When Scandal Silences the Church’s Voice

The speaker was a highly sophisticated layman, possessor of a doctorate and professor of theology at a major Catholic university. We had been discussing the  metastasizing scandals plaguing the Church—scandals concerning ex-Cardinal McCarrick, the Pennsylvania grand jury, what the Pope knew and when he knew it,

and on and on. Then, unexpectedly, my companion said this:

“There is something truly demonic about all this. The Catholic Church was virtually the last voice being raised against the sexual revolution. And that voice has been silenced.”

I glumly agreed. “Who would listen to anything the Church had to say about sex now?”

Although it didn’t occur to me to make the point, it hardly needs saying that sexual morality is far from being the only matter on which the Church’s voice has been effectively silenced. Don’t expect the Church to get much of a hearing for a while on immigration policy, race and racism, or other urgent matters about which Catholic social doctrine has something important to say.

Still, the credibility of Catholic teaching calling for self-discipline and respect for the other in what pertains to sex has unquestionably taken the biggest hit, and it’s no mystery why. Repeated transgressions by people with a grave obligation to live by the rule of chaste celibacy have given the Church’s opponents a giant opening to accuse it of  hypocrisy.

It’s a tragedy that this has happened at a time when—at least in the United

States—Church leaders for the most part seem to have learned the lesson of their predecessors’ errors and to be enforcing the tough policy on clergy sex abuse that they adopted in 2002. True as that is, the bitter consequences of sins of coverup in the past are now coming home with a vengeance.

There is painful irony, too, in the fact that this is happening on the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning contraception. Near its end, Pope Paul, who will be canonized next month, warned that the rejection of its teaching would help pave the way to a “general lowering of morality.”

What Paul VI didn’t say, perhaps because it seemed too obvious to require saying, was that a parallel dereliction of duty by people who were sworn to uphold and practice chaste celibacy would contribute powerfully—indeed, was even then contributing—to the same catastrophic result.

And although I don’t expect critics of Humanae Vitae to admit it, or perhaps even recognize it, the roar of dissent that greeted the encyclical has also been a factor in the process of silencing the Church’s voice as a teacher of morality. Now the scandal of sex abuse and coverup has finished the job.

And that may be the most important lesson Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, can impart to the extraordinary meeting of himself and his peers that Pope Francis has summoned to convene in Rome next February to discuss responses to the sex abuse crisis.

The bishops of the United States have wrestled collectively with the sex abuse problem since the 1980s, but along the way they neglected an elementary axiom of good public relations: when something bad happens, get all the bad stuff on the record quickly. As a result, they and the Church have paid a terrible price as embarrassing disclosures have dribbled out over the years. At this perilous moment, Pope Paul VI’s famous dictum that the “smoke of Satan” had seeped into the Church again seems painfully pertinent.

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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