Keeping the faithful

If there ever was a separation of church and state in the newsroom–a certain kid-gloves treatment of churchly foibles–the raging controversy over clergy sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese has demolished it. Investigative reporters and political columnists who usually uncover State House scandals are now probing pedophile priests, and their tone is anything but reverent. What’s unclear is whether the Catholic Church’s crisis will follow the well-worn path of political exposé–the disgrace, the resignation (if not indictment), then the return to business as usual–or turn into a crisis of conscience, leading to deep institutional reform. This may depend on whether the faithful, but sick at heart, stick around or take their leave.

Catholic leaders should have anticipated the public furor.

Though the charges are much more serious, the progression of the story–another day, another accusation–is reminiscent of the check-bouncing scandal that raced through the US House of Representatives about a decade ago. We’ve even seen an equivalent to Congressman Joseph Early’s infamous “rats” speech, in which he tore into his colleagues for sacrificing him on the altar of public opinion. The Rev. D. George Spagnolia of Lowell, removed from his parish after being accused of molesting a child more than 30 years ago, held a press conference to say he was the victim of a “witch hunt” carried out by the Boston Archdiocese in an attempt at damage control. Early was unseated in the next election, and the career prospects for Spagnolia–who clumsily tried to hide the two long-term gay relationships he had while on a leave of absence from the church–don’t look much better.

Parallels between the political and pastoral realms are already being made at the top. The day after acting Gov. Jane Swift announced that she wouldn’t run for a full term, two Boston Herald columnists demanded that Boston’s archbishop follow her out of public life (advice that has not been taken as of this writing). “As for you, Cardinal Law, take the hint,” wrote the never-subtle Howie Carr, while Margery Eagan threw in a comparison to fired Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, predicting “a trifecta: Dan, Jane, and Bernard.” In a less glib (and therefore more affecting) editorial that carried the clear imprimatur of its very Catholic publisher, Pat Purcell, the Herald itself called for Law’s resignation. The Boston Globe, perhaps sensitive to its reputation as anti-Catholic, was slower to tell Law to go. But that newspaper did get the whole thing started in early January, with a series from the Spotlight Team–better known for investigating no-show state employees, incompetent judges, and other secular evils–on the archdiocese’s cover-up of abuse cases.

Church leaders should have anticipated the public furor, given the church’s prominence–and not only in Massachusetts. Catholicism is the largest single religious denomination in the United States, and it’s been the most visible religion in popular culture for decades–from Going My Way to Nunsense. Political figures have frequently sided with the church in controversies over artistic expression even where the political gain was dubious. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole denounced the low-budget film Priest, which almost no one saw, because it depicted Catholic clergymen (one of them gay) unable to keep the vow of celibacy. A few years later, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to shut off city funding to an art museum because it displayed works that were “blasphemous” of the Virgin Mary.

It’s a little late for the church to tell the general public to butt out of its affairs. Americans of all religious backgrounds who are used to singing along with the nuns in The Sound of Music as they ask, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” are unlikely to ignore a horror like the Rev. John Geoghan.

The church is under no obligation to follow advice from non-Catholics, but critics who were raised in the Roman faith are another matter. For the church, the smart political move would be to make some kind of a gesture to keep wavering Catholics in the fold. The leading candidate for reform is the celibacy rule for priests, which some see as too peculiar to survive the current uncomfortable scrutiny. But that kind of reasoning doesn’t always carry the day: Loyalists are generally loath to jettison core beliefs in the interest of broadening their beloved institution’s appeal.

In politics, it is the same. Last month, for example, California Republicans decisively rejected gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan, ignoring his argument that the party must move toward the middle after losing almost every statewide election since 1994. (Riordan’s support for abortion rights, a position popular among the California electorate at large, was apparently a major reason for his defeat.) Similarly, any call for relaxing the celibacy requirement, which would be a hugely popular move in less-devout society, might be career suicide for anyone employed by the Catholic Church.

Some say that change will come from America’s pews rather than the pulpit. In a March 24 Boston Globe column, Eileen McNamara suggested that a grass-roots campaign will eventually bring about a reassessment of priestly celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. “Whether the hierarchy likes it or not,” she wrote, “those issues are being discussed, in parish halls and in online chat rooms, where the fate of the church is being debated excitedly by the faithful. The pope and his cardinals can cling to the past, but they ignore the voices of the future at their own peril.”

Most of the dissidents have already voted with their feet.

But this handicapping of the intra-church struggle overlooks the fact that the 61 million US Catholics represent only about 6 percent of the church’s world-wide membership of more than one billion. Writing in The New York Times on the same day, Maureen Dowd was dubious that coffee klatches in suburban Boston can bring about any change in Rome, pointing out that “The Vatican regards US Catholics as lazy and spoiled consumer brats…., selecting dishes from the Vatican prix fixe menu and circumnavigating bans on premarital sex, birth control and divorce.” As if to prove Dowd’s point, Catholic League president William Donohue mocked the anti-celibacy reformists a few days later. “They’ll try to seize the moment,” he told the Associated Press. “But when the next pope comes in, and they find he’s not going to make the church into the template for their demands, they’ll cut and run.”

Indeed, whether the reformists cut and run may be the key to the church’s future–as a religion, and as a public force. Far from being seen as a disaster, a mass exodus might please a lot of traditional Catholics. After all, if they break their ties with the church–a church that says it’s a sin to divorce an abusive spouse–the reformists will only prove that they were never real Catholics to begin with. Under this scenario, both the breakaway Catholics and the traditionalists will be acting out of principle. But it is the die-hards who will still be holding the keys to the rectory, even if it means turning Roman Catholicism into a cult religion within the United States.

After all, most of the church’s dissidents have already voted with their feet. Are the lapsed flocking back to the parish halls, preparing to storm the Vatican’s Bastille (but standing poised to quit all over again if reform is squashed)? Or are they waiting on the sidelines, hoping for a renewal they might partake in, but essentially out of the game?

There’s nothing more American than a declaration of independence, and that may be what observers–within, near, and outside of the church–are really waiting for. Will someone of Catholic stature summon up the anger and revulsion to walk away? As of early April, there are still demands for Cardinal Law to resign. But that act, however dramatic, would be anti-climactic; the church would simply replace him with an archbishop who is just as loyal to Rome and its don’t-rock-the-boat mores. Bigger news would be an archbishop who quits the church entirely. That might be a stretch. But a lay celebrity could fill the role– someone like former president Jimmy Carter, who publicly left the Southern Baptist Church in 2000 because of what he called “increasingly rigid” policies concerning women’s roles in modern society.

Ultimately, the press may settle on the resignation angle- those who leave the church and those who just give up trying to fight the Vatican- as a way to wind down an increasingly unmanageable story. If so, stubborn tradition may prevail for decades more. After all, Catholic popes were around for 400 years before Gutenberg invented movable type. But anger and distrust can also be passed down from generation from generation. Even after the current scandals fade from public consciousness, the waiting game will have just begun.