One of the effects of the sex-abuse crisis is the current moment of institutional iconoclasm—the temptation to get rid of the institutional element of the Catholic Church. The failures of the church’s institutions are now on full display, even more so than after the revelations of the Spotlight investigation. It is hypocritical, however, to interpret the abuse crisis as a clerical abuse crisis rather than a Catholic abuse crisis. Obviously, the clergy had a unique role in the crisis, but the moral and legal responsibilities do not belong exclusively to those wearing a Roman collar. We are still reluctant to acknowledge the systemic nature of this crisis as something that affected the entire Catholic world and not just its ordained ministers. We would like to contain it neatly within the hierarchy so as to exempt ourselves from the burden of critical self-reflection.
American Catholicism has not yet found its way out of the blame game for the abuse crisis. One sees this on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Recent attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for abolishing the priesthood are just a liberal version of conservative attempts to blame sexual abuse on gays or the sixties. All such strategies spare lay Catholics the bother of having to ask “What did I do wrong?” The abuse itself damaged the lives of the victims and their families, friends, and communities. Now, the shortcomings of our response to the abuse crisis—our failure to deal with its root causes—is causing another kind of damage. When prominent scholars of Catholicism publicly display their “disgust” for Catholicism, it is clear that the abuse crisis has blurred the line between an ecclesially engaged Catholic theology and the more dispassionate, agnostic religious studies of Catholicism. The abuse crisis has produced two kinds of counter-evangelization: first, the counter-evangelization of the hierarchical church, whose example scandalizes the faithful and repels outsiders; second, the counter-evangelization of those who have used this crisis to self-righteously declare their liberation from what they describe as a morally corrupt institution. There is a prefabricated quality to at least some of these declarations. They seem less like honest reckonings with new information than shrewdly timed expressions of old resentments. There will always be an appreciative audience for “Why I Left” pieces.
The narrative on the abuse crisis that tends toward dualism—a good laity abused or duped by bad clergy—challenges key elements of Catholicism, and not only the ordained priesthood, though that is its most visible target. Recent developments at two Catholic high schools in Indianapolis have led some Catholics to ask whether it is time to silence the teaching ministry of the bishops. And one could add more targets of this wave of institutional iconoclasm: the Vatican, the bishops’ conference, religious orders, academic theology. Some seem to think the only way to save the Catholic faith is to tear down all the institutions of the Catholic Church and start from scratch.
Many seem to be forgetting the old principle abusus non tollit usum—the misuse of something is no argument against its proper use. They are forgetting this not only with respect to the institutional church but also with respect to other institutions—the judiciary, regulatory agencies, international organizations. If only spotless institutions deserve our support, then we will soon end up not supporting any institutions, secular or religious.