In 1968, it was the disastrous anti-birth control encyclical ''Humanae
Vitae," which opened a gulf between the hierarchy and the laity and which
lately has the church on the wrong side of the global fight against
HIV/AIDS. The coterie of American bishops chosen by Pope John Paul II failed
their greatest test by protecting abusive priests instead of the children
who were their victims. Now, church authority stands on the edge of yet
another act of moral self-mutilation with a coming ''instruction" banning
homosexuals from seminaries. Such a policy threatens to turn an imminent
program of ''apostolic visitations" of US seminaries, which overtly targets
''heresy," into a full blown sexual witch hunt.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have had direct and indirect contact
with well-connected Catholics here -- hardly a hotbed of liberalism -- and
the coming instruction is regarded as a catastrophe in the making. With
boards of Vatican-appointed investigators poised to swoop down on American
schools in which new priests are trained, interrogations of candidates and
loyalty tests for teachers already betray a nostalgia for the bygone era of
thought-control and snitching. A formally licensed obsession with
homosexuality will push the investigation into a realm, as one senior priest
put it to me, more of Joseph Stalin than Jesus Christ.
Instead of asking hard questions about the root causes of the priestly
sex abuse scandal -- facing problems of the clerical culture itself,
including celibacy, authoritarianism, discrimination against women, the
immaturity of church teachings on sexuality -- Rome is preparing to
scapegoat homosexuals. The idea is astoundingly foolish, based on fantasies
of sexual deviance. Supposedly aimed at seminarians, the new discipline is
an attack on the priesthood itself, especially on those openly gay men who
have proven themselves as faithful servants of the church. It is an
invitation for such men to return to the closet, a retreat into
psychological imprisonment. Such demonizing of homosexuals is profoundly
But the policy, combined with the investigation's threat against all
nonconformity, infantilizes every present or would-be member of the American
Catholic clergy. During the abuse crisis, the ineptness of bishops brought
stern challenges from the middle ranks of clergy. Are bishops now
attempting, with this ruthless discipline, to eliminate the capacity for
independent moral thought that made those challenges not only possible but
From Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, comes the chilling news that
one of the brave priests who saved the church's soul by calling for Cardinal
Bernard Law's resignation, the Rev. Walter Cuenin, has been unjustly fired
from his position as pastor at Our Lady, Help of Christians in Newton.
Cuenin is an exemplary priest. That he has been slandered by the archdiocese
in the process of his removal is a mortal betrayal. There are reports that
many of the other pastors who challenged Law have been shunted aside as
Cardinal Law, the icon of failure, is ensconced in a prestigious
position here in Rome. He is an icon of denial, too. Instead of a
reformation of all that made the sex abuse crisis possible, the hierarchy is
circling its wagons. Good people are being sacrificed. Cruelty as a mode of
church governance is back. Sexual imperialism is reasserted as a method of
control. The culture of dishonesty lives.
Will it work? The people I talk to here think not. There are gay
bishops in the church, some of whom will feel forced to support the new
scapegoating. What happens when, in return for their hypocrisy, they are
''outed"? Theologians, whose work of rational inquiry requires a free play
of the mind, will reject the strictures of a heresy hunt. Gay priests will
refuse to be closeted again, and their straight brothers will not
participate in the denigration. Religious orders will defend their members.
When the grand inquisitors arrive at seminaries, candidates for the
priesthood who have any self-respect will simply walk away. The Catholic
people will not allow their good priests to be insulted further.
Can the church be spared this disaster? As of now, the power to avert
it rests with one man. The new policy has not been formally promulgated.
Pope Benedict XVI could call it off. Whether that is likely to occur is not
the point. The world has been awaiting the revelation of his capacity for
moral leadership. It is here.