With the recent revelations about Theodore McCarrick, new investigations into the seminaries of Boston and Lincoln (Nebraska), and the grand-jury report from Pennsylvania, the sex abuse crisis has reached a new stage. If this is, as many believe, the most serious crisis in the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation, then the analysis of this systemic failure of the institutional church needs to take the long view, comparing this period in the church’s history to others in order to discover where exactly things went wrong. Some—for example, Ross Douthat—think of the current period in the church’s history as a “settlement” established by the post-Vatican II pontificates that came before Francis, characterized by changes in the Catholic approach to sexual morality and by the huge social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. This way of understanding the church’s recent history is popular with those who link clerical sexual abuse with the reforms of the Vatican II period, and who are, not coincidentally, suspicious of Pope Francis’s approach to issues connected to marriage, family, and sex, especially homosexuality. This approach, starting as it does with Vatican II, tends to ignore the long history of institutions that presided over the church’s failure to deal with clerical sex abuse. To understand their role in the current crisis, one must look at three key elements that made possible the “Catholic reform” that began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563), elements that Vatican II did not change as much as we tend to think: the formation of priests at seminaries, the diocesan structure based on parish priest and bishop, and the role of the laity.
The seminaries for the formation of clergy. The curriculum at Catholic seminaries has changed a few times over the past five centuries, but the basic model, designed by the Tridentine Church, has not. It is worth recalling that many dioceses in Europe did not have a functioning seminary until the mid-seventeenth century—a century after the Council of Trent ended. Other Tridentine institutions have aged quite well (the role of papal diplomacy in today’s global world, for example), but seminaries clearly have not. The Tridentine diocesan seminary was built for the formation of priests recruited from areas whose Catholic culture provided the primary formation to a much larger pool of potential applicants. This is no longer the case, which is one reason for the proliferation of other kinds of seminaries for the formation of priests belonging to a particular ecclesial movement. Setting aside the very different theological and ideological orientations of these different movements (for example, the Legion of Christ on one side of the spectrum and Sant’ Egidio on the other), they do provide some basic human formation and are able to screen candidates for the priesthood in a way local parishes no longer can. In recent years, many diocesan seminaries have had merge into interdiocesan or regional seminaries, where nineteen-year-old students live and study together with much older men with “mature vocations.” Moreover, the phenomenon of seminarians vagantes—men dismissed from one seminary only to be admitted into another that is looking for any minimally viable candidate—reveals that some bishops are so anxious to keep their seminaries open, and so desperate for vocations, that they will turn a blind eye to the problems that led another seminary to dismiss someone. Moreover, the Tridentine seminary model still reflects the premodern idea that the faithful have no rights before the hierarchy: seminarians still depend totally on their superiors for their future. According to canon law, seminarians have many fewer rights in the church than priests and other clerics do. This means that, from a seminarian’s perspective, the seminary can easily become—and too often does become—an institution exercising a kind of totalitarian power over their lives. Their quasi-monastic isolation from the rest of society and the mediocrity of many programs of formation have become more of a problem today than they were four or five centuries ago, when there was less public scrutiny of clerical culture. The anachronistic and unhealthy culture of seminaries has made them a place where vocations often go to die.
The diocesan structure based on the parish priest and the diocesan bishop. The parish became the basic structure of the local church in Europe around the thirteenth century. In the early modern and modern period, Catholicism went through a so-called “parishization”—diocesan parish ministry becoming the paradigmatic model of ordained ministry, to the diminishment of other forms of ministry (for example, monastic and mendicant religious orders and the confraternities). This was part of the Council of Trent’s effort to put all elements of the church under hierarchical control of the bishops, an effort that sprang from a territorial understanding of the church. It was largely bishops who cleaned up the church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—men like Charles Borromeo in Milan—by implementing the top-down reforms of the Council of Trent. Now, in the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen if this post-Trent and post-Vatican II episcopalist approach to church reform is still possible in a church reeling from the sexual-abuse crisis, a crisis aggravated by episcopal negligence and malfeasance. The other main protagonists of Catholic reformation—Catholic rulers and the religious orders—are no longer in a position to help the bishops. As for the papacy, which the Council of Trent regarded as the principal agent and guarantor of reform, its own credibility has been undermined by the failure of bishops in a way that it would not have been before Trent. That’s because, in the centuries between Trent and Vatican II, the papacy was successful in exacting from the local churches and from political authorities almost unlimited control over the appointment of bishops, something new in church history. Now, when a bishop goes bad, it reflects badly on the judgment of the popes who appointed or promoted him. Until the eighteenth century at least, the appointment of bishops had been a joint effort of the papacy, kings and princes, and local elites. This made powers other than the papacy partly responsible for church reform, but also for the church’s corruption, which is now something the bishops appear to own entirely, whether or not this perception is fair. (And sometimes it is not: bishops and priests were often not alone in ignoring or covering up for sexual abuse.)
The Catholic laity. Historically, when the church had to correct abuses and corruption within its own ranks, the hierarchy could call upon the help of the laity. But back then, “the laity” meant the Catholic elites and Catholic princes: that’s not what it means today. The laity of today is different not only from the laity of the post-Trent period, but also from the idea of the laity that obtained right up until Vatican II. Lay participation in the governance of the church was simply inconceivable. Lay people had a right to be governed; they had no right to govern. That paternalism toward the laity—whereby, for example, the laity could be “theologians” only in a mediation between faith and culture, but lay theologians could not substitute in any way for ordained theologians—is gone. Today’s increased scrutiny of the church’s clerical leadership by lay media, and the increasing disaffiliation of Catholics from the institutional church, is completely out of keeping with the way the church understood the laity between Trent and Vatican II.
This new phase of the clerical sex-abuse crisis is more a crisis of the Tridentine church than of the Vatican II Church, because the church in which that abuse took place is, in terms of its institutional structure, still essentially Tridentine. The effort to reform the church in light of what we now know about sexual abuse and abuses of power must look back further than the Second Vatican Council, which did not so much open a new era as begin to close down an old one whose remnants are still with us. From an institutional point of view, the church of Vatican II, a church committed to the priesthood of all believers, is still at a very early stage of construction. Some of the institutional innovations of Vatican II—for example, pastoral councils at the parish and diocesan level—are still not very popular among either the clergy or the laity. Too many Catholics are still content to let father take care of everything, or they have simply given up on the hope of a church co-governed by the laity. Even going back to the letter of the Council of Trent could help make the church more accountable. For example, Trent proposed institutional innovations—such as the frequent celebration of diocesan synods and provincial councils—that were soon mothballed as the Counter-Reformation church became increasingly centralized.
Tackling the failures that made the sex-abuse crisis possible will involve many changes—changes to the church’s relationship with civil authorities and criminal justice, cultural and spiritual changes, but also changes in the structure of the institution itself. It is finally time to revisit the basic models of ecclesial organization that the Council of Trent imposed on the Catholic Church.