How big a deal is the new tsunami of abuse-and-cover-up charges that is washing over the Catholic Church? In its editorial yesterday, the National Catholic Reporter takes a maximalist position:
We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in
church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and
does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine
the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.
That seems a bit hyperbolic. Is this a greater crisis than the one Pius IX faced during the Resorgimento? Greater than the Reformation? Greater than the periods of antipopes and the Avignon exile? Still, there’s bound to be an impact, and the place to look to suss it out is the U.S., where the American church went through something like what the European church is now facing in 2002 and 2003.
If the American model is a guide, then what won’t happen is a more transparent and inclusive institution, with greater leadership roles for women and the laity, and a willingness to open discussion on issues such as clerical celibacy. To look at the leadership of the American church today is to see old-time clericalism in the ascendant, with renewed emphasis on ideological purity and episcopal control. While the American church hasn’t shrunk, it appears to be losing its most affluent and educated members, replacing them with immigrants more in need of the church’s social services and less likely to challenge for authority.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that what has turned into the crisis of the Benedictine papacy won’t lead in an entirely different direction. Europe is not America, and in societies where fewer people take the church seriously, church authorities may be more interested in expanding than contracting its popular appeal. Nonetheless, those looking at the crisis as an opportunity for progressive renewal should keep their hopes in tight check.