Questions before the Vatican house

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Apr 24, 2002 12:00 AM
Here, in one of those nutshells, is a crystallization of what's going on in the Catholic controversy.

Question: Is the density of sex-oriented life and commerce in America distinctive? Monsignor Eugene Clark, the learned rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, has said as much -- and reasoned that the consequence of it is to have made America the most immoral of Western communities.

Question: Even if that is so, can the Catholic Church reasonably assume that the clergy, as a whole, can deflect temptations to which those with lesser loyalties to holy and civilized norms will fall prey?

Question: In order to fortify weak-minded priests, how best to proceed? Those of them who commit a crime should be treated as criminals; the prospect of being turned in to the local prosecutor certainly dilutes the temptation to sin.

Question: Is one more fortifier of the weak-minded priest his release from celibacy? But the church is talking about people who are already priests and have therefore already taken vows of celibacy. To release them retroactively from that pledge would certainly demoralize the priestly station. If the church thinks it time to reduce the clerical overhead in life, it should consider voluntary celibate orders in the future and, in the present, greater laxity to whose who seek laicization upon finding the rigors of clerical life inordinate, even as some married men, finding conjugal life too exacting, resume bachelor life.

Question: Is it homosexuality, depravity or mere carnality that the church needs to confront more realistically? It is the church's position not that homosexuality is sinful, but that the homosexual act is unholy. Some reason that homosexual priests are not therefore to be excluded provided there is reasonable confidence that such priests will contain their sexual appetites.

Question: Can there be "reasonable confidence" in this matter? It is generally observed that practicing homosexuals are more promiscuous than their heterosexual counterparts. The errant priest will, not surprisingly, molest not just one boy, but a dozen or more boys. But is the homosexual also more incontinent than the heterosexual? Is the sexual urge more intense, and therefore more difficult to control? Does the Vatican have data on this subject?

It is almost everywhere acknowledged that bishops who failed to report wayward priests to civil authorities, or to isolate them from contact with potential victims, did wrong. There were different motives for acting as they did. Some were moved simply by tribal affinities -- protect your own. Some believed that prudence dictated legal settlements. Some believed that therapy was available, and that after submitting to it, the priest would emerge whole, his bleeding bandaged.

Science has all but established that therapy will not cool festering pedophilia. But the homosexual (and the heterosexual) binge drinker can benefit from therapy. Cardinal Law appears to have been affected by all of these approaches to the problem, and his misjudgments are reasonably regarded as incapacitating him to lead the American church toward recovery.

It is urged by some that the most useful weapon in the hands of U.S. Catholics is money. Money is the tender of democratic power -- you don't like the way the Red Cross works? You stop giving to the Red Cross. The exposure of many U.S. dioceses is one more succulent fruit of our tort system -- in Dallas, the jury awarded $120 million to 11 plaintiffs. In Regina, Saskatchewan, a single law firm represents more than 6,000 plaintiffs against residential schools in western Canada, many of them, but by no means all of them, run by the Catholic Church. Ah, but, observes counselor E. F. Anthony Merchant, "If you lose a couple of legs in Canada, you only get a couple of hundred thousand dollars, while in the U.S. you might get a couple of million."

Catholics will be invited to reflect that the support of their dioceses, in bad times as well as in good times, is a derivative of their faith, which isn't extinguished by errant priests, any more than by errant popes of yesteryear.