A Catholic Moment Of Truth

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

unjust.

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

necessary?

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

well.

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.

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