Wednesday, May 01, 2002
A long, complex, frustrating and interesting piece from Michael Novak in National Review Online on the subject of the Catholic pedophilia scandals and liberal Catholicism. Most of the piece is devoted to an attack on the liberals, an attack largely unmoored from any discussion of the actual scandals and what they might say about the state of the church. I think he's right that the liberal attack is mostly a non-sequitur. But I also think that the conservative attack (that it's all the fault of gay priests) is worse than a non-sequitur; it's a non-sequitur wedded to a calumny. To his great credit, Novak recognizes this:
It is wrong, too, to blame homosexuality. I have no doubt that some of these criminals were heterosexual men, who in some internal desperation and need for the safest, least complicated involvement, sick with their own untamed needs, and lacking the strength of a vigorous supporting community, prayer life, and fiery love for God, simply abused the most helpless victims nearest them. They weren't moved by "homosexual" urges, I imagine, in their desperate loneliness. (Andrew Sullivan recently reprinted an online letter describing one such instance; accounts from treatment centers for fallen priests confirm the intuition.) They simply needed release. They were not mature enough to take thought for the consent, the good, the freedom, and the respect of the other as other. There may be a few homosexual weaklings among them, but there are certainly heterosexual ones.
He devotes a subtantial portion of the article to a defense of Pope John Paul II's teachings on sexuality. This is very moving, but problematic, in that he stresses the surprising degree of understanding of human sexuality that the pope evinces, and implies that most celibates would not be so sensitive. The really undercuts his larger argument, as Wojtyla will not live forever, and, by his own argument, the next pope is likely to be less feeling in these matters. That's Andrew Sullivan's main argument for how mandatory celibacy plays into the current scandals: not that celibacy is necessarily unhealthy or that celibates are warped, but that celibates are uniquely unsuited to policing sexual crimes because they may not have an emotional and informed understanding of healthy sexuality.
His other key point is the following:
The problem with the "progressive" reading of the present crisis, to return to that theme, is its utter chutzpah, like the man who has just murdered his parents pleading for mercy because he is an orphan. Consider simply the first plank of the "progressive" project: Cede more power to the national conferences of bishops, and diminish the papacy. Holy Toledo! The failure of the U.S. bishops to be good shepherds is precisely why the pope had finally to step in April 16, summon them to Rome, and let them taste the disdain of their peers from around the world.
That's a good point, but it obscures the key charge against the clerisy: that it covered up the scandals out of concern for their reputations and the reputation of the Church, and that these things mattered more to them than their duty to their flock. It's fair to say that diminishing the papacy is not really a response to the problem of clericism, but the heirarchical nature of the Catholic Church may indeed be part of the problem, in that heirarchies are inherently self-preserving. Moreover, it's far from clear at this point that the pope issued the kind of dressing-down to Law and the other American cardinals that Novak assumes he did.
Novak is one of the more interesting faithful Catholics out there writing about their faith. I'm still thinking about his argument here. But it is ultimately frustrating because of its defensiveness. Novak is comfortable taking apart the liberals' arguments. He's less comfortable confronting the rot within the conservative heirarchy, and so he ultimately has little to say that could reform his Church.