The priest sex-abuse scandal is the biggest crisis to hit the Roman Catholic church since the Reformation. I’ve heard that thought expressed by a number of people. It contains a lot of truth, but it also has some misconceptions. Far from being bad for the Church, the Reformation was good for the Church, including the Catholic church. In fact, a “reformation” is exactly what the Catholic church needs in order to deal with this scandal.
First of all, I commend to you an article by two evangelicals, Willis L. Krumholz and Robert Delahunty in The Federalist. The title is Why Every Christian Should Be Very Worried About the Catholic Sex Scandal.
The piece is thoughtful and sensitive, clearly condemning the sexual abuse that has been uncovered, expressing concern for the victims and insisting that the Vatican take strong action against the offending priests and bishops. But the authors are worried about the fallout of the scandal, which could endanger religious liberty and denigrate the Christian religion in general in the eyes of our increasingly secularist world.
They too make the Reformation comparison. But they cite a crucial difference. During the Reformation 500 years ago, Europe was solidly Christian. But now Europe and the West in general is largely non-Christian and secularist. Their fear is that the scandal in the Church of Rome will turn the secularists against Christianity altogether.
I would say that not only was Europe in the time of the Reformation solidly Christian, but that after the Reformation it was even more so. Not only because of evangelical Protestantism. The Catholic Church also became more Catholic. If it weren’t for the Reformation, there would have been no Counter-Reformation.
Much of what we think of today as Catholic piety, especially for the laypeople, as well as key institutions, goes back not to the Middle Ages, as is often assumed, but the Counter-Reformation of the 1600’s: the use of the rosary; frequent communion; Catholic education; Catholic missions, the Jesuits, the teaching orders, etc.
The Catholic church really had neglected the spiritual life of the laity and really had become corrupt. Not just financially and politically but in sexual scandal. Read Chaucer to see how laypeople saw the sexual corruption that was rampant in the religious orders. From the notorious brothels in Rome that were reserved for priests to the Popes packing the college of cardinals with their illegitimate sons, the sexual sin was on a shocking scale. Priests reasoned that although they were fornicating, at least they weren’t violating their vows of celibacy by getting married.
The Reformation was successful because virtually everyone–even those who remained faithful Catholics–knew it was needed. The Counter-Reformation did clean out much of the corruption that had spoiled Rome’s credibility. As a Lutheran, I am not saying that the Counter-Reformation was a good thing–the Council of Trent anathemized justification by faith and other Biblical truths and doubled down on Rome’s theological errors–but the Catholic church that came out on the other side of it was a much more effective institution.
All of Christendom does. Protestant churches are not immune from their own sex scandals and sexual abuse crimes. (See World Magazine’s reporting on “We Too.“)
The Catholic church, at least, has strong teachings about sexual morality, even though so many priests (though a small minority) violated them so shamefully. Mainline liberal Protestants have taken the additional step of changing their teachings about sexual morality. They exemplify what St. Paul was complaining about: “They not only do them [the catalogue of sins including sexual sins] but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). It is bad enough to do these things, but to also approve of them is beyond the pale.
I am not saying liberal Protestants approve of pedophilia, but they do approve, with liberal Catholics, of homosexuality, which is a factor in the current scandals, and have been contributing to the permissive climate by minimizing traditional sexual morality.
If this scandal is discrediting Catholicism and with it Christianity, it is also discrediting sexual license. And it is discrediting the Sexual Revolution, as the public is forced to acknowledge that sexual behavior needs to be restrained, controlled, and ordered by moral principles.
Catholics and Protestants, including both liberals and conservatives, need a “reformation” when it comes to sexual morality, and having one can only help to restore the credibility of their churches.
One of the most bracing pieces I’ve read on the scandal is by Megan Fox, a devout Catholic who is furious about the “filth” that is being disclosed. After a searing attack on the perpetrators and the hierarchy that covered up their crimes, she concludes on a note of hope that now, finally, the Church is being purified:
How many times have the laity in the Catholic Church prayed for such a day that the wicked among us would be cast out? That the wolves preying on the sheep would be put down? It’s not like no one knew what was going on. There are thousands of families all over the world suffering the consequences of priest abuse and Church cover-up. It’s just that until now, the deceivers were able to hide and obscure and strangle the voices of the aggrieved with promises of reform and new “policies” and punishments with no teeth. Not anymore. The crimes are too great and it’s clear the hierarchy had no intention of stopping it. Change is coming. IT’S HAPPENING!
“The Lord’s house needs to burn with holy fire and purge this wickedness from her leadership,” she writes. “You are blessed to live in such a time as this when there is so much good work to do!”
This will be painful. Burning and purgation and reformation usually are. But they are necessary not only for the Catholic Church but for the Church as a whole to be strong again.
Photo: St. Michael’s Church, Munich [a Counter-Reformation baroque church] via pxhere, CC, Public Domain