Thank God for Pluralism

Via Andrew Sullivan, Hendrik Hertzberg suggests that the Church may ultimately owe a debt of gratitude to the pluralism of modern society:

The iniquities now roiling the Catholic Church are more shocking than the ones that so outraged Martin Luther. But the broader society in which the Church is embedded has grown incomparably freer. To the extent that the Church manages to purge itself of its shameits sins, its crimesit will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacherand the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants.

I think Hertzberg puts his finger on two very interesting feature of this crisis, the embarrassing, knee-jerk resistance of the Church hierarchy to external criticism, and (more importantly, in my view) the vital role of a free, pluralist society in providing a base from which Church members (and former members) can voice their grievances. Imagine attempting to raise the issue of child sexual abuse by a cleric in a society in which the Catholic Church enjoyed the privileged position it did in some places well into the 20th century. Such a dominant social role for the Church remained normative for many Catholics until Dignitatis Humanae (and for some schismatics recently readmitted to the Church, it remains normative even today). To challenge a priest with a charge of sexual abuse, or a bishop for failing to take the charge seriously, in such a community would have meant to risk ostracism and possibly much worse. I am profoundly thankful that I do not live in such a society, and I think Hertzberg is right that the Church will ultimately recognize itself to be better off as well.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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