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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Anti-Catholicism and the Church Abuse Scandal

I just posted a comment over at the blog of Matthew Yglesias regarding the charges of "anti-Catholicism" we've been hearing surrounding the Bill Pryor judicial nomination unpleasantness. I cited this article in today's Boston Globe by Christopher Shea on the Penn State prof Philip Jenkins, who wrote a book on the topic of bias against Catholic belief. With the scathing report put out by Tom Reilly last week and the installation of a new archbishop for Boston coming up this week, I couldn't avoid writing on the church forever. This blog is named after a priest, after all.

I won't bash Catholicism (at least not more than I did in the comment), easy as that would be as someone raised Catholic who doesn't go to church or believe church doctrine. A lot of people seem to want to slam the church these days, and a lot of that is warranted, given the way church leaders covered up so much sexual abuse of kids. When does it become overly opportunistic, though? Attacking the church, we must recall, helps to advance the agendas of a lot of people, as Jenkins notes in an apt comparison of the "constructed" predator priest to the "constructed" violent crime epidemic conservatives rode to power in the 1980s.

I'm always in favor of winning an argument on the merits, rather than by cultivating fear, and the case that the sexual abuse in the church signals the need to overturn such policies as priestly celibacy and opposition to contraception and homosexuality does not exist. Those things should be argued against in their own right, not by associating them with the scary priest who molested some children.

Some of the criticism-fest is convenient too, sparing other public institutions from blame. Governor Mitt Romney, in the wake of Reilly's report this week, made public comments that there must be some way to hold Boston church leaders criminally accountable for their actions. However, "Finding No. 2" from the AG's report was that, "The Investigation Did Not Produce Evidence Sufficient to Charge the Archdiocese or Senior Managers with Crimes Under Applicable State Law." Reilly repeated that claim on the O'Reilly Factor (confusing I know--Reilly interviewed by O'Reilly) Thursday night (I wish I could find the transcript; O'Reilly at one point said something like "Jesus himself said in the Bible, if you mess with kids, watch out.").

The truth is that there was a loophole in the law that exempted clergy from the child abuse reporting rules. This was a huge failing on the part of the Massachusetts state government to leave this loophole open for decades while hundreds of children were abused. Everyone wants to lay all of the blame at the church's door, when in fact better oversight could have prevented a lot of suffering. This Slate Explainer article has details on "Why Isn't Boston's Cardinal Law in Jail?"

That said, the Catholic church has a major problem in terms of how it is perceived. I think a lot of people have gleefully bashed the church because they have a lot of pent-up negative feelings toward it. The subtitle to the Globe article is "Philip Jenkins argues that anti-Catholic bigotry is on the rise--even among Catholics." If Catholics themselves are anti-Catholic, then it's not just a case of outsiders hating Catholics, but a more fundamental problem with the religion itself.

The opening of Shea's article is illuminating:

"Georgetown University's commencement ceremonies were a squirmy, uncomfortable affair this spring, and for once the sweltering D.C. weather had nothing to do with it. Picture the single mom, the gay uncle, the cohabitating field hockey player, sated from a celebratory Saturday breakfast, settling into the folding chairs on the quad to hear some heartening words from the honored speaker of the day. He was Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, and his theme was supposed to be Muslim-Christian relations. Instead, the cardinal delivered a ferocious harangue on American sexual mores that singed his audience's ears.

"'In many parts of the world, the family is under siege,' Arinze railed, leaving little doubt about which part he meant. '... It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce.' A female theology professor got up and stalked off the stage. Previously unabashed fornicators in the crowd eyed one another uneasily."

And this speaker, with a message that is so remarkably out of step with modern American mores, could be the next pope: Jenkins says, "Americans may look back with nostalgia to the good old days of Pope John Paul II." The spat over the gay Anglican bishop in New Hampshire is also indicative of the divide that is growing between many Americans and their churches. Many people, especially in more liberal areas like Boston, have reached an accomodation by going to church without actually living according to the pope's commands, but any disruption of this delicate arrangement can lead to conflict.

This state of affairs, I believe, is the larger challenge that faces Sean O'Malley and the next generation of church leaders, beyond simply the settlement with abuse victims. Even though O'Malley has received adulatory press so far, that can quickly change, and the Globe ran a mildly hostile article just yesterday regarding an incident when he was in Fall River. I hope O'Malley enjoys the party on Wednesday because he has a tough job ahead of him.