predatory, sexual" abusers. In the next paragraph, a distinction is made for "cases which are not notorious." The unstated example is of a priest, perhaps styling himself after John Derek — who played a priest in The Leather Saint — who has had a single, inappropriate dalliance with a seventeen-year-old girl in decades past, but who otherwise has a clean record. In such a case, the document says, "we will also propose a special process for cases which are not notorious but where the diocesan bishop considers the priest a threat…." In other words, the door has been opened for a retroactive, expedited, one-strike policy for all sexual offenses, though giving some discretion to the bishop and "while recognizing that the code of canon law already contains a judicial process for the dismissal of priests guilty of sexually abusing minors." Thus the reality is quite different from what the tabloid headlines and indignant talking heads would have you believe.

It should also be borne in mind that the cardinals' statement is a summing up of discussion, and is not intended as a final legal document. But this June, at the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference in Texas, a binding one-strike policy will almost certainly be implemented.

One other not much mentioned aspect of the cardinals' statement was a call for an "apostolic visitation" — that is, a papal delegate — to investigate American seminaries. This little noted paragraph might prove the most important aspect of the document, if it is truly and vigorously pursued.

Wanted: A "Dirty" Cardinal Harry

For more than a decade, Rome has tried to address these scandals within the Church — and in some dioceses it has succeeded. Where it has, vocations are plentiful, and the Catholics in their pews are well served. Just last month, the Vatican tried again, directing the American church that homosexuality could not be tolerated in the priestly and religious life.

But it has become obvious that Rome needs an enforcer in the United States. And if we look back in Catholic history, we can find a rough sort of parallel that might be important for today. In the middle of the 14th century, when Rome was so torn by criminality, mob violence, and warfare, that it was unsafe for the papacy, the pope dispatched a fighting cardinal to clean things up. That man was Gil Alvarez Carrillo de Albornoz, a trained soldier as well as a churchman. He was a flesh-and-blood medieval version of the twentieth-century high-tech machine gun known as the "street sweeper." He got the job done.

Today, the American church would be well served if the pope were to dispatch a "Dirty" Cardinal Harry, to ensure that every priest, every bishop, every cardinal, every seminarian and seminarian instructor upheld true Catholic teaching — with power to discharge those who don't. It is another lesson of Catholic history — and of history in general — that it is better to have 300 Spartans (or orthodox priests) at one's command than 10,000 Persians (numbering in their midst louche dissenters). Bad men drive out good; indiscipline begets corruption.

Whether Rome sends us a "Dirty" Cardinal Harry — and we should pray that Rome does – the reforming broom will, when it comes, sweep the liberals away. We are going to see a more conservative, more orthodox, and healthier Church devoted to Catholic teaching. We can see this already in the new young men coming up in the Catholic seminaries. It is telling that most of the priests accused of these heinous crimes are men who came of "psychological age" during the Sexual Revolution and into the seminaries in the wake of the post-Vatican II liberalism of the American church. That liberalism — the liberalism that, as one wit recently put it, hates the sinner but loves the sin — is what will be repudiated.

In the meantime, loyal Catholics should take heart. Our Church has been besmirched, but the telescoping of forty years worth of sex scandals into one news cycle can be deceptive. We know — as far as we have reliable data — that a Catholic priest is no more likely to be a sexual molester than is a Protestant pastor, a Jewish rabbi, or your next door neighbor. But Catholics expect — and should expect — better; and the good news is, better is on the way.

The Catholic Church has survived 2,000 years of attacks by every power known to man. It was challenged by persecutions and by heresies that nearly abolished the Trinitarian faith. It was challenged by kings; attacked by the Reformation; driven to the wall by Revolution; held hostage by Napoleon; bound, gagged, and looted by statist-liberalism; and martyred by the Nazis and the Communists. The Church has survived all this. It is still the largest undivided religious body on Earth. The Church will survive, because as Jesus said, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it — and neither will those who have tried, either by deliberate intent or unwitting stupidity, to destroy this divine institution from within.

This essay is adapted from an essay that appeared in the April 25, 2002, issue of The Wanderer.

H. W. Crocker III is the author of the newly published Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History (Random House). His prize-winning novel, The Old Limey, will be reissued in paperback this March.

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