The Sins of Celibacy

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Alexan­der Stille

On Au­gust 25 Arch­bishop Carlo Maria Vi­ganò pub­lished an eleven-page let­ter in which he ac­cused Pope Fran­cis of ig­nor­ing and cov­er­ing up ev­i­dence of sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church and called for his res­ig­na­tion. It was a dec­la­ra­tion of civil war by the church’s con­ser­va­tive wing. Vi­ganò is a for­mer apos­tolic nun­cio to the US, a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the Ro­man Curia— the cen­tral gov­ern­ing body of the Holy See—and one of the most skilled prac­ti­tion­ers of brass-knuckle Vat­i­can power pol­i­tics. He was the cen­tral fig­ure in the 2012 scan­dal that in­volved doc­u­ments leaked by Pope Bene­dict XVI’s per­sonal but­ler, in­clud­ing let­ters Vi­ganò wrote about cor­rup­tion in Vat­i­can fi­nances, and that con­trib­uted to Bene­dict’s star­tling de­ci­sion to ab­di­cate the fol­low­ing year. An­gry at not hav­ing been made a car­di­nal and alarmed by Fran­cis’s sup­pos­edly lib­eral ten­den­cies, Vi­ganò seems de­ter­mined to take out the pope.

As a re­sult of Vi­ganò’s lat­est ac­cu­sa­tions and the re­lease eleven days ear­lier of a Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury re­port that out­lines in ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­tail decades of sex­ual abuse of chil­dren by priests, as well as fur­ther rev­e­la­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct by Car­di­nal Theodore McCar­rick, the for­mer arch­bishop of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Fran­cis’s pa­pacy is now in a deep, pos­si­bly fa­tal cri­sis. Af­ter two weeks of si­lence, Fran­cis an­nounced in mid-Septem­ber that he would con­vene a large-scale gath­er­ing of the church’s bish­ops in Feb­ru­ary to dis­cuss the pro­tec­tion of mi­nors against sex­ual abuse by priests.

The case of Car­di­nal McCar­rick, which fig­ures heav­ily in Vi­ganò’s let­ter, is em­blem­atic of the church’s fail­ure to act on the prob­lem of sex­ual abuse—and of the ten­den­tious­ness of the let­ter it­self. In the 1980s sto­ries be­gan to cir­cu­late that McCar­rick had in­vited young sem­i­nar­i­ans to his beach house and asked them to share his bed. De­spite ex­plicit al­le­ga­tions that were re­layed to Rome, in 2000 Pope John Paul II ap­pointed him arch­bishop of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and made him a car­di­nal. Vi­ganò spec­u­lates that the pope was too ill to know about the al­le­ga­tions, but does not men­tion that the ap­point­ment came five years be­fore John Paul’s death. He also praises Bene­dict XVI for fi­nally tak­ing ac­tion against McCar­rick by sen­tenc­ing him to a life of re­tire­ment and penance, and then ac­cuses Fran­cis of re­vok­ing the pun­ish­ment and re­ly­ing on McCar­rick for ad­vice on im­por­tant church ap­point­ments. If Bene­dict did in fact pun­ish McCar­rick, it was a very well kept se­cret, be­cause he con­tin­ued to ap­pear at ma­jor church events and cel­e­brate mass; he was even pho­tographed with Vi­ganò at a church cel­e­bra­tion. Vi­ganò’s par­tial ac­count of the way the church han­dled the al­le­ga­tions about McCar­rick is meant to ab­solve Pope Fran­cis’s pre­de­ces­sors, whose con­ser­va­tive ide­ol­ogy he shares. Vi­ganò lays the prin­ci­pal blame for fail­ing to pun­ish McCar­rick on Fran­cis, who does ap­pear to have mis­han­dled the sit­u­a­tion—one he largely in­her­ited. He may have de­cided to ig­nore the al­le­ga­tions be­cause, while de­plorable, they dated back thirty years and in­volved sem­i­nar­i­ans, who were adults, not mi­nors. Last June, how­ever, a church com­mis­sion found cred­i­ble ev­i­dence that McCar­rick had be­haved in­ap­pro­pri­ately with a six­teen-year-old al­tar boy in the early 1970s, and re­moved him from pub­lic min­istry; a month later Fran­cis or­dered him to ob­serve “a life of prayer and penance in seclu­sion,” and he re­signed from the Col­lege of Cardinals. On Oc­to­ber 7, Car­di­nal Marc Ouel­let, pre­fect of the Con­gre­ga­tion for Bish­ops at the Vat­i­can, is­sued a pub­lic let­ter of­fer­ing a vig­or­ous de­fense of Fran­cis and a direct pub­lic re­buke of his ac­cuser:

Fran­cis had noth­ing to do with McCar­rick’s pro­mo­tions to New York, Me­tuchen, Ne­wark and Wash­ing­ton. He stripped him of his Car­di­nal’s dig­nity as soon as there was a cred­i­ble ac­cu­sa­tion of abuse of a mi­nor . . . .

Dear Vi­ganò, in re­sponse to your un­just and un­jus­ti­fied at­tack, I can only con­clude that the ac­cu­sa­tion is a po­lit­i­cal plot that lacks any real ba­sis that could in­crim­i­nate the Pope and that pro­foundly harms the com­mu­nion of the Church.

The great­est re­spon­si­bil­ity for the prob­lem of sex­ual abuse in the church clearly lies with Pope John Paul II, who turned a blind eye to it for more than twenty years. From the mid-1980s to 2004, the church spent $2.6 bil­lion set­tling law­suits in the US, mostly pay­ing vic­tims to re­main silent. Cases in Ire­land, Aus­tralia, Eng­land, Canada, and Mex­ico fol­lowed the same de­press­ing pat­tern: vic­tims were ig­nored or bul­lied, even as of­fend­ing priests were qui­etly trans­ferred to new parishes, where they of­ten abused again. “John Paul knew the score: he pro­tected the guilty priests and he pro­tected the bish­ops who cov­ered for them, he pro­tected the in­sti­tu­tion from scan­dal,” I was told in a tele­phone in­ter­view by Fa­ther Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who was tasked by the pa­pal nun­cio to the US with in­ves­ti­gat­ing abuse by priests while work­ing at the Vat­i­can em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton in the mid-1980s, when the first law­suits be­gan to be filed. Bene­dict was some­what more en­er­getic in deal­ing with the prob­lem, but his pa­pacy be­gan af­ter a cascade of re­port­ing had ap­peared on pri­estly abuse, be­gin­ning with an in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished by the Bos­ton Globe in 2002 (the ba­sis for Spot­light, the Os­car-win­ning film of 2015). The church was faced with mass de­fec­tions and the col­lapse of do­na­tions from an­gry parish­ioners, which forced Bene­dict to con­front the is­sue di­rectly.

Fran­cis’s elec­tion in­spired great hopes for re­form. But those who ex­pected him to make a clean break with this his­tory of equiv­o­ca­tion and half-mea­sures have been dis­ap­pointed. He hes­i­tated, for ex­am­ple, to meet with vic­tims of sex­ual abuse dur­ing his visit to Chile in Jan­uary 2018 and then in­sulted them by in­sist­ing that their claims that the lo­cal bishop had cov­ered up the crimes of a no­to­ri­ous abuser were “calumny.” In early Oc­to­ber, he ex­pelled from the priest­hood two re­tired Chilean bish­ops who had been ac­cused of abuse. But when he ac­cepted the res­ig­na­tion of Car­di­nal Don­ald Wuerl—who ac­cord­ing to the Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury re­port re­peat­edly mis­han­dled ac­cu­sa­tions of abuse when he was bishop of Pitts­burgh—he praised Wuerl for his “no­bil­ity.” Fran­cis seems to take one step for­ward and then one step back­ward.

Vi­ganò is cor­rect in writ­ing that one of Fran­cis’s clos­est ad­vis­ers, Car­di­nal Os­car Ro­driguez Mara­di­aga, dis­re­garded a grave case of abuse oc­cur­ring right un­der his nose in Hon­duras. One of Mara­di­aga’s as­so­ci­ates, Aux­il­iary Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle of Tegu­ci­galpa, was ac­cused of abus­ing stu­dents at the sem­i­nary he helped to run. Last June, forty-eight of the 180 sem­i­nar­i­ans signed a let­ter de­nounc­ing the sit­u­a­tion there. “We are liv­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a time of ten­sion in our house be­cause of gravely im­moral sit­u­a­tions, above all of an ac­tive ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in­side the sem­i­nary that has been a taboo all this time,” the sem­i­nar­i­ans wrote. Mara­di­aga ini­tially de­nounced the writ­ers as “gos­sipers,” but Pineda was forced to re­sign a month later.

“I feel badly for Fran­cis be­cause he doesn’t know whom to trust,” Fa­ther Doyle said. Al­most ev­ery­one in a se­nior po­si­tion in the Catholic Church bears some guilt for cov­er­ing up abuse, look­ing the other way, or re­sist­ing trans­parency. The John Jay Re­port (2004) on sex­ual abuse of mi­nors by priests, com­mis­sioned by the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops, in­di­cated that the num­ber of cases in­creased dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, was high­est in the 1970s, peak­ing in 1980, and has grad­u­ally di­min­ished since then. Fran­cis may have hoped that the prob­lem would go away and feared that a true house­clean­ing would leave him with no al­lies in the Curia.

Much of the press cov­er­age of the scan­dal has been of the Water­gate va­ri­ety: what the pope knows, when he found out, and so forth. This ig­nores a much big­ger is­sue that no one in the church wants to talk about: the sex­u­al­ity of priests and the fail­ure of pri­estly celibacy.

Vi­ganò blames the mo­ral cri­sis of the pa­pacy on the grow­ing “ho­mo­sex­ual cur­rent” within the church. There is in­deed a sub­stan­tial mi­nor­ity of gay priests. The Rev­erend Don­ald B. Cozzens, a Catholic priest and long­time rec­tor of a sem­i­nary in Ohio, wrote in his book The Chang­ing Face of the Priest­hood (2000) that “the priest­hood is, or is be­com­ing, a gay pro­fes­sion.” There have been no large sur­veys, us­ing sci­en­tific meth­ods of ran­dom sam­pling, of the sex­ual life of Catholic priests. Many peo­ple—a priest in South Africa, a jour­nal­ist in Spain, and oth­ers—have done par­tial stud­ies that would not pass sci­en­tific muster. The late Dr. Richard

Sipe, a for­mer priest turned psy­chol­o­gist, in­ter­viewed 1,500 priests for an ethno­graphic study.

There is some self-se­lec­tion by priests who agree to an­swer ques­tions or fill out ques­tion­naires or seek treat­ment, which is why the es­ti­mates on, say, gay priests vary so widely. But the stud­ies are con­sis­tent in show­ing high per­cent­ages of sex­u­ally ac­tive priests and of gay priests. As Thomas Doyle wrote in 2004, “Knowl­edge­able ob­servers, in­clud­ing au­thor­i­ties within the Church, es­ti­mate that 40–50 per­cent of all Catholic priests have a ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, and that half of these are sex­u­ally ac­tive.” Sipe came to the con­clu­sion that “50 per­cent of Amer­i­can clergy were sex­u­ally ac­tive . . . and be­tween 20 and 30 per­cent have a ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and yet main­tained their celibacy in an equal pro­por­tion with het­ero­sex­u­ally ori­ented clergy.”

In his let­ter Vi­ganò re­peats the find­ing in the John Jay Re­port that 81 per­cent of the sex­ual abuse cases in­volve men abus­ing boys. But he ig­nores its find­ing that those who ac­tu­ally iden­tify as ho­mo­sex­ual are un­likely to en­gage in abuse and are more likely to seek out adult part­ners. Priests who abuse boys are of­ten con­fused about their sex­u­al­ity; they fre­quently have a neg­a­tive view of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, yet are trou­bled by their own ho­mo­erotic urges.

Vi­ganò ap­prov­ingly cites Sipe’s work four times. But he ig­nores Sipe’s larger ar­gu­ment, made on his web­site in 2005, that “the prac­tice of celibacy is the ba­sic prob­lem for bish­ops and priests.” Sipe also wrote, “The Vat­i­can fo­cus on ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is a smoke screen to cover the per­va­sive and greater dan­ger of ex­pos­ing the sex­ual be­hav­ior of cler­ics gen­er­ally. Gay priests and bish­ops prac­tice celibacy (or fail at it) in the same pro­por­tions as straight priests and bish­ops do.” He de­nounced McCar­rick’s mis­con­duct on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions.

While the num­ber of priests abus­ing chil­dren—boys or girls un­der the age of six­teen—is com­par­a­tively small, many priests have se­cret sex lives (both ho­mo­sex­ual and het­ero­sex­ual), which does not leave them in the strong­est po­si­tion to dis­ci­pline those who abuse younger vic­tims. Arch­bishop Rem­bert Weak­land, for ex­am­ple, the beloved lib­eral arch­bishop of Mil­wau­kee from 1977 to 2002, be­lit­tled vic­tims who com­plained of sex­ual abuse by priests and then qui­etly trans­ferred preda­tory priests to other parishes, where they con­tin­ued their abu­sive be­hav­ior. It was re­vealed in 2002 that the Mil­wau­kee arch­dio­cese had paid $450,000 in hush money to an adult man with whom Weak­land had had a long­time se­cret sex­ual re­la­tion­ship, which might have made him more re­luc­tant to act against priests who abused chil­dren. But this could be true of het­ero­sex­ual as well as ho­mo­sex­ual priests who are sex­u­ally ac­tive.

V iganò be­lieves that the church’s mo­ral cri­sis de­rives uniquely from its aban­don­ment of clear, un­equiv­o­cal, strict teach­ing on mo­ral mat­ters, and from overly per­mis­sive at­ti­tudes to­ward ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in par­tic­u­lar. He does not want to con­sider the ways in which its tra­di­tional teach­ing on sex­u­al­ity—em­pha­sized in­ces­santly by re­cent popes—has con­trib­uted to the present cri­sis. The mod­ern church has boxed it­self into a ter­ri­ble predica­ment. Un­til about half a cen­tury ago, it was able to main­tain an at­ti­tude of wise hypocrisy, ac­cept­ing that priests were of­ten sex­u­ally ac­tive but pre­tend­ing that they weren’t. The randy priests and monks (and nuns) in Chaucer and Boc­cac­cio were not sim­ply lit­er­ary tropes; they re­flected a sim­ple re­al­ity: priests of­ten found it im­pos­si­ble to live the celi­bate life. Many priests had a fe­male “house­keeper” who re­lieved their lone­li­ness and dou­bled as life com­pan­ions. Priests fre­quently had af­fairs with their fe­male parish­ioners and fa­thered il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren. The power and pres­tige of the church helped to keep this sort of thing a mat­ter of lo­cal gos­sip rather than in­ter­na­tional scan­dal. When Pope John XXIII con­vened the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil in 1962, bish­ops from many parts of the world hoped that the church would fi­nally change its doc­trine and al­low priests to marry. But John XXIII died be­fore the coun­cil fin­ished its work, which was then over­seen by his suc­ces­sor, Paul VI (one of the popes most strongly ru­mored to have been gay). Paul ap­par­ently felt that the sweep­ing re­forms of Vat­i­can II risked go­ing too far, so he re­jected the pleas for pri­estly mar­riage and is­sued his fa­mous en­cycli­cal Hu­manae Vi­tae, which banned con­tra­cep­tion, over­rid­ing a com­mis­sion he had con­vened that con­cluded that fam­ily plan­ning and con­tra­cep­tion were not in­con­sis­tent with Catholic doc­trine.

Op­pos­ing pri­estly mar­riage and con­tra­cep­tion placed the church on the con­ser­va­tive side of the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion and made ad­her­ence to strict sex­ual norms a lit­mus test for be­ing a good Catholic, at a time when cus­toms were mov­ing rapidly in the other di­rec­tion. Only sex be­tween a man and a woman meant for pro­cre­ation and within the in­sti­tu­tion of holy mat­ri­mony was al­lowed. That a man and a woman might have sex merely for plea­sure was seen as selfish and sin­ful. Some 125,000 priests, ac­cord­ing to Richard Sipe, left the priest­hood af­ter Paul VI closed the door on the pos­si­bil­ity of pri­estly mar­riage. Many, like Sipe, were straight men who left to marry. Pri­estly vo­ca­tions plum­meted.

Con­versely, the pro­por­tion of gay priests in­creased, since it was far eas­ier to hide one’s sex life in an all-male com­mu­nity with a strong cul­ture of se­crecy and aver­sion to scan­dal. Many de­vout young Catholic men also en­tered the priest­hood in or­der to try to es­cape their un­con­fess­able urges, hop­ing that a vow of celibacy would help them sup­press their ho­mo­sex­ual lean­ings. But they of­ten found them­selves in sem­i­nar­ies full of sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. Fa­ther Doyle es­ti­mates that ap­prox­i­mately 10 per­cent of Catholic sem­i­nar­i­ans were abused (that is, drawn into non­con­sen­sual sex­ual re­la­tion­ships) by priests, ad­min­is­tra­tors, or other sem­i­nar­i­ans. This prob­lem is noth­ing new. Ho­moso­cial en­vi­ron­ments—pris­ons, sin­gle­sex schools, armies and navies, con­vents and monas­ter­ies—have al­ways been places of ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. “Man is a lov­ing an­i­mal,” in Sipe’s words. The Bene­dictines, one of the first monas­tic or­ders, cre­ated elab­o­rate rules to min­i­mize ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, in­sist­ing that monks shar­ing a room sleep fully clothed and with the lights on. The mod­ern Catholic Church has failed to grasp what its founders un­der­stood quite well. “It is bet­ter to marry than to burn with pas­sion,” Saint Paul wrote when his fol­low­ers asked him whether “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” “To the un­mar­ried and the wid­ows I say that it is well for them to re­main un­mar­ried as I am. But if they are not prac­tic­ing self-con­trol, they should marry.” Pri­estly celibacy was not firmly es­tab­lished un­til the twelfth cen­tury, af­ter which many priests had se­cret wives or lived in what the church termed “con­cu­bi­nage.”

The ob­ses­sion with en­forc­ing un­en­force­able stan­dards of sex­ual con­ti­nence that run con­trary to hu­man na­ture (ac­cord­ing to one study, 95 per­cent of priests re­port that they mas­tur­bate) has led to an ex­tremely un­healthy at­mos­phere within the mod­ern church that con­trib­uted greatly to the sex­ual abuse cri­sis. A 1971 Loy­ola Study, which was also com­mis­sioned by the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops, con­cluded that a large ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can priests were psy­cho­log­i­cally im­ma­ture, un­der­de­vel­oped, or malde­vel­oped. It also found that a solid ma­jor­ity of priests—in­clud­ing those or­dained in the 1940s, well be­fore the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion—de­scribed them­selves as very or some­what sex­u­ally ac­tive. Sipe, dur­ing his decades of work treat­ing priests as a psy­chother­a­pist, also con­cluded that the lack of ed­u­ca­tion about sex­u­al­ity and the na­ture of celi­bate life tended to make priests im­ma­ture, of­ten more com­fort­able around teenagers than around other adults. All this, along with a ho­moso­cial en­vi­ron­ment and the church’s cul­ture of se­crecy, has made sem­i­nar­ies a breed­ing ground for sex­ual abuse.

There are pos­si­ble ways out of this dilemma for Fran­cis. He could al­low priests to marry, de­clare ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to be not sin­ful, or even move to re­form the pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of the church—and to ad­dress the col­lapse in the num­ber of nuns, which has de­creased by 30 per­cent since the 1960s even though the num­ber of the world’s Catholics has nearly dou­bled in that time—by al­low­ing the or­di­na­tion of women. But any of those ac­tions would spark a re­volt by con­ser­va­tives in the church who al­ready re­gard Fran­cis with deep sus­pi­cion, if not down­right aver­sion. John Paul II did his best to tie the hands of his suc­ces­sors by declar­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion of fe­male priests to be an “in­fal­li­ble” pa­pal doc­trine, and Fran­cis has ac­knowl­edged that de­bate on the is­sue was “closed.” Even Fran­cis’s rather gen­tle ef­forts to raise the pos­si­bil­ity of al­low­ing di­vorced Catholics who have re­mar­ried to re­ceive the host at Mass was met with such strong crit­i­cism that he dropped the sub­ject.

The so­ci­ol­ogy of re­li­gion of­fers some valu­able in­sights into the church’s prob­lems. One of the land­mark texts in this field is the 1994 es­say “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” by the econ­o­mist Lau­rence Ian­nac­cone, who used ra­tio­nal choice the­ory to show that peo­ple tend to value re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions that make se­vere de­mands on them. The Mor­mon Church, for ex­am­ple, re­quires be­liev­ers to give it a tenth of their in­come and a sub­stan­tial amount of their time, ab­stain from the use of to­bacco and al­co­hol, and prac­tice other aus­ter­i­ties. These

costly de­mands cre­ate a pow­er­ful sense of sol­i­dar­ity. The com­mit­ment of time and money means that the church can un­der­take am­bi­tious pro­jects and take care of those in need, while the dis­tinc­tive way of life serves to bind mem­bers to one an­other and set them apart from the rest of the world. The price of en­try to a strict church is high, but the bar­rier to exit is even higher: os­tracism and the loss of com­mu­nity.

Since the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the spread of lib­eral democ­racy in the nine­teenth cen­tury, the Catholic Church has been torn be­tween the urge to adapt to a chang­ing world and the im­pulse to re­sist it at all cost. Pope Pius IX, at whose urg­ing the First Vat­i­can Coun­cil in 1870 adopted the doc­trine of pa­pal in­fal­li­bil­ity, pub­lished in 1864 his “Syl­labus of Er­rors,” which roundly con­demned moder­nity, free­dom of the press, and the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. Sig­nif­i­cantly, its fi­nal sen­tence de­nounced the mis­taken be­lief that “the Ro­man Pon­tiff can, and ought to, rec­on­cile him­self, and come to terms with progress, lib­er­al­ism and mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion.” Since then the church has been in the dif­fi­cult po­si­tion of main­tain­ing this in­tran­si­gent po­si­tion—that it stands for a set of un­chang­ing, eter­nal be­liefs—while still in some ways adapt­ing to the times.

John XXIII, who be­came pope in 1958, saw a pro­found need for what he called ag­gior­na­mento—up­dat­ing— pre­cisely the kind of rec­on­cil­ing of the church to a chang­ing world that Pius IX con­sid­ered anath­ema. John XXIII was one of the high-rank­ing church lead­ers who re­garded the Nazi geno­cide of the Jews as a mo­ral cross­roads in his­tory. An im­por­tant part of his re­forms at Vat­i­can II was to re­move all ref­er­ences to the Jews as a “de­i­cide” peo­ple and to adopt an ecumenical spirit that deems other faiths wor­thy of re­spect. Af­ter Vat­i­can II, the church made op­tional much of the tra­di­tional win­dow­dress­ing of Catholi­cism—the Latin Mass, the elab­o­rate habits of nuns, the tra­di­tional pro­hi­bi­tion against meat on Fri­day—but John died be­fore the coun­cil took up more con­tro­ver­sial is­sues of doc­trine. With Vat­i­can II, Ian­nac­cone ar­gued,

the Catholic church may have man­aged to ar­rive at a re­mark­able, “worst of both worlds” po­si­tion— dis­card­ing cher­ished dis­tinc­tive­ness in the ar­eas of liturgy, the­ol­ogy, and life­style, while at the same time main­tain­ing the very de­mands that its mem­bers and clergy are least will­ing to ac­cept.

Church con­ser­va­tives are not wrong to worry that elim­i­nat­ing dis­tinc­tive Catholic teach­ings may weaken the church’s ap­peal and au­thor­ity. Mod­er­ate main­stream Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tions have been steadily los­ing ad­her­ents for decades. At the same time, some forms of strict­ness can be too costly. The pro­hi­bi­tions against pri­estly mar­riage and the or­di­na­tion of women are clearly fac­tors in the de­cline of pri­estly vo­ca­tions, and the even more dra­matic de­cline in the num­ber of nuns.

Both rad­i­cal change and the fail­ure to change are fraught with dan­ger, mak­ing Fran­cis’s path an al­most im­pos­si­ble one. He is un­der great pressure from vic­tims who are de­mand­ing that the church con­duct an ex­haus­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mon­signors, bish­ops, and cardinals who knew of abus­ing priests but did noth­ing—some­thing he is likely to re­sist. Such an ac­count­ing might force many of the church’s lead­ers into re­tire­ment and par­a­lyze it for years to come—but his fail­ure to act could par­a­lyze it as well. As for the larger chal­lenges fac­ing the church, Fran­cis’s best op­tion might be to make changes within the nar­row lim­its con­strain­ing him, such as ex­pand­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the laity in church de­lib­er­a­tions and al­low­ing women to be­come dea­cons. But that may be too lit­tle, too late.

—Oc­to­ber 25, 2018

Pope Fran­cis

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