An irreverent thought occurred during Pope Benedict’s welcome and inspiring trip to the United States in April.
Reading the headlines, watching the newscasts and listening to the talk shows, one might nervously inquire whether or not the pope’s first trip to North America was worth it. The pilgrimage to these shores sadly became an occasion for the secular media to review at length the unspeakable vices committed by some American Catholic clergy. The offenses of priests and the hesitation of bishops were examined with relentless determination. In a sense the outrage of the media (to say nothing of the umbrage of the victims) was a kind of backhanded compliment to the Catholic Church in America. The secular news agencies set a high standard for the Catholic clergy. Clerical sins make headlines not awarded to other professions. Still, Jesus himself said, “Those to whom more is given, more will be demanded” — chilling words for anyone called to the ministry. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” wrote Shakespeare similarly, without much botanical basis.
No one involved in any way in the clerical scandals should be excused. Yet, it should be stated that much of the blame for the clerical atrocities of the last half of the 20th century extends beyond parish rectories and diocesan chanceries. The 1960s, fondly remembered by some and understandably eschewed by others, spawned successive decades in which marriage, family life, parental authority, reproduction, abortion, divorce, cohabitation, drugs, personal abuse as well as religious observance, religious education, religious congregations and church vocations were radically altered. Sex, drugs and rock & roll became the emblems of the era, and regrettably the clergy were not impervious to their lure.
The 1960s in the Western world produced more fruit of the so-called Enlightenment which had occurred two and a half centuries before. Higher authority began to bow more and more to individual rights. “Judge not and you shall not be judged” (certainly the most woeful phrase in Scripture) are words glibly quoted today to enthrone individual choice as supreme. The timeless institution of marriage surrenders to the immediate choices of the spouses — or non-spouses. Single moms, single dads, same-sex couples, surrogates, sperm donors, co-habitators, and now, finally, a pregnant man, are beyond the civil law and, lamentably, beyond shame. The institution of motherhood, dating back to Eve, succumbs to the crime of abortion in which a woman defies her own maternal uniqueness. The institution of fatherhood with its implication of enduring commitment surrenders to the ubiquitous phenomenon of the boy-friend, the quintessential casual relationship. The so-called gay lifestyle that flies not only in the face of tradition but even in the face of one’s physical framework is by law unassailable. The celebration of homosexuality by the secular world underlines the triumph of Enlightenment individuality over Western civilization. Personal choice is honored more than traditional values.
With the world going to hell in a hand basket, it is no wonder that the clergy and religious and Catholic laity became more relaxed in their appreciation of traditional Catholic practices. In the church, too, personal preferences often negated higher authority. Consider the charades that the Catholic world had to endure as liturgical norms were overridden by personal tastes. Reflect on the transformation — or elimination — that has occurred in the Catholic classroom as educational tradition ceded to personal inclinations. Is it any wonder that, with everyone else in the church “doing their own thing” as the saying went, some clergy felt less compelled to follow the Gospel ideals of chastity, celibacy and mutual respect? Previous generations might have controlled their lower impulses by acknowledging their fear of the Lord. But in the late 20th century’s permissive milieu, anxiety over divine chastisement evaporated. Personal fancy smothered revealed beliefs. In the post-Vietnam, post-Vatican II, post-Woodstock, post Roe-v-Wade world, there was frankly little motivation left for keeping a lid on things.
The world might rightly condemn some members of the Catholic clergy. But in condemning them, the world is condemning a culture of its own making. A permissive society ultimately has no recourse. Excessive tolerance by its very nature knows no bounds.