Sunday, January 14, 2018

Church Scandals in a Secularizing World

A religious institution can least afford scandal involving highly unethical and illegal activity when the world is secularizing; the headwind alone requires a lot of energy just to stay in place, let alone move forward. The trail of child-rape scandals and cover-ups had by 2018 made a dent in the number of Roman Catholics in Latin America, yet other factors also accounted for the declines in church membership, and thus obfuscated estimates of the fallout in particular.  I contend that the gravity of the sexual abuse and related cover-ups by clergy warrants more than just being reckoned as one of several factors, even though the actual exodus was muted relative to the severity of the crimes.
“The number of Chileans who described themselves as Catholic dropped from 74 percent in 1995 to 45 percent [in2017], according to a poll by Latinobarómetro. The decline of Catholicism in Argentina, from 87 percent in 1995 to 65 percent [in2017] has also been significant.”[1] These are significant drops, and they exist in other countries in the region too. What factors lie behind this downward trend?  The New York Times pointed at the time to increasing secularity in “prosperous nations, including Chile and Uruguay. . . . In countries in the region troubled by violence, stark inequality and entrenched poverty like Brazil, evangelical denominations have cut deeply into the historical base of the Catholic Church.”[2] Fallout from sexual-abuse scandals by priests and covering bishops was also doubtless in the mix. Such abuse by religious men in a religious organization is unlike these other factors, for neither secularity nor economic inequality is so closely associated with, and thus pertaining to, the Roman Catholic Church. The downward effect of the personal failures and indeed hypocrisy of religious functionaries, especially in a denomination in which liturgy is so important in the process of sanctification, should arguably have been more pronounced that it actually was.
To be sure, during his visit early in 2018, Pope Francis “angered Chilean Catholics by defending a bishop who critics [said] protected a pedophile priest.”[3] Victims of Fernando Karadima, “Chile’s most notorious priest,” accused Bishop Juan Madrid of complicity in the crimes. The pope stated that “there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”[4] Ouch! Juan Cruz, one of the victims, had written, “As  if I could have taken a selfie or picture  while Karadima abused me orothers and Juan Barros stood there watching it all [before being elevated as a bishop by Pope Francis}.” Dismissing such an account was a good way for the pope to throw gas on a fire. “The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and adherents” in Chile.[5] From the  standpoint of Jesus’s message, hypocrisy by the vicor of Christ is not a good thing. It is telling that a spokesperson of the Chilean government was closer to Jesus’s  message in stating, “Respecting,  believing  and supporting victims of sexual abuse is  an ethical imperative. No  institutional defense can override this basic principle for a fair society, one that is empathetic with those who most need it.”[6]  Empathy with the most vulnerable is one of the pillars of Jesus’s depicted life and teachings, whereas denial in defense of  the powerful sounds more Roman than Christian.
So I ask: why, even at the time of the pope’s visit to Chile and Peru, hadn’t more Catholics walked away from the Church? Why not a major exodus worldwide after the press reports of the reason for the pope’s chilly reception in Chile?  Imperfect information is doubtless part of the explanation. The short lifespan of moral outrage even at hypocrisy combined with the sheer force of routine in the human psyche is another. Even so, I submit that the importance of taking part in the Church’s sacraments—believed by the faithful to be important to salvation—kept even disgusted Catholics in the pews.  
Most important to a Catholic’s process of sanctification—the gradual transformation into being Christlike and thus fit for full reconciliation with God—is taking Communion at the Mass, which is presided over by clergy. They are a necessary part of a layperson’s return to God, according to Catholic belief. Historically, the Church decided the Donatist controversy by declaring that the moral lapses of a priest does not invalidate his concentration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Moral and presumably even criminal faults may give rise to hypocrisy, but saying the liturgy is nonetheless sufficient in the consecration. Think of the liturgy of the Eucharist as a recipe of sorts; if said correctly, the consecration is, hocus pocus, accomplished. Whether the presiding priest was rude to someone before Mass is of no consequence. In a secularizing world, such a rationale is difficult to accept, yet Catholics socialized into the importance of attending Mass for their very salvation have a very different framework of belief. Even though that belief may be sorely tested when clergy misconduct arises, the way to salvation is held to be more important to the individual believer. In this perspective, the pursuit of salvation may appear selfish relative to taking a stand against a rapist priest or corrupt bishop by no longer going to Mass in empathy with the victims. By which of these two alternative courses does a believer become more Christlike—literally taking in the deity via Communion, or following Jesus’s example and teachings on how to live so as to enter the kingdom of God? A tough theological problem to be sure!
The sex scandals have been just one of several factors that together have doubtlessly been perceived by the Vatican as just another headwind that the long-lived institution will doubtless survive as it has survived other set-backs and challenges. Relativizing a current scandal by assuming a two-thousand-year perspective wrongly presumes an infallible coat of armour built up by centuries of existence. That the Catholic Church—any religious institution in fact—has responded so imperfectly (or not at all) is a testament to the human nature involved. Yet this is no excuse. The instinct for greater accountability within the Church is of course valid, for the ongoing need of a clergy so consecration can continue to be done does not justify retaining child-rapists and corrupt bishops who cover up the heinous crimes. For example, the Vatican could remove the rotted clerics and seek replacements. Lest it be objected that bending on the issue of clerical marriage would be inconvenient, the close tie between the Church and the crimes and cover-ups suggests that an inconvenient course-change is called for—that suffering costs due to external actors rather than one’s own volition is insufficient as payment by the institution. Such internal accountability is difficult, given the conflict of interest in an organization being tasked with voluntarily taking a hit (rather than merely taking a hit due to the actions of external actors, such as laity giving less financially). The laity and even the societies within which the Roman Catholic Church exists need not accept such institutional self-serving inertia.  Taking the road less convenient is something clerics ostensibly for agape (i.e., self-emptying) love should not have to be pressured into taking. Perhaps more Christians are needed in the Vatican, and fewer comfortable hypocrites in sheep’s clothing.

1. Daniel Politi, “As Pope Heads to Chile and Peru, Argentines Feel Snubbed Again,” The New York Times, January 14, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Marcelo Rochabrún and Pascale Bonnefoy, “Pope Leaves a Furor in Chile, and Later Defends the Indigenous in Peru,” The New York Times, January 20, 2018.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.

On how Church leaders might lead, see Spiritual Leadership and Christianized Ethical Leadership. On the secularization of the Church historically in terms of how wealth has been viewed in relation to greed, see God’s Gold.