Scandal, Secularism, and the Politics of the Catholic Church

By Douglas Kmiec 4-15-2010

It is far too easy to blame the highly publicized priestly scandal for the alienation of Catholics in Europe or the United States. The declines in Mass attendance, vocations, and marriage within the Church preceded widespread knowledge of the ugly behavior on the part of a tiny fraction of errant priests by decades.

This is not to dismiss the scandal as inconsequential, especially for the families affected. One pedophile priest is enough to ruin a life. Nor is it meant to contradict the Pope's working hypothesis for ecclesiastical decline in Europe: namely, cultural secularism. It is to suggest, however, that understanding the diminished standing of the Catholic Church requires a more careful inquiry into the reasons for, and not just the fact of, secularity.

The scandal in the Church is numbing. What is curious is why it has again suddenly flashed to page one. Perhaps it is the documentation that abuse was not confined to the U.S., but deep within even highly-Catholic Ireland. Perhaps it was the insinuation that the current Pope was aware of the problem and said little. The secular press in the United States made this small, if obvious, fact into a major story and now there are calls for the Pope's resignation, full disclosure, and the lifting of the time bars which preclude prosecution or action for damages.

The scandal, however, requires realism. On the facts as known, papal resignation is unthinkable. Full disclosure ought to be mandatory. Likewise, compulsory is prosecution of any priest still engaged in the sordid business. That said, criminally prosecuting stale cases beyond the statute of limitations would likely violate principles of due process, and while damages suits are theoretically possible, the offending priests are almost always penniless, and the judgment then is simply a wealth transfer from one innocent set of parishioners to another. When the money comes from a Church fund, the result is less money for schools, hospitals, and the myriad other social goods supplied under Catholic auspices.

In the U.S., it is commonplace to hear clergy strongly denounce abortion, but then devote all of their attention not to changing the hearts and minds of those in front of them in the pew, but to mounting a campaign to have the law changed. In the U.S., the Church is much less likely to intervene in a troubled marriage with counseling and prayer than it is to run to the general assembly to lobby against no-fault divorce. In brief, faith in the U.S. is devoted to converting the law.

Ask an American whether they love the Church and the answer will often depend on whether the Church is then promoting a liberal or conservative cause with which they concur. Health care, abortion, and immigration are all suitable topics for homiletic instruction, but in America these are frequently omitted from Church sermon, even as they are the staple of Church submissions before legislative testimony. There is nothing wrong with the Church reflecting upon the gospel and suggesting how it might guide a citizen's perspective on contemporary social problems. However, seeing the Church itself as an 'institutional person' in the throes of politics has a profoundly negative effect on the spiritual capability of the Church.

With priests understandably reluctant to be partisan in face-to-face pastoral instruction, the leadership of the American Church has been the opposite before legislative assembly. Charges of hypocrisy result, which becomes anger when the particular position asserted by the institutional Church in the political arena, but not the pews, is antagonistic to one's own view.

Parish priests sensing the hostility pursue a strategy of substantive homiletic avoidance. Outside the Church is perceived as partisan, while the sermons inside are often vapid with repetitive messages of "can't we just all get along." As it turns out, when the Church external has been acting more as politician than prelate, the answer is "no, we can't."

Having once been denied Communion at a Mass in America for endorsing Barack Obama for president, I understand the depth of the wound of being excluded from the body of Christ for exercising one's prerogative as a citizen -- even if my local bishop would later proclaim the denial wholly unjustifiable (see Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama; Overlook/Penguin 2008).

It is not enough to say it is wrong for the Church to be anti-Obama. Of course, the denial of faith and the rankness of partisanship are worse when the Church is not only engaging in politics, but also doing so in a manner that takes on the role of precinct captain rewarding one's political friends and punishing one's political enemies.

There is a practical reason to avoid making faith into politics as well. Frankly, it is because most faith propositions do not resolve hard cases. For example, to say abortion is an intrinsic wrong does not reveal whether legal penalty or a policy of compassion supplying pre-natal and maternity support ought to be the leading edge against abortion. So too, love for the Church does not settle the nuances of immigration policy, and the love of the Church does not settle whether a civil state ought permit divorce. Law is Janus-faced. Become dependent upon it for the maintenance of morality and it will change to suit the morals of the moment, which may or may not be in conformity with faith.

The joy of "He is Risen" is a transformative joy; it is the delight in first remaking our own lives into as complete an embrace of the needs of others as Jesus did. Loving the Church is not really about hating the sin, because it is all too easy in this life to confuse sin and sinner. Hate abortion, and you end up hating the women who saw it as necessary; hate despicable acts of sexual license and you hate the perpetrator of them. When we hate in these ways, we do not accept the risen Lord because we reject his model of unqualified forgiveness:

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

These words of unequivocal and unambiguous forgiveness are the essence of the joy of the Risen Christ. Miss them and your life will be not one of happiness, but anger. Miss them and you miss the meaning of the Great Commandment to love one's neighbor. Miss them and you cannot truly love the Church.

As the bride of Christ, the Catholic Church is spotless in its purity, unbounded in its charity, manifest in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The bride should never be conflated with the clergy or laity even when they are at their best, let alone when they betray what the Church represents.

Forgiveness is no substitute for judgment. In ways we do not fully grasp, Christ's forgiveness is interwoven with our personal resolve sincerely "to go and sin no more." In God's eyes, a failure to live out one's contrition may condemn for eternity, but the challenge for Christians in this exile is that none of us have warrant or authority to judge the sufficiency or fulfillment of another's spiritual contrition, or to withhold our love from another.

In the end, only the devil profits when civil wrong is thought to displace the spiritual strength of the Church and our love for it.

Douglas W. Kmiec is the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Malta and the former Caruso Chair & Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of the President or the U.S. Department of State.

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