In his piece on Crisis in the Catholic Church (May 2012), Professor Tony Coady, himself a Catholic, argues that the handling of child abuse cases is only one of several major issues currently facing the Church hierarchy. Coady produces statistics indicating that the Vatican is increasingly out of step with the beliefs of lay catholics around the world, on a range of issues from the biological (artificial contraception, abortion and stem cell research) to the social (married priests, female clergy and gay relationships). The Vatican's response is to become increasingly strident and doctrinaire, and to discipline any clergy who step out of line.
But this discipline contrasts uncomfortably with the gross lack of discipline in child abuse cases, and leads many catholics to worry whether the Vatican has its priorities right.
The Victorian historian Thomas Macaulay wrote admiringly of the Church of Rome and the Papacy commending their ancient lineage and current vitality. Professor Coady thinks Macauley’s assessment now seems unduly optimistic.
"Scandals about clerical sexual abuse of children and the associated official evasion of responsibility as well as inflexible attitudes to so many of the values and dilemmas of the contemporary world have combined to undermine to a large extent the confident self-image and apparent cohesion that helped sustain the durability and vigour that enchanted Macaulay. ... The Catholic Church may well prove as vigorous and durable as Macaulay anticipated, but that is likely only if the edifice is subject to extensive repair."Coady sees a growing clash between authority and sincerity, which makes this repair seem increasingly difficult.
"There are more and more voices within the Church urging the revisiting of the total ban on abortion but they are not being listened to by the authorities. In this they face the same wall of disapproval and potential sanction that confronts many other serious dissenting voices on other rigorist bans, such as those on contraception, divorce, clerical marriage, homosexuality, women priests, and most matters involving human sexuality. The fact is that the Catholic Church’s authorities do not want their arguments and rulings on these issues contested because they have been backed into a corner."It is difficult to see how organizational intelligence can be maintained in this climate. But doubtless the Church has survived crises like this before, and may survive this crisis as well.
Declaration of interest: I am not a Catholic. My analysis is based largely on pro-Catholic sources, and I presume these are people who want the Church to survive and thrive.
Tony Coady, Crisis in the Catholic Church (Practical Ethics, May 2012)