Sed Contra: Inside the Pandora’s Box


January 1, 2003

It goes without saying that if priests had kept their vow of celibacy there would be no sexual-abuse scan­dal. But we still hear the claim, from Voice of the Faithful and others, that celi­bacy is somehow the fundamental cause of the crisis. How does such an obvious contradiction get so much attention in the media and take hold of the public mind?

To put it bluntly: The months of scandalous headlines have opened a Pandora’s box of complaints from Catholic dissenters and anti-Catholics. The scandal has united the Church’s enemies within and without.

What makes fighting this formi­dable coalition so difficult is that it marches under the banner of “democ­racy.” Dissenters say the laity should be able to vote on priests in the parishes, bishops in the chanceries, and con­troversial Church teachings. Anti-Catholics say that sexual abusers are incubated in a hierarchical, authori­tarian structure where there is no pub­lic accountability or scrutiny.

A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (December 6, 2002), written by philosopher Crispin Sartwell, put the common complaint this way: “Many Catholics think that the problem of abuse can be solved by internal reform of the church. But the idea that the institutions of the church could be made transparent and accountable is incompatible with the basic structure of Catholicism, which is a hierarchy—a pantheon of intercessors, from priests to saints—empowered by God to interpret his will to the world:’

Saying that democracy is the cure for corruption in the Church is almost as absurd as arguing that the elimina­tion of celibacy will end sexual abuse. Since when did the election of political representatives ensure their virtue? How often have we seen an electorate willfully return a scoundrel to office?

Those of us who defend the Church’s teaching are not against democracy any more than those of us who defend unborn life are against “choice.” The key is in the distinctions that must be made when we use these words. Dissenters never start admit­ting distinctions because they know that the argument will be lost.

I experienced this firsthand when I went to Boston recently to meet with truly faithful Catholics who were united in their opposition to Voice of the Faithful. We first met at the 11 a.m. Mass at the cathedral led by Cardinal Law. There were protesters outside the cathedral, so I decided to listen to what they had to say. However, I was quickly recognized and a dispute appeared inevitable.

When some members of Voice of the Faithful accused me of misrepre­senting them, I asked them to clarify what they really stood for. One spokesperson, Jan Leary, said all they wanted were three things: for bishops to report all allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities; an assurance that the ten-year statute of limitations would not shield abusers; and total transparency of diocesan records regarding abusers.

I told her that we were in total agreement on these procedural mat­ters. “Why,” I then asked her, “if this is all you want, do I hear so many mem­bers of the VOTF challenging Church teaching?” She seemed not to under­stand the distinction between proce­dure and doctrine, because she then accused me of not listening to her.

The distinction is a simple one, but crucial for Catholics in understanding the vocation of the laity. The expertise of laypersons is welcome in the Church, but it cannot undermine the authority of the bishops in matters of faith and morals. There is no doubt that lay expertise is badly needed in chanceries around the country at a time when bishops have made blunder after blunder both in management and public relations. Bishop Gregory’s decision to create a National Review Board was an important step, both symbolically and substantially, toward bringing bishops closer to lay experts who have not been complicit in the bad decisions of the past. (It’s regret­table that some bishops have taken umbrage at some of Governor Keat­ing’s comments—the board is doing good work, and we need to move on.)

The Church is a mystical reality and a historical institution. As a his­torical institution, the Church needs the expertise of the laity. The “sacred deposit” of faith has been entrusted to our bishops; however, there will never be a day when Catholics vote on it. Priestly celibacy is the most visible reminder that the Catholic Church stills believes in a truth that is not sub­ject to public opinion or the democra­tic process. No wonder it’s being attacked.


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