A Crisis Of Confidence Within The Roman Catholic Church

Sep 22nd, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Last year (2017) we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, thereby beginning the Protestant Reformation.  Most historians agree that one of the contributing causes of both the appeal and the subsequent spread of Protestantism was a crisis of confidence within the Catholic Church:  corruption, immorality, nepotism, simony and other factors which describe a decadent church out of touch with its people.  In many ways, a similar crisis of confidence is brewing within the Roman Catholic Church today.  It is deep, serious and has the potential to foster a similar catastrophe within Catholicism.  What is the nature of this 21st century crisis?  Why is it so deep and potentially so devastating for institutionalized Catholicism?

  • First, a brief historical overview. For more than 30 years, the institutionalized Catholic Church has denied or covered up widespread instances of sexual abuse within the church.  The Church is now acknowledging that this problem is widespread and indeed global in nature.  How pervasive is this crisis?  Consider these facts:
  1. A study commissioned by the Church in Germany revealed the abuse of thousands of children (3,677) by 1,670 clergymen between 1946 and 2014.
  2. Similar reports and studies within the United States dating back to the 1980s from various parts of the United States involved thousands of children and hundreds of priests.
  3. A grand jury in Pennsylvania detailed seven decades of sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children, and probably thousands more, by over 300 Catholic priests. This Pennsylvania report is over 1,400 pages long and includes this shocking statement:  “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all—for decades.”  This report has prompted attorneys general in New York and New Jersey to open their own investigations into the Catholic Church.  Similar efforts are being launched in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico.
  4. There are similar reports dealing with child abuse by Catholic clergy in Canada, Ireland, England, Australia, Belgium, France and Austria. Similar reports of abuse are surfacing within Chile and the Philippines.

These various reports erase trust in the Church, produce a significant level of dismay among individual Catholics, and blacken the image of the Church itself.  It is a crisis of confidence in the Roman Catholic Church.  This crisis is further exacerbated by a scathing public letter from a former Vatican envoy to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, accusing Pope Francis of lifting sanctions against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, who had a rather long history of “sexual predation.”  Vigano charges that the Church hierarchy knew about McCarrick’s practice of inviting seminarians into his bed since 2000—and did nothing.  Thus, Vigano called on Pope Francis to resign.  Pope Francis has refused to say “one word” about Archbishop Vigano’s accusations; but, he did encourage the press to investigate them.

Because of the pervasive nature of this scandal within the Church, Pope Francis has summoned bishops from around the world to Rome for an “unprecedented” meeting focused on protecting minors within the Church.  This conference will gather in the Vatican 21-24 February 2019, and will focus on protecting not just children, but also vulnerable adults, including the handicapped and seminarians.  The US Roman Catholic Church already has such strict standards, which were adopted after the 2002 Boston scandal.  These standards include mandatory reporting of sexual abuse allegations to civil authorities and a “zero tolerance” policy intended to remove abusive priests permanently from the ministry.

Finally, this scandal has exposed a deep ideological division with Catholicism, a division between traditional conservatives and more progressive liberals within the Church.  As reporter Richard Perez-Pena has observed, there is a sizable  faction of traditionalist prelates who have resisted the pope’s moves to liberalize the church to accommodate modern attitudes, which they argue is the weakening of Catholic doctrine.  These traditionalists are dissatisfied with the pace of change within the church that goes back to the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.  That Council purposely sought accommodation to the modern world.

  • Second, there is no better example of the effects of this crisis of confidence within Catholicism than the country of Ireland. Since the 1930s, the bond between the Roman Catholic Church and the government of Ireland has been extraordinarily strong. The government of Ireland rejected any discussion of legitimizing abortion.  It rejected any acceptance or accommodation to homosexuality, let alone same-sex marriage.  The Church was sometimes the energizing force of the IRA and its various factions, who sought to drive the Protestants out of Northern Ireland and end any semblance of British presence on the island of Ireland.  The Church provided the answer to every problem and the priesthood was one of the key paths to personal advancement.  But the emergence of horrific tales of “fallen” women and the neglect of their children in church-run institutions infuriated the Irish public.  The uncovering of widespread abuse and violence endured by boys in clerical schools enraged the Irish public.  Catholic bishops within Ireland covered all of this up for decades.  This crisis of confidence has had extraordinary results within Ireland:
  1. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, gay sex was illegal in Ireland. In 2015, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legitimize same-sex marriage.
  2. In 1983, a ban on abortion was deeply entrenched in the Irish constitution. In May of 2018, 66% voted to strike that article from the constitution.
  3. In 1990 four-fifths of the Irish public faithfully attended Mass. Today that number is one in three.


  • Finally, why this crisis of confidence with the Roman Catholic Church? Two thoughts:


  1. Many have cited the all-male priesthood and the practice of celibacy for priests and other church offices within the hierarchy. Certainly a legitimate case can be made questioning the premise that celibacy is foundational to spiritual leadership within the Church.  It is a difficult requirement to justify using Scripture.  All the major Reformers of the 16th century (e.g., Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Menno Simons) found no basis for celibacy in Scripture and delightfully and with joy embraced marriage.  The Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity permits church officials below the office of bishop to marry.
  2. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is deeply entrenched and resistant to change. This results in an understandable lack of transparency and of accountability.  For that reason, I believe rather strongly that the Roman Catholic Church must reform itself institutionally.  There is overwhelming evidence of corruption and the cover-up of pedophilia and sexual abuse.  Reform must be thoroughgoing and deep.  There is no other way to resolve the current crisis of confidence.   The clerical culture of the church must be reformed so that trust can be restored.  The nature of this crisis is not theological, as the 16th century Reformation was, but this crisis is just as real and just as dangerous to the future viability of the Roman Catholic Church.

See Jason Horowitz and Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times (13 September 2018); Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times (28 August 2018); and the editorial in the New York Times (14 September 2018).

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