Michael Gerson

Most of the current accusations, as I said, are not fair by human standards. But the Christian church, in its varied expressions, is not merely accountable to human standards because it is supposed to be more than a human institution. Apart from the mental, emotional and spiritual harm done to children, this has been the most disturbing aspect of the initial Catholic reaction to the abuse scandal over the last few decades: the reduction of the church to one more self-interested organization. In case after case, church leaders have attempted (and failed) to protect the church from scandal -- like a White House trying to contain a bad news story, or an oil company avoiding responsibility for a spill.

From one perspective, this is understandable. A church exists in a real world of donor relations and legal exposure. But the normal process of crisis management can involve a theological error -- often repeated in the history of the religion.

It is the consistent temptation of faith leaders -- Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Hindu -- to practice the religion of the tribe. The goal is to seek the public recognition of their own theological convictions and the health of their own religious institutions. For many centuries of Western history, the Christian church vied and jostled for influence along with other interests, pursuing a tribal agenda at the expense of Jews, heretics, "infidels" and ambitious princes. The mindset can still be detected, in milder forms, whenever Christian leaders talk of "taking back America for Christ" or pay hush money to avoid scandal for the church. The tribe must be defended.

But the religion of the tribe is inherently exclusive, sorting "us" from "them." So it undermines a foundational teaching of Christianity -- a radical human equality in need and in grace.

The story of modern Christian history has been the partial, hopeful movement away from the religion of the tribe and toward a religion of humanity -- a theology that defends a universal ideal of human rights and dignity, whose triumph benefits everyone. And the Catholic Church has led this transition. Once a reactionary opponent of individualism and modernity, it is now one of the leading global advocates for universal human rights and dignity.

The Catholic Church's initial reaction to the abuse scandal was often indefensible. Now, through its honesty and transparency, it can demonstrate a commitment to universal dignity -- which includes every victim of abuse.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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