The question everywhere is the same these days: What, in the long run, will be the effect of the pedophilia scandal on the Catholic Church? Speculation ranges from predictions of total collapse to speculation about total reconfiguration. Given the long lessons of history, neither hypothesis is likely, perhaps, but we may have already been given a mirror into the future of change. Let me tell you what I've seen already.
It was 1996. I was in Dublin at the time writing a book. To do concentrated work I had gone away to live alone in a small townhouse on the canal. For a while, there were no distractions at all. But then the first pedophilia scandal erupted in Ireland. I found myself as immersed in the story as the rest of the country but, as an outside observer, more concerned about the overall effects of the situation than by the cast of characters. I began to understand that the Irish, too, were dealing with this situation differently than they had in the past.
The Irish had already dealt with the case of a bishop who had fathered a son years before, supported him financially all his life, but never acknowledged him. They had read themselves weary about the young pastor who dropped dead leaving a mistress housekeeper and their children who were now suing the diocese for his estate. They had watched the church battle the government over the legalization of contraception. The Irish, it seemed, were well battle-tested on sexual scandals.
Pedophilia, however, was a very different thing. Pedophilia galvanized the society in a way no clerical sexual issues had ever been able to do so in the past. Pedophile priests went on being priests, went from parish to parish, went on preying on children, went on reaping the harvest of status and privilege, trust and authority that priesthood had managed to garner over centuries, and not a word said about it by the hierarchy, not a single man defrocked. Indeed, pedophilia went beyond individual criminality to the heart of the system. At pedophilia, the Irish drew a line.
RTE, Radio Television Erin, the national broadcasting company of Ireland, launched a national survey to determine the emotional response of a people almost 98-percent Catholic to a scandal that darkened their most sacred institution. Question number one, the announcer said, asked, "Has this scandal affected your faith?" I remember groaning out loud in the chair. "97 percent," the reporter announced: "say no." I snapped to full attention. "Impossible!" I thought. "I can't believe it. How could this not affect the faith of a country so completely identified with it on every level?!" Question number two, the announcer went on, asked, "Has this scandal affected your relationship with the church?" "97 percent," the reporter announced, "say yes." My head began to reel.
Given such an overwhelmingly unanimous response, the reporter began to interview passers-by on the street to determine the reasons behind the answers. "Jesus and the sacraments mean everything to me. There's nothing wrong with them," Irish after Irish asserted. But, in response to question two, the effect of this latest of clergy sexual problems on their relationship to the church itself, one man put it bluntly for them all. "We mean," he said, "that they're not going to tell us again what's right and what's wrong anymore. From now on, we'll be figuring those things out for ourselves." I sat back and watched the world change in front of my eyes. I saw a whole people distinguish a spiritual tradition from the institution that was its storehouse. I saw the moral authority of that same institution brought to a tragic low.
Now, years later, church attendance is down in Ireland, the most religious, least secular, country in Western Europe. The government no longer looks for a nod from the church before introducing new legislation. Court cases on clerical abuse abound. Seminaries are closed. The voice of the church on social issues is every day less impacting.
TODAY THE CATHOLIC church in the United States, rocked by scandals of long-standing clerical pedophilia and its accompanying episcopal cover-ups, stands at the margins of a similar watershed. The question is whether or not a new set of rules about celibacy, another kind of process for dealing with complaints, a better way of communicating with victims, can possibly restore the trust in the church that every survey of American Catholics shows to have been eroded. The answer to that one, if the Irish situation is any kind of model for us at all, is that the question itself is worse than useless. The basic problem isn't how this particular and immediate issue was handled. It is why the problem could possibly be handled this way at all.
The question that must be asked is what in the clerical culture itself leads to this kind of debacle in the first place. Otherwise, whatever rules they apply to this problem won't mean a thing toward the resolution of the next one. And there will be a next one if the culture of the "Princes of the Church" (and everything that kind of systemic fealty implies) is permitted to continue in the modern world.
There are three dimensions of ecclesiastical medievalism that are still part and parcel of the church today. These were once effective and perhaps even necessary to the security of the state, but they're now long gone in the politics and processes of the rest of the world. The culture of silence, the culture of exclusion, and the culture of domination, all elements of a clerical world, lead to the very fiasco that brings good people—priests, bishops, and cardinals among them—to make choices geared more to saving the system than to saving the people. Though the church prides itself on the fact that it is not a democracy, it forgets at its peril that even monarchies are these days subject to both public scrutiny and legal accountability.
The culture of silence requires that the business and decisions, agendas and processes, struggles and conflicts of a closed system be hidden entirely from public view. The intention, some argue, is a good one: The people must be saved from scandal. Perhaps, but the scandal of silence can itself at times be far more damaging than the scandal of fallibility. The results can be disastrous. Silence is what enabled the system to move pedophile priests from place to place. Silence covers up. Silence hides problems in order to deny them. And it buys silence from others so that the rest of the society can never know that they are also in danger.
In the end silence makes it impossible for a system to face and acknowledge the problems that are destroying it—the difficulties of priesthood, the ruptures in theology from one era to the next, the discontent of the masses whose questions are ignored or dismissed or ridiculed or labeled heresy. It carries, in classic fashion, a fox under its toga that is eating it up from the inside out.
The culture of exclusion denies to a system the expertise it needs to resolve its difficulties. When a system defines itself outside of the rest of the human race, it reduces its resources at exactly the moments it may need them most. When the most-needed consultants are kept out of a conversation because a system has become a world unto itself, it can, at best, only hope to replicate its past self and old, tired ideas. With few new ideas coming into the system, with little in the way of fresh creativity to reenergize the system, with no inroads into other systems—all of which may be far more competent to deal with new questions than the system involved—the system dooms itself to stagnation. New questions go begging for new answers, become unappeasable in the face of old answers, and the system doesn't explode, it implodes.
The culture of domination runs the risk of both assuming a power it does not have and abusing the power it does have. It ties power up in a few people who use it to keep it. Since those who subscribe to a culture of domination live an insular existence in a society of self-defined elites, their power is seldom or ever tested.
A culture of domination puts drawbridges and moats around the minds of its own members. To think outside an acceptable orthodoxy disqualifies a person to contribute to it. The culture of domination creates the image of a special world with power so special it can never be questioned. It hoards one kind of power—appointed power—and so in the end diminishes the very power it seeks to protect by trying to exercise it in areas beyond either its experience or its competence. Failing to multiply power by sharing it openly with those who have earned another kind of power—achieved power—only threatens their own. As a result, those appointed to power are denied the support of those who have an even more convincing power of expertise or natural gift.
A culture of creeping infallibility, distributed in varying degrees throughout an infallible system that sees itself as the final, privileged word wherever it is and simply because it is, is almost bound to run roughshod over the powerlessness of others. Abuse of power becomes its mainstay, even at its healthiest levels. At its lowest levels—when it imposes itself on women, on children, on its heretics and outsiders in general—it flirts with the demonic. The power of the insights, experience, ideas, and persons of others are simply dismissed—for the image of the system, for the "integrity" of the system, for the power of a system whose effectiveness rests largely on power alone.
When the culture in question is the church, then the institution and the faith, the system and the gospel, the theology of the Holy Spirit and the theology of the priesthood, separate like oil and water. The Irish have already figured that out. The faith will survive. The system as it is will not. If not felled by this problem, it will surely be struck down by the next one that will undoubtedly be spawned out of the same mentality.
There is no doubt that unless this church addresses the questions behind the present issue—the questions of silence, exclusion, and domination—the long-term effect of this situation, itself only a terrible symptom of a far more sinister sickness, will be that members of the American church, like the Irish, will begin to make a distinction between the faith they hold and the authorities they follow. In that case, it is clear that it will be the authorities who stand to lose.
Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision and the author most recently of Seeing With Our Souls: Monastic Wisdom for Every Day (Sheed and Ward, 2002).