It’s a truly tough time if you are a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and it just seems to get worse each week. A Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed systematic sexual abuse of minors and an extensive, half-century-long cover-up by clergy in that state. Former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, resigned because of what the Vatican deems credible allegations that he sexually abused a teenager many years ago. And now Pope Francis himself has been implicated in covering up McCarrick’s crimes since he was elected in 2013 and has refused to comment.
It seems impossible that this generational plague of abuse and cover-up, which has already cast its shadow on the Roman Catholic Church’s highest office, can be limited to Boston, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., or to the several hundred priests implicated so far. American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher predicts that there will be more grand juries and more reports. Who knows what such investigations would uncover in other states and other countries? Historic Catholic strongholds like Ireland have already cooled toward their ancestral faith because of similar scandals.
For a church whose teaching has been the main intellectual bulwark against the sexual revolution, this is doubly catastrophic. Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae laid out what is probably the most robust natural law case ever made against the separation of sex from procreation. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church to make such a case rested not only on her claim to directly represent Jesus Christ, but on her self-understanding as the reformer of sex-crazed societies, beginning with the Empire and city from which she takes her name. The damage these stories do to Catholicism’s credibility as an alternative to sexual liberation is incalculable, and the flock knows it.
A quick sounding of devoted Catholic friends confirms that discouragement runs deep. Many faithful members feel, as Maggie Gallagher put it in USA Today, “disgusted, ashamed, angry, betrayed and also dirty.” She remains Catholic, she writes, because she believes it is the true faith, and because she believes “Jesus left behind not a book but a church.”
This last line is worth noticing. It’s a very familiar one to Protestants who’ve done time in Internet theology purgatory, engaged in what the secular world doubtless sees as a quaint, intramural squabble: debating which side of the Reformation was right about Christianity. Of course any Christian could affirm that Jesus left behind a church, though most throughout history, including Roman Catholics, would also say that He sent His Spirit to superintend the composition of a book meant to “thoroughly equip” the man of God for every good work.
Rather, Gallagher’s reminder that Jesus bequeathed us a church “and not” a book is likely a reassurance to both fellow members, critics, and even herself that priestly scandals don’t diminish the Catholic Church’s status as an immovable rock. Things are bad, Gallagher seems to be saying, but where else will you go? Catholicism, she implies, remains a fortress against secularism–a haven of the sort Protestantism can never offer.
Pitting the Bible against the church for supremacy is a rhetorical move Catholic apologists have used for years to unsettle evangelicals. Indeed, I’ve watched many a Baptist and Presbyterian in Washington, D.C.’s well-dressed conservative circles succumb to this logic and cross the Tiber. Sola Scriptura, goes the argument, leads to doctrinal and practical chaos, because every Christian becomes a little pope, capable of reading the Bible however he or she chooses. “How do you know that what you know is really so?” ask Catholic debaters. For Protestants, the answer isn’t easy.
In Catholicism, there is supposedly certainty, there is stability, and there are definite answers, not to mention a church dating back to the time of the Apostles. It’s hard to overstate how sweet this sounds in the ears of beleaguered orthodox intellectuals, looking for a weightier shield against the fiery darts of the post-Christian culture than “the Bible tells me so.” There was the Catholic Church, established in perpetuity on the rock, Peter’s successor, and divinely protected from finally and fully falling into apostasy or unbelief. What more could they ask for?
It was a profoundly appealing image in the late 2000s, the Boston sex abuse scandal fading and a brilliant, traditionalist, scrupulously moral pope sitting in Rome. Between internships in D.C., pro-marriage talks at the Heritage Foundation, and the odd ecumenical beer fest here and there, I felt it keenly, myself. At times, the triumphalism of Catholic apologists was off-putting. The refrain that Protestants who took the life of the mind seriously were Romeward Bound was reinforced everywhere. At other times, I had to ask myself hard questions. I prayed that God would lead me to the true Church, wherever that was, even if it was headquartered in Rome.
Today, that triumphalism has lost its ring. Not only do apologists have to contend with the vilest sort of immorality and abuse of power, stretching through the hierarchy of priests, bishops, and archbishops, potentially all the way to the Supreme Pontiff. They must do so having spent the last several years assuring the world that Pope Francis isn’t really overturning official Catholic teaching on issues like divorce, homosexuality, and the death penalty. With the institution on which they have staked all their hopes now in the middle of one of the worst religious scandals in history, the refrain that Catholics, in contrast to Protestants, can repose their souls in a changeless magisterium and the safety of a divinely-protected sheepfold sounds like a clanging cymbal.
Understand that I am not making a pitch for Protestantism. We are a mess. Rather, messes, plural. In some ways, the only reason we have not committed abuses and cover-ups on quite the organizational scale of Rome is that we lack the organization. On the contrary, what I am saying to my Catholic brothers and sisters is that first, I hurt alongside you, second, I am praying for you, and third, we are in the same, or at least similar boats.
Rome may be the Queen Mary and my own denomination a rowboat, but ultimately, both are afloat on the same sea. Whatever the size of their church’s membership rolls, Roman Catholics, just like Protestants, must assess the fallible claims of an organization full of fallible men, in the light of their own fallible interpretation of Scripture and reading of history, and in spite of those men’s grievous moral and doctrinal failings, prior to ever accepting the claim that such men possess the ability to speak without error on behalf of God.
I am not even asking Catholics to reject the claim of papal infallibility. Indeed, nothing in this latest news technically contradicts that dogma, if conservatively articulated (which it isn’t always). Instead, I am asking Catholics to recognize that Rome is not an epistemic refuge that allows converts to rest their weary cerebra and never think hard thoughts again, nor is it a safe haven from moral scandal or mind-numbing doctrinal ambiguity. Because though the apologists I’ve met never made these claims in so many words, they were the ever-present undertone of those luminous “Romecoming” stories.
Where, then, can we find that longed-for certainty? In whom can we repose our faith, and know we will never be disappointed? On what foundation can Catholics and Protestants alike build new hope? There is only one Answer, the same which rocky-but-never-quite-dependable-Peter gave: Christ. All other ground (and men) besides Him are sinking sand. And though He promised the gates of Hades would never prevail against His Church, He never said that Church would always look triumphant.