The meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has just ended. Dominant issue: How to cope with the gravest crisis in its history, the scandal caused by hundreds of priests who sexually abused altar boys and teen-agers in their custody and care. The bishops' statement on the morality of war on Iraq was ignored.
To learn how a respected institution can forfeit its moral authority, one could do worse than conduct a case study of the Catholic Church in America from 1950 to today.
In the 1950s, the church had greater moral authority than any institution. Each year, converts numbered in the scores of thousands. Seminaries were full. Parochial schools could not be built fast enough to instruct baby boomers in the Faith. Mass attendance was at an all-time high. The church was an orthodox institution. When the U.S. bishops spoke, leaders listened. One sermon could cause a citywide boycott of a theater showing a film condemned by the Legion of Decency.
Then came the winds of change. A revolution in beliefs that was anti-authority and anti-tradition swept over the culture. With it came a "sexual revolution" that mocked as absurd and antiquated all the teaching on morality with which the church had been identified.
On matters of sexual morality, Catholicism had been clear for centuries. Sexual love is reserved for marriage. Its purpose, divinely ordained, is procreation of children. Artificial contraception is wrong. Sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong. Homosexual sex is a violation of the Natural Law. Abortion is the killing of an unborn child, and any who procure or participate in an abortion are excommunicated.
The sexual revolution, however, attracted the support of Hollywood and such centers of anti-Catholicism as the academy and press, confronting the church with a challenge. Would she resist and wage culture war, or would she accommodate herself to the revolution to avert a bruising and bloody social conflict?
As the tenets of the sexual revolution flatly contradicted Catholic morality -- i.e., it taught that all voluntary sexual acts are morally good and the church has no business seeking to persuade the state to erect its teachings as a basis of law -- there was no basis for compromise. If the church believed it had the truth, it had a duty to defend that truth and denounce the sexual revolution as erected upon a foundation of moral lies.
But some priests, having lately emerged from what they thought was a Catholic ghetto, decided not to resist but to find "common ground" with the spirit of the age. They broke with bishops, endorsed contraception, rejected the centrality of sexual morality to Catholic teaching and joined the revolution. They marched for civil rights and demanded we get out of Vietnam. Morality was determined not by who slept with whom but by where one stood on apartheid and the grape boycott. Abortion was wrong, but so, too, was support for the death penalty and opposition to the minimum wage.
The revolution welcomed the defectors, and priests who had made their Faustian bargains with modernity were paid in the coin of the realm, lavish publicity.
The reason for the crisis of the Catholic hierarchy today can be traced to a single failing: For 40 years, priests and bishops have not shown zero tolerance of a culture of dissent, without and within the church, that challenged the truths they were ordained to defend.
Contrast the moral authority of Pope John Paul II, who defied the spirit of the age on contraception, abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality, with that of the U.S. Catholic bishops who sought to "reach out" and "dialogue" with dissenters. Pope John is respected, even by his enemies; the bishops are an embarrassment, even to their friends.
The First Amendment is a marvelous invention. But the church is not run on Jeffersonian principles. Why would a church that asserts to the world that it has the truth that leads to salvation, and has been given the duty to bear witness to that truth, tolerate any dissent inside its own house? Would a physics professor tolerate dissent in his classroom to the law of gravity or Newton's second law?
How can the hierarchy resolve this crisis? As Ronald Reagan used to say: There are simple answers, there are just no easy answers. And the simple but hard answer is a return to Catholic basics
Priests who abuse children should be removed from the ministry. Seminaries dominated by homosexuals, the "pink palaces" described in Michael Rose's "Goodbye! Good Men," should be cleaned out or shut down. Homosexuals no more belong in the priesthood than they do in the Marine barracks or Boy Scouts. Every bishop who sheltered an abuser-priest should stand down or be removed by the Holy Father. And if the Conference of Catholic Bishops is too collegial to discipline its own, hopefully a new Pope will clean out the stable.
Moral authority is like muscle tissue. Unexercised, it dies.