The Faith of Our Fathersfrom The Economist
The archdiocese of Boston has given the police the names of over 80 priests suspected of sexual abuse. Two consecutive bishops of Palm Beach have resigned because of their taste for young boys. Two priests, from Baltimore and St Louis, have been arrested as members of a child pornography ring. All in all, some 2,000 priests stand accused of sexual abuse --- the ultimate betrayal of the trust that is embodied in the word "father".
The scandal is not just the number of offenders. It is also the church hierarchy's complicity in evil --- its preference for shielding priests from disgrace, rather than protecting children. The Boston hierarchy spent 30 years moving one known pedophile from parish to parish, allowing him to prey on 130 young victims. Other dioceses have done the same, though on a lesser scale.
What has brought this disaster on the church? Left-wing Catholics say it is celibacy --- a tradition that dissuades many normal men from joining the priesthood and puts huge pressure on those that do. Some conservatives are blaming "lavender priests", arguing that many so-called pedophile cases involve adolescents rather than young children. But the church's current agonies stem not only from sexuality, but from social change. The Catholic church was once one of the most powerful forces in American life because it was rooted in a vigorous Catholic culture; the withering of that culture is weakening the church and rendering it vulnerable to all sorts of infections.
Catholic culture in the United States was the fruit of mass immigration, and Irish immigration in particular. The Irish who flooded into America from the 1840S onwards brought with them a particularly doctrinaire, evangelical form of Catholicism. They faced challenges from softer Catholic traditions, particularly the lackadaisical Italians. But they eventually pushed other immigrant groups into subscribing to their version of the faith.
As Charles Morris points out in "American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners who Built America's Most Powerful Church" (Random House, 1997), they were extraordinarily successful. The Catholic church in America became not just one of the fastest growing churches in the West but also one of the most pious. Catholics ran big American cities (where most of them settled), dominated the trade-union movement and colonized the Democratic Party. Perhaps their greatest achievement was to create a Catholic state-within-a-state, with its own schools, hospitals and welfare services: a state that could both shield its members from the temptations of a materialistic society and provide them with security from life's hardships.
The church prospered mightily from this success, not least because the priesthood had the pick of the brightest Catholic boys. The lords of the church were some of the most powerful men in the country, property magnates and political bosses rolled into one. Yet after the first world war every cardinal was the son of a working man. Catholic priests enjoyed fellowship and security as well as plenty of social prestige. Hollywood films such as "On the Waterfront" idealized "superpadres"; Catholic publicists like Bishop Fulton Sheen bestrode prime-time television much as Jay Leno does today.
The perils of success
But there has been a serpent in this paradise: assimilation. As Catholics became richer and more successful, they abandoned the Catholic-soaked ghettos for the more secular suburbs. They also partook of the fruits of higher education (including secularism and cynicism) in large numbers. And as Catholics became more like ordinary Americans, they became more addicted to American individualism and less willing to accept the diktats of Rome, particularly on birth control and women priests.
By 1970, though the church still had plenty of priests and coffers well-filled by wealthy parishioners, it was collapsing from within. Inner-city schools were losing pupils. The nuns who ran much of the Catholic welfare state were in ever shorter supply. In particular, the growing shortage of recruits for the priesthood forced the church to lower its standards. Those who came forward were sometimes accepted without thorough examination; those who strayed were kept on at all costs. Recruits complained of the absence of the old tradition of camaraderie and benign supervision. Today two-thirds of America's parishes have only one priest. A church bureaucracy that once ran urban America cannot keep order in its own house.
There is no doubt that the current scandal will continue to explode. The church's decision to come clean will cause much pain, even as it begins to purge the institution. Public prosecutors have got the bit between their teeth. Victims (and a few opportunists) have been emboldened to come forward. The church cannot solve any of its deep-seated problems without a bruising debate about one of its fundamental traditions: that the best point of contact between man and God is a celibate male priesthood. On that point, the Vatican is at present immovable.
Yet there is one silver lining on the darkening horizon. The inner cities may have been emptied of the children of European immigrants, but they are filling up with new arrivals from Mexico and farther south --- the largest Catholic immigration in American history. Gregory Rodriguez, of the New America Foundation, points out that the churches in the southwest and west are full to bursting point. Los Angeles is the biggest Catholic diocese in the country, the New York of the new century. Walk through LA'S barrios, and you see makeshift shrines and hand painted pictures of the Virgin; visit its churches, and you see a riot of colourful banners and statues.
The new Catholicism that is being forged in such places is very different from the kind that used to dominate America: more focused on hearth and home than on building institutions. But it is a vital and expanding force. Irish immigration created American Catholicism. Latino immigration could renew it.