How will it end? Each day seems to bring more “revelations” of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and of bishops who covered up the crimes. Many of these stories are decades old, but some are not. Now the focus is on how the Vatican, and especially then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dealt with requests made by bishops to defrock abusers. It seems clear that delay and inaction was the Vatican’s default mode until just a decade ago.
It is no secret that the moral credibility of the church, and especially of the hierarchy, has been gravely damaged by its failure to protect children placed under its care by trusting parents. Tens of thousands of lives have been blighted by these crimes, and the church will carry the stain of this failure for generations. Where do Catholics now look to be assured that children are safe and for certainty that the church will make a clean break with its past policies? Are Catholics who continue to support the church complicit in what critics characterize as an ongoing cover-up? In the London Tablet, Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe asks “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Novelist Mary Gordon has tried to explain “Why I Stay” to her secular friends at the Huffington Post. John Allen, NCR’s Vatican correspondent, plaintively wonders, “Is Middle Ground Possible on the Pope?”
Middle ground is very hard to come by. Even those who have praised the good work Benedict has belatedly done to redress the abuse committed by priests are bewildered by the Vatican’s eagerness to cast itself as the victim of a belligerent media and rapacious lawyers. Without a full accounting, and a much better explanation from the Vatican of how the church has historically dealt with abusive priests, the crisis will not abate. At least in the United States, rigorous policies to protect children have been put in place, apparently with great success. Yet the bark of Peter appears rudderless, while onboard old enmities consume the bickering crew. Some Catholics are once again demanding the suppression of “dissent,” blaming the scandal on homosexuals and the allegedly permissive reforms of the 1960s and ’70s. Others see celibacy and clericalism as the culprits and call for wholesale institutional reform. The result is stalemate and alienation for all concerned.
So why stay? Timothy Radcliffe provides part of the answer. “Even if the church were obviously worse than other churches, I would not go. I am not a Catholic because our church is the best, or even because I like Catholicism,” he writes, “but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.”
The visible unity of the church can show up in surprising places. You can find it, for example, in the essay “Sins of Admission: Why Wouldn’t Gay Parents Pick a Catholic School?” on page 10 of this issue. The author has chosen to write anonymously for fear that her essay could get her or her adopted children in trouble with church officials, but her Catholic identity, practice, and convictions remain unaffected by that prospect. In rich and amusing detail, she describes the “Catholic bubble” in which she grew up and where she thrived, both spiritually and intellectually. “I came across more permutations of Catholicity than I had ever imagined existed,” she writes of her undergraduate years at the University of Notre Dame, a place that nurtured and deepened her faith in ways that might surprise many bishops. It was there that she began to move away from a spirituality centered on self-discipline and toward one based on the austere gospel command “to love—really love—God and neighbor.” Condemned by many in the church for her sexuality, she is undeterred as a Catholic, determined to hold on to all she can hold on to in her faith.
Hers is a story that should give hope—even confidence—to Catholics reeling from the current crisis. This community of believers is capable of extraordinary things, among them a clear-eyed understanding that every Catholic—not just the clergy or the pope—is responsible for the church. When our neighbors or our leaders fail, we must not—and we need them to return the favor when we falter. The gospel promises that the strength we so often lack will be given to us when we most need it, and no one would deny the need is great now.