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Dissecting the Anatomy of the Sexual Scandal


As the Catholic Church in the United States turned into the twenty-first century, it was rocked by revelations of sex abuse on the part of a not insignificant number of clergy, religious, and other Church personnel perpetuated on young children and, very much more so, on teenage youth.

priest5Compounding greatly this evil was the apparent fact that many times the offending parties were hidden from detection, shuffled from location to location in lieu of being removed, and protected from religious/moral and legal punishment by ecclesiastical leadership. These combined and very ugly realities seemed to cap a general downward trend certain countervailing movements of a positive nature notwithstanding in the health, vibrancy, integrity, and salutary influence of Catholicism on American civilization since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1966.

The purpose of this essay is to analyze, from opposing perspectives, the many issues involved with the contemporary crisis in the Catholic Church with a focus on the sexual scandals. Questions abound. What precisely is the nature of the scandal? What are the various causes of the scandal and how are they to be respectively weighted? How deep is the scandal? What corrective actions have or should be taken? What are the realistic prospects that continual and future corrective actions will be taken? Can the priesthood and ecclesial office recover? What have been the various roles or functions that the mass media have taken during the scandal? Can the Church reform herself given its present leadership in the United States? Will the lines of that reform be some version of a protestantization in terms of either doctrine or organization? Or could the reform be in the direction of a reaffirmation and revitalization of the Catholic tradition, of a dynamic orthodoxy, of a Church both eternal and eternally young?

Progressive Modernizers Versus Orthodox Ecclesialists

Two sets of quite similar distinctions made by the distinguished social scientists James D. Hunter in his Culture Wars (Basic Books, 1991) and Monsignor George A. Kelly in his The Battle for The American Church (Doubleday, 1979) provide one useful way to start to intelligently grapple with the set of issues previously enunciated. For his part, Hunter makes the case that American civilization is presently torn between two disparate factions and worldviews, what he terms, respectively, the "progressive" and "orthodox." The progressive worldview is essentially based on an Enlightenment understanding of an unfettered and non-supernaturally based reason, "autonomous individualism," and ultimately that social reality is nothing more than a social construction that can and should constantly change. The orthodox worldview is based on some combination of the Judaic-Christian heritage and natural law thinking and is anchored by a belief that there are certain absolute truths that must be accepted and followed. Focusing on internal affairs within the Catholic Church, Kelly likewise notes that the battle is between what he calls the "modernizers" and the "ecclesialists." For Kelly, the modernizers stress religious immanence, experience, relativity, and pragmatism. The ecclesialists stress religious transcendence, revealed doctrine, the essential role of the Church for salvation, and the non-negotiable requirement of obedience to the plan of God. Hunter and Kelly are basically dealing with the perennial question of the relationship between society and religion or, more specifically, referring to the work of the theologian H.R. Niebuhr, between Christianity and the surrounding culture. For immediate purposes, the Hunter and Kelly distinctions can be combined and termed, respectively, the progressive modernizers and the orthodox ecclesialists. The usual qualifiers apply whenever utilizing any type of ideal typical analysis; the terms refer, in this case, to endpoints in the relationship between the Catholic Church and American civilization. Moreover, these visions are accepted in their pristine versions by only significant slivers of the Catholic population. A majority of Catholics occupy, following Hunter's phrase, a "muddled middle" in which ambivalence, contradiction, indifference, and, on occasion, creative synthesis are characteristic. Indeed, a key issue is whether there is a possible "common ground" between these two worldviews; my judgement is that they are basically incommensurate. The progressive modernizer versus orthodox ecclesialist distinction is absolutely crucial not only because the two perspectives explain the crisis/scandal differently but because they propose divergent solutions that, if implemented, would take the Catholic Church down radically different roads, with only the latter pointing unequivocally to the heavens.

Different Perspectives, Different Implications

These two camps/worldviews tend to see the crisis in the Catholic Church and the associated sexual scandal quite differently on many issues. The progressive modernizers tend to emphasize the key evil as the Bishops' coverup or inactivity in response to the scandal which, in turn, is viewed as a reflection of an alleged outdated and self-serving oligarchy and hierarchical mode of Church governance. This group would have no problem in accepting enthusiastically the claim of the liberal English Catholic historian Lord Acton that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Conversely put, what is needed to uncover wrongdoing sexual, financial, doctrinal, or otherwise is the acceptance of democracy within the internals of the faith along with its natural correlate, a congregational style of leadership in which the laity and lower echelon clergy and religious are central in decision-making. Students of American Catholic history here might recall the early 19th century controversy over the issue of "Trusteeism."

The response of the orthodox ecclesialists is neither that one should ignore or deny the evil involved in bureaucratic cover-ups-religious or ortherwise but to argue that it is not intrinsic to episcopal leadership per se. Rather it is a function not of any particular system of government but of individuals who fail to carry out their assigned duties. Catholic tradition makes the claim that God makes available to the Bishops the necessary graces to lead the Church faithfully and with integrity but only if the Bishops co-operate with God's plan and are themselves faithfully aligned with the Mind of the Church. Further, the orthodox ecclesiasts would not be sanguine about the alleged salutary effects of incorporating lay and lower echelon clergy/religious leadership into Church decision making if that same leadership itself is not religiously formed or socialized into an authentic Catholic worldview. Extrapolating from numerous poll data available, one can conclude that perhaps there are no more than 20% of the laity who are in fundamental agreement with the Mind of the Church, if one defines the Mind of the Church as consistent with Magisterial thought. For the orthodox ecclesialists, an unfaithful or doctrinally innocent laity/clergy/religious is no improvement over an unfaithful episcopal leadership. Indeed, sociologically, the orthodox ecclesialists might well claim that such a democratization of the Church really constitutes no movement toward true democracy at all. Rather, empirically, it would represent a variation of what the classical Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto termed a "circulation of elites" with a dissenting gnostic class replacing an ineffective class of Bishops, including some dissenting Bishops themselves, in what constitutes a simple, naked power play.

Another issue in which the "progressive modernizers" vs. "orthodox ecclesialists" distinction is useful in analyzing the crisis in the Catholic Church and the scandal is on the issue of the extent of the internal corruption within the non-Bishop priesthood and other associated Church personnel. By implication and by emphasis, the progressive modernizers do not see the corruption as widespread or systemic beyond the current group of Bishops; indeed to make such a claim would be to cast a light on the consequences of a selective liberal Catholic (and, in many cases, heterodox) interpretation of the Second Vatican Council on the priesthood and the state of Catholicism itself. The progressive modernizers here take one of two tracks. The relatively small number of offending clergy/personnel are either a) spiritually or psychologically dysfunctional or b) the logical result of the flawed and "sexually repressive anthropology" of the Church. The first answer sees the problem in individualistic and psychological (as compared to cultural/social movement) terms. The second answer assumes a quasi-Freudian understanding of sexuality in which the offending parties are the vanguard victims of a disastrous discipline/policy of celibacy as the sexual lid boiled over the pot/pale for at least a few. The "solution" to the first is to eliminate/democratically reform the alleged self-serving, inward authority structure of the Church. The various "solutions" to the second are to allow, variously, for a married priesthood, to ordain women as priests, or most generally, to radically overthrow the Church's 2000 year old position on sexuality, allowing for openly sexual relations, both heterosexual and homosexual, between all consenting adults, clergy and religious included. The hypothetical end result of these combined solutions supposedly would be the creation of more modern, pluralistic, democratic, and "relevant" Church and the reduction, if not elimination, of instances of non-consensual sex with children.

For the orthodox ecclesialists, both the crisis in the Church and its associated sexual scandals are more extensive than depicted in the worldview of the progressive modernizers and are also seen to be, at base, cultural and the unintended consequence of a liberal Catholic social movement with a constitutive focus on sexual liberation. The roots of the crisis, so this logic goes, are not to be found primarily within individual pathologies or psychological disorders but within an institutionalized culture of dissent. The latter itself is viewed as the result of a quite calculating liberal Catholic takeover, during the period from the mid-1960s through, roughly the 1980s, of the social institutions of the Church in America, aided and abetted by the majority coalition of Catholic bishops in power during that time frame and spurred on by the Bishops' Bicentennial Program (1973-83), with its centerpiece "Call to Action" conference (1976) and subsequently spawned liberal Catholic social movement. That the remnant of the leadership that controlled the American Church at the time and was so indispensable in furthering the progressive modernizer movement is included by the same in the current general attack on Bishops is viewed by the orthodox ecclesialists as a delicious irony and typical concession by the Left to the demands of "realpolitik."

For the orthodox ecclesialists, furthermore, the roots of the crisis/scandal are not only cultural and social, but they run deep. They are certainly deeper than the claim of some progressives, both secular and religious, that the sexual scandal involves primarily cases of pedophilia ; all the available evidence, starting with the work of Philip Jenkins, is that the overwhelming percentage of sexual abuse cases involves homosexual acts with teenage youth. The orthodox ecclesialists, following at least the rough outline of Michael Rose's Good Bye, Good Men, would point to the dramatic increase of active homosexuals into the priesthood over the past forty years and, conversely, the systematic discrimination against orthodox Catholic, sexually-straight men entering the seminaries as a major cause of the scandal. The logic of the orthodox ecclesialist is not, however, to ultimately focus on the issue of an active homosexual invasion of the priesthood. Rather, the ultimate cause of the problem is viewed as the rejection, on the part of a significant percentage of the priests and other personnel who run the Church's social institutions during the immediate post-Vatican II generation, of the basic doctrines of the Catholic Church, including those that deal with sexual morality. Too many priests and Church personnel have accepted, from this perspective, the modern American idea of an "autonomous individualism," that, in the final analysis, the ultimate locus of authority resides with the individual embedded in a fundamentally secular society and not with received revelation or the dictates of conformity with the natural law. The problem is deep, for the orthodox ecclesialist then, because the sexual abuse scandal, as evil and wrong as it is, represents only the most egregious tip of an iceberg capable of sinking the Church into oblivion. The crisis within the Church, fundamentally, is a widespread crisis of faith; a rejection of the idea that what the Catholic Church has consistently taught over the ages is true. For every sexual abuse case, then, there are presumably many more cases of "consensual" heterosexual and homosexual sexual affairs between priests or between priests and parishioners. And, regardless of the issue of personal involvement in sexual scandal, even more prevalent would be the doctrinal dissent perpetuated by priests, starting in the confessional, and Church personnel through their official capacities within the Church. Over the past 40 years, from this perspective, the Catholic Church has suffered, as I argue in my Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order, a massive "secularization from within" with the sexual scandals representing only an externally visible pussy sore on an otherwise diseased, or at least severely compromised, body.

Two caveats are immediately in order. The orthodox ecclesialists would not deny that, even at the height of the actual offenses committed, there were innumerable faithful, devoted, and competent Bishops, priests and Church personnel serving the Church with distinction and honor. The point to be made, however, is that by, say, the mid-1980s, the dissenters represented enough of a "critical mass" to severely weaken the Church's ability to serve as a needed leaven for an ever increasing materialistic, utilitarian, and morally relativistic society descending into what John Paul II has referred to as a "culture of death." Secondly, the high water mark of dissent has, in all probability, passed. For one thing, the social scientific evidence is that the Church's latest cohorts of priests, seminaries, and nuns in the U.S. are as modest as these numbers are vis-a-vis the 1950s in the main, both orthodox and sophisticated. And there also has been something of an orthodox renaissance, both intellectually and organizationally, over the past two decades bubbling just under the social radar screen that offers promise for revitalizing the Church down the road. But no one, at least according to the orthodox ecclesial perspective, should underestimate the daunting and unenviable task of putting all the pieces back together again after the post Vatican II debacle and restoring integrity to the Catholic house, a task that will necessarily entail cooperative efforts between a laity seeking out saintliness both within the Church and the world and courageous leadership from the current crop of American Bishops who would have to be willing to crack more than a few eggs in the restoration process. It is fair to say that most orthodox ecclesialists are more immediately optimistic regarding the former possibility, namely, the revitalization efforts of an orthodox laity energized and ready to rise to the evangelistic demands of the present situation.

Yet another issue in which the two models would produce at least different emphases in interpretation would be on the role that the mass media has played during the scandal. It is important to point out in initiating this discussion that both the progressive modernizers and the orthodox ecclesialists would agree that the causes of the scandal are to be found within the Church herself and are not mere fabrications of hostile cultural elite. And both sides are thankful that the mass media has helped to uncover and make public the evil involved in a scandal spanning decades. However, in so far as it has concentrated attention on the gross negligence of the Bishops and has depicted the sexual abuse cases as that of pedophilia while, at the same time, ignoring the roles that the culture of dissent and active homosexuality have played in the scandals, the mass media have been cooperating, at whatever level of self-conscious awareness, more with the agenda of the progressive modernizers. Solid social scientific evidence has well documented that the mass media hold values that are far more liberal than that of the population at large and therefore share a personal sympathy with the progressive modernizer cause. One need not be a sociologist of knowledge to understand that such considerations as motivation, topic selection, tacit philosophy embraced, language chosen, evidence accepted, mode of interpretation, and social policies recommended color all intellectual activity, the journalistic enterprise included.

There is one final issue in which the progressive modernizer versus orthodox ecclesialist distinction might provide distinctive and varying interpretations regarding the sexual scandal. The issue involves the motivation for the Bishops covering up the sordid details of the scandal and for not taking immediate corrective and punitive actions against the perpetuators of abuse. A list of possible generic motivations would include:

  1. to "protect" the name of the institution,
  2. to "protect" Church personnel, in the sense of any organization "taking care of its brotherhood,"
  3. to allow time for the sexual offenders to be psychologically rehabilitated,
  4. to allow time for the indelible mark of sacramental grace of the office of the priesthood to reassert itself given that "once a priest always a priest,"
  5. to protect individuals whose understanding of the nature and direction of the Church the local Ordinary has personal sympathy with;
  6. more specifically, to protect individuals whose philosophy of sexual liberation the local Ordinary has personal sympathy with;
  7. to protect the Bishop himself from blackmail, either due to some doctrinal violation the Bishop himself has perpetuated/allowed or because he himself is an active homosexual or active homosexual involved in child abuse and
  8. to protect the culture of dissent promoted by the contemporary gnostic class because at least a few Bishops are themselves active co-conspirators in the rejection of the historic faithaastoryend_dingbat.gif

Again, let it be restated that both the progressive modernizers and the orthodox ecclesialists, in light of recent disclosures associated with the scandals, have empirically demonstrated hostility to the Bishops. For the former, the scandal provides a golden opportunity to destroy/transform the very office of the Bishop and to "update," structurally and doctrinally, the nature of the Church. For the latter, the opposition is not to the office of the Bishop per se, but to what constitutes an unfaithful, at worst, to ineffective, at best, body of Bishops who have failed in their delegated leadership duties. While my conclusions are admittedly speculative and tentative, the logic of each perspective would suggest that, in the main, the motivation to cover up the scandal on the part of those Bishops who, on the surface appear to be loyal to Magisterial thinking, would be explanations one through four with those Bishops more open to a radical rejection of the historic nature of the faith motivated by explanations five through eight.

Concluding Note

Catholics have always and rightfully been taught by their religion the importance of seeking truth in all things. Practically speaking, however, Catholics must also be aware of how the truth can be misrepresented and distorted by erroneous, politicized, and self-serving "spinning" so characteristic of modern day secularized elites or, if you will, of the contemporary gnostic class. Serious Catholics must be made aware of just precisely how the progressive modernizer camp, which is a major cause of the crisis in the Catholic Church, is using the very sexual scandal it helped to create to further its own agenda of de-Catholicizing the faith. Hopefully this essay will make a minor contribution in demonstrating how social scientific analysis, in principle, can help defend the True Faith.



Joseph A. Varacalli. "Dissecting the Anatomy of the Sexual Scandal." The Homiletic & Pastoral Review CIV, No. 4, (January 2004).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Homiletic & Pastoral Review and Dr. Joseph Varacalli. All rights reserved. To subscribe phone: (800) 651-1531 or write: Homiletic & Pastoral Review PO Box 591120 San Francisco, CA 94159-1120

Dr. Varacalli would like to acknowledge the useful comments made on an earlier draft of this paper by his colleague, Kenneth Whitehead.

The Author

Joseph A. Varacalli is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College-S.U.N.Y., Garden City, New York, He is the co-founder of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author, most recently, of Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order (Lexington Books, 1-800-462-6420; Dr. Varacalli would like to thank his colleagues Monsignor Robert Batule and Rick Hinshaw for reading an earlier draft of this presentation and making useful suggestions for revision. Joe Varacalli is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2004 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
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