Since he hasn’t drawn attention to it here, I wanted to point our readers to Philip Jenkins’s recent essay at Real Clear Religion about the long-term effects of the sexual abuse scandals within the American Catholic Church. (It is a pleasant indulgence to catch up on good writing at RCR every few days).
Jenkins argues that the scandals eviscerated both the church’s finances and its moral and political authority. The first point is especially convincing:
In Southern California alone, the three dioceses of Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego paid out close to a billion all told, not counting their legal costs. Several dioceses have already declared bankruptcy, while others are close… These changes have most acutely affected already troubled inner city areas, as dioceses have scaled back plans to build new churches to accommodate the enormous influx of mainly Catholic immigrants from Latin America and East Asia. If the abuse crisis had never happened, American cities would probably be in the middle of a church building boom much like that of a century ago.
Jenkins is correct that the Catholic Church was set up for a boomlet, at least in the non-Anglo portion of its membership, a burst of institution-building that might have been or has at least been deferred.
At the same time, the scandals have vitiated the church’s ability to speak with persuasion and authority on moral issues, particularly those involving sexuality:
When a bishop expresses conservative or traditional views on sexual matters, he leaves himself open to the obvious retort that the Church would be better served cleaning up perverse sexuality and child exploitation within its own ranks — not to mention the unspoken question, “And what have you got to hide, bishop?” The abuse scandals have thoroughly liberated the mass media from any lingering sense that they need to show deference to the Catholic Church — and perhaps to any religious leader whatever, with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama.
As that final sentence suggests, I would add that the scandals have made it more difficult for all religious persons to speak with moral authority on matters of sexuality.
Jenkins asks whether the debate over same-sex marriage would have evolved differently had Catholic leaders spoken with greater authority in moments such as the ones that followed the 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in that state. I tend to think that the trajectory of the debate would have remained roughly the same. I do wonder, however, if the Obama administration would have so readily shrugged off the concerns of the church in the more recent controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act, both in provisions concerning funding for abortions (a flashpoint when the bill was initially passed) and contraceptives (the ongoing point of controversy). Given the events of the past twenty years, it is perhaps not surprising that Catholic leaders now find themselves largely ignored by the political Left.