Ross Douthat wrote a short article for the Atlantic, where he used to work. Called “The Catholic Church is Finished,” he makes two points. Both are right, and few people seem to grasp both at once, much less articulate them this well:
This was the year when the cover-up of priestly sex abuse, a long-simmering crisis for Catholicism, became something much, much bigger. It was Watergate. It was Waterloo. It was another Reformation. The pope had to apologize. No, the pope had to resign. No, the pope had to be arrested. The Church could be saved only if every bishop stepped down. No, the Church could be saved only if a Third Vatican Council was convened. No, the Church could be saved only if it became as liberal as the Episcopal Church, and quickly. No, nothing could save the Church: it was too corrupt, too compromised, too medieval, too anachronistic. And now, at last, it was finished.
A little historical perspective suggests otherwise. The Church has been horrifyingly corrupt in previous eras and still survived. It’s been led by ecclesiastics who make Bernard Law’s hands look clean, and still survived. It’s faced fiercer enemies than Richard Dawkins (think Nero, or Attila, or Voltaire) and still survived. Time after time, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” Each time, “it was the dog that died.”
But if the Church isn’t finished, period, it can still be finished for certain people, in certain contexts, in certain times. And so it is in this case: for millions in Europe and America, Catholicism is probably permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as in many previous dark chapters in the Church’s history, the leaders entrusted with that gospel have nobody to blame but themselves.
So we need to stop worrying about the Church dying out completely, and worry more about individuals’ losing their faith because of bad priests, bad bishops, and bad lay Catholics like ourselves. In many ways, the first conversation (on the fate of the Church corporate) is a complete red herring. Those of us who are Catholic already know how the story turns out. We know the hero wins, and we know that Christ will keep His Bride safe from death, no matter how imminent it may seem, or how often.
The largest tragedy of the sex abuse scandal is exactly what Douthat keys in on: the way that millions of people are now closed off to the saving Gospel of Christ in a way that they weren’t before, and wouldn’t have been without bad bishops. Paul honed on in this point powerfully in Romans 2, where he remarked that those who were supposed to be proclaiming the truth of God were having the opposite effect because of their failure to practice what they preached. Just replace “Jew” with “Catholic” in this passage:
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?
You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Although the passage would apply in a special way to those with Holy Orders, since they’re called in a particular way to serve as guide, light, instructor, and teacher, all of us are called in some sense, as part of the priesthood (CCC 1273).
Between the loss of (very real) individual faith and the (impossible) total collapse of the Church is a third threat, which is the Church dying out completely, or nearly so, in a given area. Europe’s already facing this, and Lincoln’s Bishop Bruskewitz aptly noted we shouldn’t presume ourselves so special as to think it couldn’t happen here:
When heretical and erroneous teachings are allowed to run rampant, it is a very short time before total disaster engulfs the entire ecclesiastical enterprise in any one area. We should remember that there was a time when North Africa was almost entirely Christian, almost entirely Catholic. Today, one can journey across North Africa from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt and find very little, if any, Catholic presence in most locations on that shore of the Mediterranean Sea. We should not think this cannot happen here. Although we are promised that the Church will endure until the end of time, we have no promise that it will be enduring in North America.