Late Edition: Back to Basics

Queen Elizabeth II wryly described 1992, a year of conspicuously public follies within the royal family, as an annus horribilis. So horrible indeed that in an effort to salvage the monarchy’s sagging popularity, Her Majesty even consented to having her income taxed.

Annus horribilis understates the moral magnitude of the scandal now afflicting the Church in America, and the year is only half over. By the time the last lawsuit is settled, the bishops would probably consider it a bargain were the Church’s income to be taxed instead.

Money may be the least of their problems. In mid-May, if you tapped “Catholic priests + sex” into Google’s Internet search engine, you would have found nearly 100,000 sites and some 28,000 news stories covering the preceding three months alone. The known tally of American priests who have been relieved of their duties in recent years because of proven or credible allegations of sexual misbehavior now approaches 600, and the number rises every week. Half a dozen bishops have left office for similar reasons. Two more have shamefully resigned in 2002, and others may well follow before the year is out.

Yet the number of wayward priests, bureaucratic enablers, and innocent victims tells only part of the tale, perhaps not even the most important part. The last seamy revelation of the present exigency will eventually run its wretched course, and by the grace of God, the personal wounds will heal. But how does one repair the damage that has been done to the American Church’s moral authority? That is one salient question. The other is whether the American hierarchy, as currently constituted, can rise to the occasion.

The sexual morass was both foreseeable and avoidable. It didn’t happen suddenly. Nor can the bishops claim to be surprised by its causes or dimensions. As early as 1971, they were presented with alarming clinical data on the looming threat of pedophilia and homosexuality within the priesthood. In 1985, a lengthy report commissioned by the papal pro-nuncio warned them that the threat was widespread, dire, and imminent. Some bishops took corrective action, but many others chose to avert their gaze.

If the American Church were a business corporation, the bishops, as managers of the enterprise, would have long since been called to account. That collective judgment in no way denigrates those loyal shepherds who have labored to safeguard the depositum fidei against the spirit of the age—and, it must be said, against the intrigues of some of their peers. These men (and younger clerics of similar fidelity) are genuine heroes. Despite their efforts, the American Church has been adrift for the better part of four decades, the result of timorous acquiescence to foolish or heretical fads affecting everything from doctrine and liturgical observance to spiritual formation. The sexual scandal is but the fruit of this poisonous tree.

Remember this when you review the reforms that are sure to emerge from the bishops’ conference in Dallas. There will be new committees, new rules and regulations, new procedures, new apologies, and much heartfelt talk about healing wounds and reaching out to victims. All this is no doubt necessary and useful, but it won’t mean much in the absence of genuine intellectual and spiritual reformation. The eternal truths of faith and morals must once again be taught, understood, practiced, and defended against error from within and without. The sense of the sacred must be restored to divine worship.

A generation or more of Catholics has been subjected to happy-talk catechetics of little substance and to liturgies dominated by displays of communal feel-good-ism that reduce the Eucharist to some sort of vaguely spiritual meal. Trendy theologians have been allowed to undermine the intellectual foundations of the faith while providing artful rationalizations for immorality. Seminaries have been permitted to thrust priests into service without adequate doctrinal or spiritual formation. Confession has fallen into desuetude, the idea of sin into moral relativism and psychobabble.

Is it any wonder that sins of the flesh should have acquired such a prominent hold? Bureaucratic and procedural reforms will accomplish nothing unless the bishops reaffirm the prime importance of orthodox teaching, sacramental devotion, and rigorous spiritual discipline. In short, it’s back-to-basics time. Who among the bishops will rise to lead us?


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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