The debate flaring among American Catholics might be just as bitter and intense as any political dispute. The prime adversaries are the Catholic Church's progressive and conservative critics. The issue is what should be done about the sex scandal involving some of the church's priests.
The progressives claim that the scandal proves what they've been saying for years: The church is too secretive; rules against married priests and against female priests are archaic; and the church is out of touch. To progressives, the solution is to make the institution more democratic: Give lay Catholics more involvement, not in matters of faith, but in the governance of the church.
A Le Moyne College-Zogby International poll finds that a majority of Catholics (52 percent) give their church "poor" ratings for its handling of sexual-abuse charges involving priests. An overwhelming majority of Catholics (85 percent) say that the allegations should have been dealt with as a legal matter that involved the police and the courts. Only 10 percent say that the charges should have been treated solely as an internal church matter—which is how the church has long handled them.
Many Catholics share the disgust expressed by Sister Jane Kelly of the Santa Rosa, Calif., diocese, who said, "The basic canon law is that the worst thing that can happen is to bring scandal down on the church.... The bishops say it's more important that the reputation of the church be preserved than [that] we protect our children." As Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas has acknowledged: "We've had to learn very bitterly the difference between a sin and a crime. While all crimes may be sins, all sins are not crimes. We should be turning over crimes to the proper authorities."
"The Catholic Church is not going to become a democracy," observes R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "But we still live in a culture that requires transparency and responsibility. The bishops must bring the church up to the full standard of accountability that a liberal society requires." Appleby added, "This does not threaten the moral or doctrinal authority of the bishops or the pope."
Meanwhile, conservative critics claim that the scandal proves what they have long been saying: Church authority has broken down; standards of behavior have become lax; the church has been corrupted by a secular culture in which "anything goes." The solution, the conservatives argue, is more authority. They are calling for a return to the traditional teachings that prevailed before the Vatican Council of the 1960s. They think that their church has been damaged by what they call "a capitulation to the culture."
The church hierarchy sees the incidents of sexual abuse as isolated cases that, as Pope John Paul II said, cast "a dark shadow of suspicion over all the other fine priests." According to a March Gallup Poll, most non-Catholic Americans—as well as 40 percent of Catholics—reject the view that these are isolated cases. They instead see a "pattern of abuse" and institutional corruption.
The pope's response to the current scandal is for priests to commit themselves "more fully to the search for holiness." In the view of a leading conservative Catholic intellectual, the scandal is "renewing a powerful conservative impulse to recall the church to basics. We are seeing disgust with the current leadership of the American church." But parishioners are rallying around their local priests, the way voters criticize Congress but support their own local lawmaker.
This phenomenon was on dramatic display on Sunday, March 17, at the annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast in South Boston. Tom Finneran, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, declared, "The Catholic Church is going through some tough times of late, and we're all sympathetic.... No organization in the history of the world has done more to feed people, to clothe people, to house people, to heal people, to educate people, and to inspire people.
"Father White," Finneran said, addressing the cleric who had delivered the invocation, "I thank you and all your priests for doing so." Those remarks drew loud and sustained applause.
In addition to the progressive-versus-conservative split, the U.S. Catholic community has long been divided between frequent churchgoers and those who rarely, if ever, attend services. "Those who are looking for reasons to be inactive will find very, very good reasons in this scandal," says Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of Crisis magazine.
The Catholic split between regular and infrequent attendees was visible in the 2000 presidential election results, in which 50 percent of self-identified Catholics supported Democrat Al Gore while 47 percent supported Republican George W. Bush. Regular churchgoers favored Bush, by 53 percent to 44 percent. Nonobservant Catholics went for Gore, by 54 percent to 43 percent.
President Bush has cast his lot with the church's hierarchy. It's part of his strategy for recapturing the Catholic voters who went back to the Democrats during the Clinton era. Bush has said, "I'm confident the church will clean up its business and do the right thing." He added, "I just can tell you, I trust the leadership of the church."
But a lot of Catholics don't. The church risks losing them, and so does Bush.