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The Cardinals Who Weren't Called to Rome

By Fintan O'Toole
From the Washington Post

DUBLIN -- Victims breaking their silence to talk about abuse at the hands of the priests they trusted. A system of dealing with complaints that hovers between complacency and complicity. Bishops and cardinals disappearing from view as questions rain down on them. Awkward news conferences at which church leaders set out to look humble and contrite, and end up looking arrogant and uncaring. Enraged victims protesting at church ceremonies. The faithful, disillusioned and bewildered.

All of these events are familiar to those who have followed the crisis in the American Catholic church. They are no less familiar, however, to anyone like me who lives and works in the Republic of Ireland. Here, too -- in one of the traditional heartlands of Catholicism -- the bitter story of abuse, denial, collusion and revelation has been playing itself out over recent weeks. For the beleaguered Cardinal Law of Boston, read the embattled Cardinal Connell of Dublin, whose flock, according to opinion polls, wants him to follow the path of one of his best-known Irish colleagues, Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns, who resigned April 1.

There is, however, one chapter of the American story that is starkly different from the otherwise similar tale in Ireland. Last week, during his extraordinary meeting with the leaders of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, Pope John Paul II personally acknowledged the calamity in their church. The pope, however, has not intervened publicly in the Irish situation, or for that matter in similar crises around the world. It seems clear that the Vatican views the American scandal as a much more serious affair for the universal church than the collapse of public trust in the Irish church.

Why should the troubles of American Catholicism, however deep, cause this special anxiety in Rome? To most Americans, the answer may seem obvious. The Irish church is important historically for its missionary role in spreading the faith around the world. Those days, however, are gone. Ireland is now producing barely enough priests to minister to its own 3 million Catholics. In the big picture of the universal church, it is no more than a quaint little corner with an interesting past. It is not terribly surprising that the Pope and his advisers should have more important things to worry about.

On the other hand, there are a great many Catholics in the United States. With about 60 million members, the Catholic church is America's biggest. For the pious, that is a lot of souls to be saved; for the cynical, a lot of dollars on the collection plate at Sunday Mass.

From a global perspective, however, this apparently obvious explanation doesn't quite add up. Americans make up just 6 percent of the 1 billion Catholics worldwide. They are, moreover, part of a declining minority. The future of the church lies in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where about two-thirds of the world's Catholics currently live, and where populations are rising far faster than in North America or Europe. Neither now nor in the decades to come does the health of the church depend crucially on Boston or Chicago, any more than on Dublin or Belfast.

All the more puzzling then, that the Vatican's public concern for the church in the United States should contrast so starkly with its understated response to scandals elsewhere. In both the old Catholic heartlands of Europe and the new frontiers of the developing world, the church has been damaged by the activities of sexual predators within its ranks. In none of these cases has the pope signaled his concern the way he did last week with the American hierarchy.

In 1998, for example, the Catholic bishops of Austria admitted that accusations that the former archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, was a pedophile were "in essence true." Last September, Pierre Pican, bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux in France, received a three-month suspended prison term for concealing his knowledge that a priest was sexually abusing children. Last month, Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan, in the pope's native Poland, resigned after an investigation revealed a long history of sexual advances to teenage seminarians in his diocese.

And the litany continues: Last year in Australia, a parliamentary inquiry confimed a shocking history of sexual and physical abuse at church-run orphanages -- a scandal much like ones that unfolded in Newfoundland in the mid-1990s and in Ireland in the past two years. In Mexico and Brazil, the two most populous Catholic countries in the world, the church authorities are facing up to sex abuse scandals no less serious than those in the United States. In Africa, a continent crucial to the church's future development, concerned Catholics have revealed the widespread sexual abuse of nuns by priests.

None of these cases, however, produced the kind of reaction from the Vatican that we saw last week. What is special about the U.S. scandal, in other words, is not the scale of the crimes (nor is it the media coverage, which has been agressive in almost all countries) but the seriousness of the response. The official reaction is different because, from the Vatican's point of view, the potential consequences are much worse. Quite simply, the pope and his colleagues are haunted by the fear of a split in American Catholicism and what it mightdo to the unity of the church worldwide. The Catholic church in the United States is unique in one respect: It is both a huge organization and a minority religion. In numerical terms, the United States is one of the world's top 10 Catholic countries. In each of the other nine, however, baptized Catholics make up at least 80 percent of the population. The surrounding culture, in other words, is overwhelming Catholic.

In the United States, on the other hand, Catholics make up less than a quarter of the population, surrounded by a wide variety of Protestant and other faiths. This simple demographic fact makes a big difference, both to the way American Catholics see their own church and what they might do when that church alienates them.

One of the things that is most striking for an outsider spending time in the United States, as I did for a few years living in New York, is that American Catholicism is, in some respects, remarkably Protestant. A Protestant church in America isn't just a place of worship. It is a means of belonging, a way into the community. It feels both local and democratic. And this religious culture has touched ordinary American Catholics, too. If you listen to them protesting against their cardinals in recent weeks, what you hear over and over again is the phrase "This is “my church." There is a sense of ownership that Americans take for granted but that is, to European eyes, quite remarkable.

The other Protestant dimension of American Catholicism is its culture of dissent. It is not, of course, that the divide between liberal and conservative Catholics is uniquely American. The dispute with orthodoxy in the United States, however, is unusually confident and intellectually rich. With the possible exception of Germany (where Catholics also form a minority in a largely Protestant culture), there is no other part of the church where internal dissent is so well organized and so self-assured. Here, too, the outsider can see the influence of a surrounding Protestant culture in which the right to take a different view is endorsed and upheld.

These factors give the Vatican good reason to fear that the consequences of a rebellion against the hierarchy could be much more profound in America than elsewhere. In Europe, disillusioned Catholics tend to walk away. They simply stop going to Mass. The church, of course, regrets their absence and prays for their return. The church is not, however, greatly threatened. If the result is that the hierarchy is left to govern a more orthodox, more obedient flock, the blow is cushioned by the prospect of a quieter life for the leadership.

The American sense of ownership and tradition of dissent, however, make the possible consequences of widespread disaffection much more serious. If the crisis subsides only to re-emerge every few years with renewed power, the alienation of many Catholics from their leaders could become an unbridgeable chasm.

It is hard, however, to imagine American Catholics simply walking away from a church which, as they insist, belongs to them. Galvanized by a culture of religious dissent and with the support of an impressive array of liberal Catholic intellectuals, they just might be pushed into the ultimate rebellion against Rome -- breaking away. Given America's disproportionate influence and prestige in the wider world, such a rebellion would set off an earthquake in the global church.

In the day-to-day world of secular politics, this kind of scenario may seem excessively melodramatic. The Catholic church, however, is used to imagining history on an epic scale, and no one more so than the present pope, who is animated by a sweeping vision of a re-unified Christendom, in which the Eastern and Western churches, sundered in early Medieval times, will be brought back together. John Paul has sought to impose strict orthodoxy in Catholic dogma because, as he sees it, there is no other way to hold together a global organization operating in a huge variety of cultures and contexts. To ensure that this project will survive his own death, he has appointed conservatives as the cardinals who will elect his successor.

If this long-term project of imposing a unified orthodoxy is the dream, then the possibility of a split in Catholicism in the world's wealthiest and most influential society is the nightmare. The message from the Rome summit last week was, above all, that the Vatican fears the anger of American Catholics.

Its attempts to assuage that anger, however, are severely limited by the need to keep the dream of unity alive. Side-by-side with an acknowledgment of the terrible failures, there is a reassertion of the principles of orthodoxy: no married priests, no female priests, no new understanding of the role of gays within the church.

It is oddly like the strategy of the communist leaders in central and Eastern Europe as their system began to be challenged by a disgruntled public more than a decade ago: Admit the failures of the past but insist that the old orthodoxies remain valid. As a Pole who did so much to bring down that system, John Paul should know better than most what happens to hierarchical, dogmatic systems that can't understand the anger of those they purport to serve.