On the Wednesday after Easter, nine hundred Notre Dame students serenely walked into the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to see a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza. “Is Religion the Problem?” was the question. About two hours later, they serenely walked out, their faith intact. No dorm rector lost sleep dealing with the death of God that night. Why not? Thinking about this question gave me a new perspective on the latest wave of revelations about the history of sexual abuse in the church.

Did the believer D’Souza trounce the atheist Hitchens? Alas, no. I talked to a diverse group of faculty members who agreed that Hitchens was the more agile debater. It was the way the debate itself was framed that failed to grab the crowd. Advertised as a contest about the role of religion, the event turned out to be a debate about the existence of God. And the God whose existence was in question was the God of the philosophers—Aristotle’s unmoved mover, Kant’s guarantor of morality, the deists’ supreme architect. Hitchens argued that the big bang theory and evolution better explain the universe, while D’Souza maintained that intelligent design offers a more coherent explanation.

None of this touched the religious core of the largely Catholic student body. Why not? Because the God of the philosophers is a sketchy abstraction to them. He bears about as much relationship to the triune God they worship as a completed census form does to one’s actual family members. Moreover, neither debater seemed particularly aware that the theory of evolution is largely a problem for evangelical Protestants, not for Catholics.

So how do you pry Catholics loose from their faith? Well, you could call into question the reliability of the community that mediates the identity of God—the church. If your computer network crashes, it doesn’t take the Internet with it. Yet when the church crashes, many Catholics find that access to God has been permanently impaired. Most Catholics do not encounter God as solitary individuals, but in the context of families, parishes, and the larger church. God is vividly and immediately present to us, especially in the readings and Eucharist of Sunday Mass. God’s identity is enmeshed in a rich texture of rituals and relationships mediated to us by our two-thousand-year-old tradition.

So I was surprised that Hitchens didn’t march us through the usual litany of the church’s failings, or cast even one of his famous aspersions on Mother Teresa. More surprisingly, however, he didn’t bring up the sexual-abuse crisis—or his plan to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the pope visits England later this year. I found myself wondering whether Hitchens was pulling his punches. But maybe he felt that the newspapers were doing his work for him.

Many Catholics who survived the first wave of the crisis (which was actually the second) are now floundering. But why? On a purely intellectual level, nothing has changed. On an affective level, however, it’s all becoming too much. The breadth and pervasiveness of the crisis darken our religious imaginations, and seep into our worship and prayer. The Gospel story of the Good Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep drives home the fact that some bishops threw the littlest members of their flock to the wolves. It doesn’t help to point out that the vast majority of priests aren’t abusers, and that all people, including priests and bishops, are redeemed sinners. The challenge posed here isn’t at the level of logical analysis, but at the level of imaginative association and affective identification. That’s why the evident involvement of the pope, the Vicar of Christ and the symbol of the church’s unity, in the transfer of priest-abusers hits many people so hard.

Traditionally, theologians attempted to safeguard believers against scandal by distinguishing between the church’s mystical identity as the spotless bride of Christ, on the one hand, and the acts committed by sinful human beings acting in its name, on the other. Yet we live in a relentlessly antimetaphysical era, where such distinctions come across as nothing more than a cop-out, an attempt to preserve power while evading responsibility. When churchmen try to explain such teachings, it only exacerbates the alienation.

So an effective response to the crisis will take more than truth commissions to find out what happened in the past and policy committees to protect children in the future. It will also take the development of new ways of enabling believers to identify imaginatively and affectively with the church. We will need the contributions of artists and novelists, not merely those of lawyers and psychologists. 

In the final analysis, the debate between Hitchens and D’Souza was theater. No one’s Catholic faith was really on the line. The sexual-abuse scandal, however, was and is reality. In real life, losing one’s faith is less like losing an argument than like losing a source of light. It’s like sitting in a chapel at sunset, dully watching the vivid harmony of color bleed out of the stained-glass windows, leaving nothing but a flat, leaden monochrome in its place.


Related: "Seeking a Sign" by the Editors

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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