Greta Christina once wrote a great blog post called “Why Are You Still Catholic?” But it mostly asked the question rhetorically. Leah Libresco’s conversion got me thinking about what the actual reasons are. I went and took the time to re-read the relevant parts of William Lobdell’s book Losing My Religion, which suggests a number of answers.
Lobdell’s book is about how being a journalist on the religion beat caused him to lose his faith. At one point in his life, he converted to Catholicism, but as he was getting ready to convert he was also one of the journalists involved in breaking the story of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States. As a result, the book ends up being not just a compelling personal narrative, but also an excellent guide to the scandals. Now, the reasons people might have for still being Catholic:
1) Outright denial: Lobdell describes how when he broke the story of Father Michael Harris, he got many angry phone calls from people who refused to believe the truth about their beloved “Father Mike,” despite all the evidence against Harris. My initial thought is that probably few people still think this way after the scandals got such thorough media coverage, but then look at the percentage of Americans who still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
2) People think the scandals were just about a few priests: I’ve seen that argument a few times from the Church’s defenders, that there’s a small percentage of predators in every organization. This overlooks the fact that the problem isn’t just the sexual abuse, it’s the fact that it was systematically covered up by the Catholic hierarchy. As Lobdell explains:
The clergy had been trained in a hierarchical culture that valued obedience and loyalty and disdained scandal and secular interference. The priests also had been taught about the power of redemption. So when faced with a priest who had raped a boy, anyone with knowledge of the incident knew to keep quiet. The victim and his family were dealt with in a manner that would avoid scandal—sometimes they were lied to, and other times shamed or threatened into silence. If those tactics didn’t work, a secret financial settlement was offered. Never did the church officials voluntarily report the crime to civil authorities. Sometimes, they transferred the offending priest to an unsuspecting parish, relying on his word that he had repented and wouldn’t sin again. Other times, the priest was sent secretly to a Catholic treatment center, where psychiatrists and psychologists would eventually assure the priest’s bishop that the pedophile was no longer a danger to children. Then the cleric would be quietly put back in ministry. (p. 96)
3) Thanks to media euphemisms, people don’t understand the severity of the crimes: Lobdell explains that in the first case he covered as a journalist, the award in the lawsuit ($5.2 million) seemed excessive. That changed when he sat in on a meeting for survivor’s of priest sexual abuse. But his editors still insisted he write in euphemism:
During my time covering the Catholic sex scandal, I tried in vain to get my editors to use more accurate and graphic descriptions: “child rape” and “sodomy,” to begin with. The more descriptive words in my copy were always changed. They were considered too graphic for a family newspaper. I thought our readers were grown-up enough to handle the more precise description. Molestation or sexual abuse could refer to a child being fondled through layers of clothing. That was bad, but it didn’t compare to violent sex acts performed on children. I always thought there would be less loyalty and more outrage if the laity knew exactly what their molesting priests had done. (pp. 102-103)
I don’t think there’s any conspiracy here; I just think that the very idea of priests sodomizing a boy on an altar until he defecates, or plunging an aspersorium, used to sprinkle holy water, into a girl’s vagina, or a little boy hiding his bloody underwear from his mother was too much for even jaded journalists to consider. (p. 103)
4) People think the problem was just one diocese or a few dioceses. This was Lobdell’s reaction at first. “I wrote off their actions as the work of a single, morally corrupt diocese” (namely, the diocese in Orange County – p. 109). But that changed for Lobdell when the scandal in the Boston archdiocese hit. It ended up being revealed that similar things were going on in dioceses across the country.
Perhaps most tellingly, though, is the fact that the current Pope, when he was Joseph Ratzinger, was head of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and sent out a letter to all Catholic bishops requiring sex abuses cases to be kept secret. Which brings me to the next point:
5) Has the church reformed?: Sort of. It has new rules about dealing with cases of sexual abuse. But the reforms didn’t come from the inside, they came only after the truth became public and ended up costing the church billions of dollars. Furthermore, as Lobdell points out:
Even today, most of these bishops [the ones responsible for the cover-up] are still in office; some have been promoted and all are revered by the faithful who deferentially call them “shepherds” and, in the case of a cardinal, “Your Eminence.” Cardinal Law, who was run out of Boston by his parishioners and priests, is now the archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome and celebrated one of Pope John Paul II’s funeral masses. (p. 142)
6) Giving religion a pass: While I think there’s probably some genuine ignorance about how horrible what really happened was, I think the truth is that if similar scandals had hit any other organization, the organization would be finished. This is a case of religion getting a pass.
And here’s where the Outsider Test for Faith comes in. The Church of Scientology has done a lot of awful stuff, but it’s hard to point to anything it’s done that’s as bad as systematically covering up child rape. Yet most people who know a little about Scientology have no trouble dismissing it as a totally corrupt organization. It’s only familiarity that stops them from doing the same with the Catholic Church.
Two quick questions: I’d definitely like to put this in the book, but where? Does it fit well enough in with chapter 4 (about the Outsider Test for Faith)? Also: I’d like a bit firmer sources for Ratzinger’s role in all of this. Suggestions? I’m considering buying The Case of the Pope, but want to know what else people can recommend.
And of course, any likely factors in people still being Catholic that I’ve missed are welcome.