The cultural world changes
Along with the social acceptance of the privatisation of religious belief,the period also saw the 1960s youth rebellion and the changes of Vatican II. As Lawler points out, it was not the actual decisions of Vatican II, but associated notions of change, that generated turmoil within the Church. Lawler identifies specific issues with the role of priests:
The post-conciliar period saw a cataclysmic breakdown in traditional Catholic beliefs, practices and disciplines. With the lines of ecclesiastical authority badly blurred and often completely ignored, individual pastors had greater freedom than ever before. Yet with fewer Catholics retaining fundamental beliefs about the unique sacramental role of the priesthood, the legitimate authority of the clergy was waning. The net result was that priests had more scope for the arbitrary exercise of their influence, but less respect for their ministerial role; they had more power but less responsibility. It was a recipe for disaster (p.67).Not that Lawler supports the “blame it on Vatican II” mentality:
If the leaders of any institution gather to plan for the future, and their plans bring the institution to ruins, there must have been some problem before the meeting: some flaw in the leaders’ thinking or the way those leaders were chosen. A healthy institution does not self-destruct (p.67).The story Lawler tells is of liberal Catholics failing to get the Council decisions they wanted, but inserting enough ambiguous wording in Council decisions that, through their domination of European theological faculties, Catholic journals and connections in the popular media, they could declare what the “spirit” of Vatican II was and argue and agitate for it, ignoring a hierarchy which was too diffident to push its authority (Pp68 ff). But it was the liturgical changes that seemed to have been the bigger disaster. Religion in many ways lives as practices and rituals. The rash of liturgical changes and innovations were disorienting for the laity: attendance at mass collapsed (Pp72ff). This was, however, not only true for Catholics: there was a widespread drop in Church attendance throughout the Western world, so clearly something else was also going on.
Lawler again focuses on the effect on priests:
After Vatican II, in parishes troubled by dwindling attendance and flickering faith, priests had more power but less authority. The could design their own liturgies and preach their own theological theories, but why were they doing it? If they did not represent the authority of a universal faith, what was the purpose of their work? Thousands of Catholic priests felt that they had been cast adrift. Many abandoned clerical life; many of those who remained were thoroughly demoralized. These unhappy priests had enormous freedom of action, but very little sense of purpose. They were dangerous men (p.75-6).Moving back to wider social changes and loss of Church authority, Lawler takes us through the history of the contraceptive pill (developed by a practising Catholic), Humanae Vitae, the spread of dissent and the refusal of either the local hierarchy or the Vatican to enforce obedience (Pp77ff).
Lawler continues in the same vein, deploring the loss of commitment to traditional Catholic belief by both hierarchy and laity, the decline of the political power of conservative Catholicism. He argues the conservative Catholic case forthrightly. Liberal domination of faculties, seminaries and much of the mainstream media is much criticised.
The Catholic hierarchy also comes in for much criticism. This gets fairly (and understandably) savage when Lawler considers the hierarchy’s performance in dealing with sex abuse amongst priests.
Some parts of the book are very powerful. His description of the betrayal of the communities of South Boston by their Cardinal-Archbishop over the busing controversies is clearly heartfelt. It was arrogant public policy at its worse that, as Lawler delineates, had a very negative effect on what had been vibrant communities (Pp97ff).
A parochial universality
What is lacking is a sense of wider context. While there is some early reference to problems with sex abuse in other countries, this drops out of the analysis. Which is a basic problem, because Lawler’s analysis of these problems clearly does not work if it does not also explain similar patterns in other countries. For a loyal member of the “Universal” church, there is a fair bit of American parochialism in Lawler’s perspective.
Lawler may well be right that traditional Catholic teaching lacked support in Catholic schools, seminaries, faculties. But it still raises the question of why liberal ideas were so resonant in particular milieus and why traditional Catholic teachings lost ground so rapidly and completely. Similarly, the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s is treated as something that “just happens”. For Lawler, it is ultimately about a failure to adhere to clear truth – traditional Catholic teaching.
Not noticing women
The areas where the Catholic teaching lost ground have overwhelmingly been sex and gender issues: pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, ordination of women (Lawler cites a survey which found two-thirds of practising Catholics favoured ordination of women [p.129]), gay rights. What had changed that the decisions of generations of celibate men on such matters suddenly no longer resonated? The obvious thing is the situation of women had greatly improved. They had far more economic and political power. Technology was increasingly giving them unilateral control of their fertility. But to look at things in this way undermines the notion that Catholic teaching in such matters represents eternal verities rather than a particular set of social strategies whose underlying drivers had collapsed.
Where Lawler can use traditional Catholic teaching as a benchmark to judge bad behaviour, his analysis is very powerful. He is very perceptive on the way the failures of the hierarchy in dealing with the sex abuse scandals did the real damage. As he points out, only a small minority of priests abused minors, a majority of the bishops covered up for them (p.9). He also sets out clearly how great the failure of the hierarchy has been in dealing with its own failings.
Blaming the queers
If Lawler’s apparent obliviousness about the shift in circumstances for and of women is the shouting silence of the book, his treatment of homosexual and homosexuality is the most blatant failure.
Lawler identifies three scandals. The extent of abuse of minors by priests, the episcopal cover up of the same and, the third “scandal”, the extent to that the priesthood is homosexual (Pp7-8). Yet Lawler fails to sustain any evidence that some sort of “lavender mafia” systematically covered up after errant priests, even though he makes that claim (p.8). As he had already demonstrated before he gets to the hints and allegations section (Pp163ff), it was an entire approach to priestly and episcopal authority that was at fault. Even worse, Lawler himself notes that the priesthood has become more homosexual (p.xiv), yet child abuse cases have dropped (p.xiii) and only a small percentage of priests were involved in abuse of minors (p.7).
Lawler argues that homosexual priests were much more likely to have sex with minors, depending on what percentage of the priesthood is same-sex oriented. But he also makes the point that the problem was overwhelmingly a particular cohort of priests (Pp137ff). This he explains in terms of Vatican II laxness, yet the increase begins slightly before the Council and, as he notes, plateaus and drops off well before any serious Church attempt to address the issue. (Apart from some improvement in the psycho-emotional training of priests: something Lawler entirely fails to mention.) So, something else is clearly going on.
Here, Lawler’s Catholic prejudices betray him. The priesthood has always been disproportionately same-sex oriented. St Peter Damien complained about a “sodomite” “Church within the Church” in the eleventh century. Ladurie found evidence of same-sex active networks that were urban and clerical in the fourteenth century. One thinks of Julius III and the Innozeno scandal. Irish writer Colm Toibin has written perceptively on the longstanding practice of steering same-sex attracted sons into the Church. Given Catholic doctrine, what else would one expect?
The Church is committed to fighting an unending war, generation after generation, against human sexual diversity. Yet, the reality is humans are sexually diverse. Catholic doctrine requires either celibacy or “pretend heterosexuality”, sexual posing by the same-sex oriented. If same-sex oriented boys go into the priesthood, they avoid the pressure to get married and can gain social status from the celibacy the Church demands of them anyway.
What went wrong? The liberalising of social opportunities for the same-sex attracted (and, to some extent, the loss of priestly status and clarity of role Lawler does deal with) made the “bargain” of celibacy-for-status more and more costly. Poor training of priests and an Episcopate much more concerned with maintaining priestly authority and institutional status than anything else intersected with these changed circumstances to lead to an epidemic of abuse. Once willingness to report abusive priests increased sufficiently, training of priests improved and liberalising of social circumstances reached a stage where priests were far more people with genuine vocations, not folk “making the best of bad options”, abuse dropped dramatically. That the priesthood quite possibly was becoming more homosexual (given the dramatic drop in vocations overall) was irrelevant. It was not an enduring reality – a disproportionately same-sex attracted priesthood – but a set of circumstances around that which created the abuse scandals.
But to think like this you have to see the same-sex attracted as people, not as pathetic perverts who should have the decency not to bother the rest of humanity with outrageous demands to be treated as full humans.
The celibacy of the Episcopate was, almost certainly, much more important than its balance of sexual orientation (whatever that might be). None of them were parents (at least, not officially), so none of them had the visceral “that might be MY child” effect that was such a powerful factor in the wider society when the scandals of priestly abuse and Episcopal mendacity broke.
Something else that was clearly in operation was the advent of the “therapeutic culture”. As Lawler points out, the traditional way to treat with abusive priests was to confine them to a monastery or dismiss them. Or, even earlier, deliberate abandonment to the “sword of secular justice” (Pp 137-8). The modern “managerialist” hierarchy switched to the “modern, scientific” response of therapeutic “cures” and reassignment. This approach was a complete failure. But such therapy-through-counselling is a cultural fad, not something with any substantial evidentiary underpinning it. Indeed, the evidence is very much that such counselling is likely to be either useless or counterproductive.
Lawler concludes with a plea for a smaller, but committed and believing, Church. He cites the success of St Peter Canisius in early C16th Vienna – a city that had not had a priestly ordination for 20 years when he arrived – as an example (Pp256-7). That the good Saint – charismatic preacher though he likely was – also had the support of the secular authorities does not seem to strike Lawler as important: a common Catholic blindness about the history of Christianisation.
The Faithful Departed is an intelligent, heartfelt wrestling with the collapse of Catholic culture. Lawler wants a hierarchy and a Church he can believe in and which is committed to its traditional beliefs. Yet, in the end, his apparent measure of Catholic success or failure is the extent to which it succeeds or fails in denying women control over their own bodies and (especially) a vulnerable minority of his fellow citizens (queers) equal protection of the law. A fight where his Church has been performing in much the same way – right down to making the same accusations – as it did in another losing fight to deny a vulnerable minority of citizens equal protection of the law (the Jews). Is this really part and exemplar of the “Sacrifice of Christ” that he invokes in his call for a Church militant? Apparently so.
The Faithful Departed successfully gives an intelligent conservative Catholic analysis of the problems of the Church. As such, it is as revealing in its silences and its obsessions as in its, often clearly heartfelt, critique.