Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that God granted American Christianity no Reformation. It’s also true that God granted America no Counter-Reformation. But with the latest phase of the abuse crisis in this country, that might be changing. The depth and magnitude of this crisis—as well as its distinctive combination of clerical corruption and theological division— make it worse than any crisis since the one that rocked the church five centuries ago. The current crisis may not lead to a formal division of the Church the way the Reformation did, but it could well lead to a long period of undeclared schism.
As in the sixteenth century, the question is not whether the Catholic Church will survive this age of scandal, but what form the church will survive in. The abuse crisis is clearly no longer just a scandal, or even a series of scandals. It is, at least in the United States, a revolution in the church that could lead either to reform, or to the moral and cultural marginalization of Catholicism. The question, then, is how best to reform the church, especially in the United States, which is the epicenter of this crisis. Some interpretations of the crisis, such as the idea that the whole hierarchy is corrupt to the root and must be totally replaced by the laity, have given force to ideas of the church that seem hardly compatible with Catholicism.
But those who have the power to stop the bleeding and initiate a process of true reform seem to be incapacitated. It is part of the ecclesiological culture of those who were promoted in the church under John Paul II and Benedict XVI to welcome spiritual renewal but not institutional reform. Right now, the hierarchical leadership of the church—both individual bishops and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—is in panic mode: almost every day new allegations weaken their authority. It is not clear what path forward they have in mind.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Vatican is now dealing with what has become a global crisis, one that is sure to draw much attention at the bishops’ synod on youth, which opens on October 3. The day before meeting with the USCCB delegation, Francis announced an extraordinary meeting of the presidents of all bishops’ conferences at the Vatican, scheduled for late February. Not a consistory of cardinals nor a synod organized by the permanent secretariat of the bishops’ synod, this will be the first meeting of its kind, and it can be understood as Rome’s acknowledgment that the abuse crisis cannot be dealt with adequately unless Rome and local dioceses work together. We don’t yet know what will be on the agenda for this meeting. But we do know that Rome cannot wait to act. Nor can the church in the United States just wait to see what happens in Rome.
Leaving aside the huge problem of investigating the individual allegations in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, and all the questions raised by the Viganò “testimony” about McCarrick, the long-term issue is about how to mend an ecclesial fabric that has been torn as never before. One can ask the Vatican to deal with bishops accused of cover-up and sexual harassment, but one cannot expect the Vatican to deal quickly with the larger ecclesial problem: how to cure the church in this country from corruption without killing it, or splitting it apart. At the moment, the patient appears too weak for surgery.
So, where to start? Let me offer a few proposals. First, let’s hit pause on reform agendas not related to the crisis at hand. The only agenda should be acting in favor of the victims and survivors of abuse, getting rid of corruption, and rebuilding the unity of the church. The rest can wait; in fact, I am afraid it must. The instrumentalization of the abuse crisis— turning it into leverage for one’s pet cause, no matter how remote that cause may be from the scandal—only makes the crisis deeper. Schismatic tendencies have arisen in the past few years because of the growing influence, in the church as in the world of politics, of influence and advocacy groups, lobbies, and think tanks. One could see the effects of this trend in the way Viganò’s “testimony” was crafted and disseminated. The problem is all the more complicated because it is not restricted to just one side of the ideological spectrum. It is much more visible on the conservative side, where there is usually more money involved, but both sides have become part of this vicious dynamic. In my opinion, the radicalization of reform proposals risks breaking the church in two at a moment when it is already particularly weak. (Full disclosure: I do not think that women’s diaconate or the ordination of viri probati—“proven married men”—to the priesthood are dangerously divisive reforms.) Sweeping demands for reforms inspired by understandable anti-clerical rage make it easier for representatives of the status quo (both clerical and lay) to close off all avenues of reform, and to insist that they alone are loyal to the church.