More on religion from The Atlantic's archive.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

From the archives:

"Women of God" (January 2002)
Nuns are an endangered species. The novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon, who herself once contemplated joining an order, examines this disappearing way of life.

"Graham Greene's Vatican Dossier" (July/August 2001)
Documents from the archives of the Holy See reveal the deliberations among papal censors over how to deal with The Power and the Glory—and wise counsel from an unexpected source. By Peter Godman

"The Worst Thing About My Church" (January 2001)
A compelling new history of Catholic anti-Semitism. By Charles R. Morris

"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church" (October 1999)
Some in the Vatican want to make Pius XII a saint. If they succeed, "the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie." By James Carroll

"Catholic and Patriot" (May 1927)
"I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." By Alfred E. Smith

"An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith" (April 1927)
"There is a conflict between authoritative Roman Catholic claims on the one side and our constitutional law and principles on the other." By Charles C. Marshall

From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "A Culture of Credulity" (May 8, 2002)
By investing the Church and its priests with absolute authority, lay Catholics have unwittingly helped create a historic moral scandal. By Jack Beatty

A Time to Change

May 8, 2002
n recent months the Catholic Church has come under fire as more and more stories of the sexual abuse of minors by priests have surfaced, along with evidence that in many cases Church leaders who were aware of what was going on acted to protect not the children, but the Church's image. Many believe that this problem may be symptomatic of excessive fealty within the Church to the institution's upper hierarchy—priests, bishops, and cardinals have focused more effort on currying favor with their superiors than on being attentive to the needs of lay Catholics. Only in such a context, according to this argument, could the sexual abuse of children have ended up being dealt with more as an image problem than as a crime.

A number of commentators, both inside and outside the fold, have long foreseen difficulties for the Catholic Church. Four articles published in The Atlantic over the past forty years have considered some of the issues now facing the church, and have addressed various institutional weaknesses.

In 1962, Church leaders gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, which updated a number of Church doctrines to be more in keeping with the times. Services could now be performed in parishioners' native languages, for example, rather than in Latin, and rules surrounding the Eucharist became somewhat relaxed. Many perceived Vatican II to be revolutionary, and believed that it was a prelude to further changes that would render the church more accessible and relevant to the lives of modern worshippers.

But five years after the Second Vatican Council, Atlantic contributor Daniel Callahan, assessing the state of the Catholic Church in "America's Catholic Bishops" (April 1967), found that dramatic change had not, so far, come about. The Church was stagnating, he suggested, because its governing structure ensured that the kind of men who would end up in leadership positions were conservative, staid, and above all respectful of the status quo.
Through an elaborate, secretive system of biennial recommendations, the names of potential bishops are forwarded to the papacy by those currently holding office. The present system, laid down by Rome in 1916, specifies the type of priest most suitable for recommendation: "The candidates should be mature, but not too old; of good judgment, tried in actual service; of learning, sound and above the ordinary; devoted to the Holy See; especially noted for rectitude and piety...."

Inevitably, such a system ensures that few mavericks will slip through the tight-meshed ecclesiastical net. It is almost inconceivable that a priest who made a public name for himself as a picketer, as an imaginative innovator, as an opponent of corrupt politics, as a known advocate of "controversial" church or public policies would pass muster.
Callahan suggested that American bishops are in many ways like middle management in any large corporation, and that many of the Church's problems are those typical of a system that perpetuates the power of invisible and uninspired leaders.
Those elevated to the episcopacy are ... as a rule, drawn from deep within the administrative structure, many in fact having spent much of their priestly lives doing office rather than pastoral work. One needs little insight into the sociology of large institutions to guess the net result: those finally appointed as bishops are likely to be highly congenial to those already in office, domesticated to traditional priorities and routines, and out of touch with grass-roots opinion, especially in lay opinion.
He found that some bishops were so out of touch with the opinions of their parishioners and of those below them in the church hierarchy that they tended to simply dismiss as inconceivable any viewpoint not deemed institutionally "correct" by the Church:
I once spent an evening talking with a group of priests about the question of celibacy. Almost all expressed their unhappiness with the rigidity of the law. The next day I met their bishop and mentioned my conversation with them. He refused to believe I had heard any such talk, and in that gentle, kindly way bishops have, delicately suggested that laymen like myself should stop stirring up trouble.
In ensuing years, the Church's lackluster leadership caused some people to drift away from Catholicism and failed to attract very many new worshippers. But in 1978, when John Paul II was inaugurated as Pope, many Catholics held out hope that his warm and dynamic personality would help reenergize the institution. In "The Paradoxical Pope" (May 1980), Kati Marton assessed this new leader, and found in him a disturbing contradiction: personally, he was dynamic and friendly, but when it came to church doctrine he was stern and intractably conservative. She wondered whether perhaps his doctrinal rigidity could be partly attributed to his background in Poland where the Church had had to cling fiercely to traditionalism in order to hold its own against communism.
Many fear that his doctrinaire Catholicism, however suited to the garrison Church of his native Poland may not meet the need for change and growth among his far-flung flock....

Questions of birth control, abortion, divorce, the ordination of women, wayward theologians, empty churches, deserted seminaries, or priests straining to get married are all strange concepts for the Polish clergy. Polish bishops tend to hammer out any differences in private, then unite under the primate. This is not ecclesiastical democracy but a kind of top-down discipline that remains their formula for survival.
Along with conservative opinions on abortion, divorce, and birth control, the Pope, Marton reported, also held strict views on the permanence of the priestly vocation:
On his desk in the Vatican are thousands of requests from Catholic priests for Pope John Paul to absolve them of their vows. Paul VI honored 97% of such requests. Thus far, this Pope has not honored a single one. The word from the Vatican is that laicization is "just not done" under this Pontiff. During his visit to Philadelphia, the Pope addressed priests from all over the country and made plain his views on the irrevocability of their calling. "The priesthood is forever—Tu es sacerdos in aeternum—we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say 'yes' now wishes to say 'no'." It is an example of the harsh standards this Pope is setting for churchmen.
A year later, in "Of Sex and the Catholic Church" (February 1981), Father Francis X. Murphy reported on a 1980 Vatican synod he had attended. More than 200 bishops and clergy had congregated in Rome to discuss issues of birth control, family planning, and population. He expressed frustration that although the gathered church leaders had been permitted to share their thoughts frankly on these issues throughout the meeting, when the Pope closed the synod with his official report of the meeting's outcome, he had simply reiterated his own conservative views, failing even to mention much of what had actually been discussed.

Though some of the synod's attendees had, in fact, supported the Pope's conservative positions, many had questioned and challenged a number of longstanding church doctrines. San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn, for example, argued before the group that "more than 70 per cent of church-going Catholic women of childbearing age were using artificial contraceptives, and fewer than 30 per cent of U.S. Catholic priests considered the practice sinful." The Church's continuing inflexibility on the matter, he warned, was turning many Catholics away.

Quinn also suggested that, viewed in a certain light, the Church's views on contraception and abortion were hypocritical. Murphy paraphrased,
While the Holy See claimed to have a demographic policy regarding responsible parenthood, it was not coming to grips with the fact that 350,000 babies were being born each day while only 200,000 people were dying. Besides, by the year 2000 another billion people would be added to the already severely overcrowded cities with their enormous slum areas and millions of abandoned children..... That the pope chose to ignore statistics pointing to a 2.6 billion increase by the year 2000 A.D hardly seems in keeping with the Church's claim to exercise a catholic care for all the world.
Finally, in "The Hands That Would Shape Our Souls" (December 1990), Paul Wilkes considered the problem of diminishing numbers of clergy that has affected not just Catholics, but Jews and Protestants as well. As traditional religion comes to seem somewhat peripheral to the lives of more and more Americans, ever fewer talented candidates are choosing to enter the clergy. As a result, enrollment in seminaries is dwindling, and standards for admission are dropping. By now, Wilkes wrote, "If a man is bent on becoming a priest and is not too educationally unfit, psychologically aberrant, or flagrantly homosexual, he can usually find a diocese that will sponsor him and a seminary that will accept him."

In the past fifty years, he explained, seminary applicants have changed drastically for the worse.
Dean after dean admits that seminaries are getting precious few of those ranked in the top reaches of their undergraduate classes. In 1947 some ten percent of college graduates nominated to Phi Beta Kappa went into the ministry. A Phi Beta Kappa member today who evinced an interest in the ministry would be recruited by seminarians with unholy zeal….

There is a growing concern that ... some students have turned to religious training after disappointment in the marketplace or to gain employment in a profession that they hope will bring them the status they have otherwise found elusive.
Wilkes also suggested that, given the current struggle to fill slots in seminaries and parishes, the Catholic Church is missing out on an important resource: women.
In many other churches, where the ordination of women is permitted, the supply of clergy has generally met demand.... But in the Catholic Church, where women cannot be ordained and priests cannot marry, the number of available priests is declining at an ever greater rate.
The lack of women in the priesthood, Wilkes argued, has also led to a more controversial problem:
Even more troubling is the question: Is the Catholic clergy, which can accept only men and can no longer afford to be selective, turning more and more gay? For many Catholics the answer is positively mortifying. The priest and novelist Andrew Greeley has been outspoken in assailing the proliferation of "lavender rectories"; estimates of the proportion of Catholic priests who are gay run from 20 percent to as high as 40 percent....

The issue within the Catholic Church is not so much being gay and ordained as being ordained, sexually active, and part of a gay culture. "I hear about it too often from the seminary people I know," [Reverend Richard McBrien, chairman of Notre Dame's theology department] says. "How heterosexual males are being forced out, discouraged by the excessive number of homosexuals in the seminary. It was always there; we knew guys were gay in my day. But today the balance is being tipped in their favor. Claiming celibacy is a wonderful cover for gays, and let's face it, the seminary presents a marvelous arena of opportunity for them." Tales of sexual harassment by both faculty members and fellow classmates have emerged from some Catholic seminaries; whispers are heard of dioceses where gay priests seem to get better appointments because of their bishop's sexual orientation.
Though the recent scandals in the Church have focused most of the attention specifically on the issue of gay clergy not adhering to their vows of celibacy (and, more importantly, engaging in sexual behavior with minors), the scandal will also likely shed light on many of the other areas of concern that have been percolating over the years.

Perhaps the process of addressing the scandal and of regaining the trust of parishioners will inspire a new attentiveness on the part of clergy to the attitudes and needs of lay Catholics. Indeed, the Church may end up being forced—and might benefit from—a fuller integration of parishioners into its governing process.

—Meg Weber and Sage Stossel

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

Meg Weber is a new media intern for The Atlantic Online. Sage Stossel is an editor at The Atlantic Online.

Homepage illustration (detail of December, 1990 Atlantic Monthly cover) by Bryan Leister.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.