Still Awaiting Vatican Reform

The siege mentality that's blocking meaningful, post-abuse scandal reform.

By Nathan Pippenger

Garry Wills has a sharp evaluation of Pope Francis’s progress in addressing the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal—an effort characterized chiefly by the work yet to be done. The pope’s apologies, the Vatican’s panels of study, the promises of reform: all these steps are probably beside the point, Wills argues, since “without addressing structural issues in the Vatican, meaningful action to restore trust in the priesthood and church authority cannot get far.”

Wills identifies four such structural issues: celibacy, homophobia, patriarchy, and, finally, clericalism. The Church’s commitment to celibacy, he argues, alienates it from its members and creates an environment of naiveté and dishonesty about sex; its homophobia prevents an honest dialogue with closeted gay priests; and its patriarchy prevents officials from understanding women. None of these first three factors leads directly to the sexual abuse of children, but together they create an atmosphere of distrust, secrecy, and awkwardness, and they’re continuing to undermine the restoration of trust to priests and to the Church. And perhaps most importantly, as Wills notes, they “converge on the clerical mindset that afflicts all bureaucracies, but especially sacred ones.” He goes on to explain:

Advancement of one’s career involves deference to those above, adherence to corporate loyalties, and a determination not to hurt the institution (demonstrated by signal loyalty). Questioning “church teaching” is subversion. This leads to support of one’s own in all ways possible—as far as one can go, for instance, in denying sin among one’s colleagues.

Wills doesn’t address this exact point, but I suspect he would agree that another force contributing powerfully to the Vatican’s self-destructive clericalism was (and is) the intense fear that afflicts many in the Church, especially conservatives. I don’t mean the fear of Church officials that they’d get caught covering up the abuse scandal. Rather, I mean the siege mentality evident in certain quarters of contemporary Catholicism—a paranoid, dysfunctional attitude arising from too many years of Kulturkampf.

This fear may help explain why the Vatican reacted to the abuse scandal so destructively—not just by shuffling around abusive priests at the time, but by refusing for years to admit the scale of the problem, and resisting stronger reform steps today. A more confident, open institution might have reacted more quickly, more transparently, and more decisively, certain of its public esteem and concerned to preserve its position of trust. But by the time the scandal became a top international news story, the Vatican’s confidence in its public position was already shaken, in part because of the bitterness occasioned by its socially-conservative entrenchment over the last few decades. Decisions to dig in on patriarchy, LGBT issues, and celibacy have antagonized critics, embarrassed liberal allies, and provided an easy excuse for millions of wavering Catholics who were raised in the Church to abandon it in adulthood. If the Church (and especially its conservative wing) felt, in the wake of these battles, that the world was turning against it, one can imagine why it has proven less than inclined to embrace outsiders’ calls for change and reform.

Patriarchy, homophobia, and celibacy have combined to fuel this fearful mindset—not only by creating a dysfunctional culture within the Church, but by fueling antagonistic, hard-line stances that have led to conflict, even with potential allies, outside the Church. Institutional mindset is not the only factor that explains the Church’s behavior, but it highlights the connection between its rightward turn after (what conservatives saw as) the excesses of Vatican II and its sluggish, inadequate response to the abuse scandal now. In that mindset, change is viewed as a profound threat to the institution and its traditions—but a failure to undertake dramatic reforms (and soon) represents a greater danger than Church hardliners can possibly appreciate.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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