Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 60 (February 1996): 12-17.

Form Over Matter

David R. Carlin

Early in November 1995, the administrative board of the United States Catholic Conference issued the latest version of its quadrennial statement on politics and religion, this one entitled: "Political Responsibility: Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, Protecting the Least among Us, and Pursuing the Common Good."

The statement has a number of very fine passages. For example: "The challenge for our church is to be principled without being ideological, to be political without being partisan, to be civil without being soft, to be involved without being used." Excellent! Here is a definition of the relationship between religion and politics that all faiths could make their own.

And again: "Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Republican or Democrat." Exactly right! This is a church that claims to see moral truth steadily and see it whole; and since the moral vision of political parties is always imperfect, the Church's moral vision will never "easily fit" that of a political party.

But the USCC statement contains another passage that is little short of disastrous:

We stand with the unborn and the undocumented when many politicians seem to be abandoning them. We defend children in the womb and on welfare. We oppose the violence of abortion and the vengeance of capital punishment.
Unfortunately it is this passage that will be most widely quoted. This is the passage for which the statement will be famous (or infamous). People who know only one thing about the document will know this.

But what's wrong with this statement? Is there anything in it to which Catholics knowledgeable about the moral and social teaching of their Church could object? No-at least not if one "unpacks" the passage and looks, one by one, at its four distinct assertions, which are:

  1. We oppose abortion.
  2. We oppose injuring illegal aliens.
  3. We oppose hurting children on welfare.
  4. We oppose capital punishment.
Back in the days when Aristotelianism was still respectable in Catholic quarters, Catholic writers had the habit (one they rather overdid) of distinguishing between the "matter" and the "form" of a thing. Well, if I may be forgiven a momentary relapse into Aristotelianism, these four assertions are the matter of the passage; but the passage also has a form, namely a series of three epigrams, each of which expresses a parallelism: the first between aborted children and illegal aliens, the second between aborted children and children on welfare, the third between aborted children and convicted murderers. It is both matter and form that give meaning to the passage; and as Aristotle would add, form is always the more important of the two.

In other words, the passage suggests that we should condemn all four evils with a fine and impartial evenhandedness. One-and-one-half million abortions a year is dreadful, yes; but it is no more dreadful than the execution of a few dozen murderers per year; which in turn is not more dreadful that refusing to increase payments when an unmarried woman on welfare has yet another baby; which in turn is no more dreadful than expelling illegal immigrants from the country.

Further, you don't have to be a brilliant political analyst to realize that the passage is, at least in effect if not intention, pro-liberal and anti-conservative-despite the document's avowal that it takes no sides between left and right. A standard-brand liberal would say, "These guys hit safely on three out of four: welfare, illegal immigrants, and the death penalty. They strike out only on abortion. They're batting .750, which is far better than Ted Williams in his prime." And a standard-brand conservative would say, "They're hitting only one for four. They get abortion right but everything else wrong. A very poor batting average of .250." The USCC document must have caused much rejoicing at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The scandal is compounded by the fact that the USCC position supporting welfare benefits for further out-of-wedlock children is at best a questionable inference from the Catholic teaching that the community has a responsibility to care for the poor, especially poor children. Other well-meaning Catholics, who would also like to abide by that charitable teaching, believe that if you subsidize out-of-wedlock births you get more of them; hence they hold that a cap on benefits will in the long run be good for the poor. The USCC counters that a cap will create an incentive for more abortions; the other side rejoins that a cap will reduce the rate of unmarried conceptions and thus lower the abortion rate. Who's right? I don't know. But I do know there is something very strange in suggesting a moral equivalence between abortion and a debatable welfare innovation that may or may not hurt the poor.

As for illegal immigrants, what Catholic teaching requires that we demonstrate a high level of solicitude toward people who have broken American law by entering the country and continue to break it by staying here? Of course these lawbreakers are often needy people and their children; but equally needy are the law-abiding people who stayed at home, thereby showing respect for American law. True, we are a nation of immigrants; my own father, for instance, and all four of my grandparents came to the United States as immigrants. But they entered lawfully, as have most immigrants in American history. Being kind to the needy is part of Catholic social teaching; but so is showing respect for the rule of law. At all events, it is odd to suggest a moral equivalence between abortion and the enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.

I realize that the average American bishop, if confronted with the above interpretation of the famous passage, would respond, "You have caricatured our intentions. You have to read the passage in the context of the entire document, and you have to read the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Then you'll see that we consider abortion to be by far the worst of these evils, especially when abortion takes place not rarely but in phenomenal numbers. And of course we always make a distinction between moral doctrine, on the one hand, and strategies to implement that doctrine, on the other. The former we teach with authority, the latter we simply offer as suggestions. You are accusing us of saying things we could not possibly say, given our Catholic moral theology."

I agree that the bishops couldn't possibly have meant what they said in the famous passage-or rather, what the fifty members of the USCC board, not all of them bishops, said on their behalf. Nonetheless, it was said. The passage speaks for itself. We may be told that the bishops would not dream of treating abortion and the other issues as morally equivalent, and that they have no intention of telling Catholics that liberals are better than conservatives. But that's how others will read the passage- and they will be correct in doing so, for that's what it clearly implies.

Maybe the moral of the story is this: Beware epigrammatic parallelism, for it can easily distort your meaning. But I suspect the story is one with a second moral as well: If you are a busy bishop serving on a committee, beware who writes the drafts of the documents you will be expected to sign. I have no knowledge of what goes on at USCC headquarters, but based on internal evidence I'm willing to bet that the famous passage was written either by some bishops who were too busy to appreciate how literary form can determine meaning or by some liberal church bureaucrats who understood perfectly well how form determines meaning.

It may be worth adding that I write this as one who is essentially sympathetic to the intentions of the bishops-as opposed to some of their verbal formulas. I very much like the idea of the "seamless garment" or "consistent ethic of life"-even though Catholics on the left, some of them working within church bureaucracies, have exploited this idea to justify their own softness on abortion. After having been appalled by the moral egoism promoted by the cultural left during the last quarter century, I'd hate to see the right produce a quarter century of economic egoism masked by moralistic self-righteousness and xenophobia. In short, I want balance: rights and responsibilities, individuality and community, freedom and moral law, economic creativity and social justice, Americanism and internationalism. As for abortion, it should not be the single issue, but it should at least be primus inter pares, for if we cannot get abortion right it is unlikely we will be able to get anything right. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are champions of this balanced view. But the Catholic bishops are.

Or at least they would be-if only they could say what they mean instead of allowing draftsmen at USCC headquarters to put misleading words into their mouths.

David R. Carlin, a former Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate, is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island.

The Uses of Clerical Scandal

Philip Jenkins

When the Pope visited the United States last fall, the media indulged in a predictably frenzied examination of the general state of "crisis" in the American Catholic Church. Oddly, though, few reporters devoted space to what only a few years previously would have been described as the Church's greatest crisis: the spate of cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Though such cases continue to appear, some very serious (and often demonstrating a grievous insensitivity on the part of diocesan authorities and their lawyers), it no longer seems plausible to speak of a general collapse of clerical discipline and celibacy, or of a systematic cover-up by Catholic bishops. Clerical sex abuse is today most often seen as a lamentable but rare occurrence.

Some anticlerical Catholics had hopes that the abuse scandals might be the detonator that would bring down the whole clerical system, comparable to the sexual and financial misdeeds that led to the Protestant Reformation. But such historical parallels now seem wildly exaggerated; we are by no means standing at a new Wittenberg.

In fact, we are now sufficiently removed from the perception of an "abuse crisis" that reached its height in 1992-93 to place it in its broader context. What we find is a sobering lesson on the gap between the reality of a social problem and the ways in which it is presented in public discourse. Moreover, the main culprits in misrepresenting this issue as a specifically Catholic problem were Catholic activists themselves, generally working in what they considered to be the best interests of the Church.

It seems hard to remember now that the topic of clerical sex abuse was regarded as untouchable before about 1985 and the massive attention devoted to a Louisiana priest named Gilbert Gauthe. The Gauthe affair set the pattern for dozens of later scandals: a priest who molested children in one parish was repeatedly reassigned after his predilections became known, without warning the new parish of potential danger. The attitude of Catholic authorities to victims and parents in these cases tended to be arrogant and even hostile. Incidents of this sort multiplied over the next decade and culminated in 1992 with the exposure of a serial pedophile named James Porter, who had molested dozens of children in his southern Massachusetts parishes in the 1960s. Each new scandal fueled litigation and media reports, which in turn fueled expectations of further cases. A sense of pervasive corruption within the Church was reinforced by the appalling (and quite unfounded) charge that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had molested a seminarian in the 1970s. The endlessly repeated orthodoxy was that Gauthe and Porter were far from isolated individuals. Perhaps 6 percent of Catholic clergy were "pedophiles," some six thousand priests in the U.S. alone.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, commentators often employed the inaccurate term "pedophile priest." "Priest" made the problem look like the preserve of Catholics, and presumably the direct consequence of celibacy, though the misbehavior was distributed across the ecclesiastical spectrum. And while "pedophiles" are men who molest prepubescent children, the vast majority of sexually erring priests were in liaisons with teenagers or young adults. While their acts were sinful and often illegal, such behavior does not typically exhibit the more extreme predatory and compulsive character of pedophilia.

As for the numbers cited in these years, most derive from the kind of urban legend that transforms a vague estimate of something into a firm statistic for something completely different. "Six percent" apparently mutated from a working guess for the number of Catholic clergy with pedophile inclinations, not practice. (Similar estimates have been proposed for noncelibate Protestant clergy.) The most solid assessment of clerical sexual problems is found in the Chicago study, commissioned by Cardinal Bernardin, that examined the personnel files of all 2,252 priests who had served in the archdiocese between 1951 and 1991. Between 1963 and 1991, fifty-seven priests had been accused of sexual abuse, in addition to two visiting clerics. The commission reviewed all charges, not by the standard of criminal cases (which insists on proof beyond a reasonable doubt), but on the less stringent civil criterion of the preponderance of evidence, including legally inadmissible hearsay. Eighteen cases were judged not to involve sexual misconduct, leaving charges against forty-one priests, or about 1.8 percent of clergy. Only one instance probably involved true "pedophilia," the sexual molestation of small children.

Before taking even these modest figures as secure, it should be noted that admissible evidence would have permitted convictions against no more than a handful of the supposed malefactors. The number of Catholic priests convicted of criminal sexual acts is very small, and represents a minuscule proportion of the hundreds of thousands of the men who have served as priests.

If clerical sexual misbehavior is uncommon (and pedophilia extremely rare), how did Gauthe and Porter come to be regarded as typical of Catholic priests? It is tempting to blame the media, and indeed newspapers and television indulged wholeheartedly in anti-Catholic polemics. The media would not have dared to offend American Catholics, however, if the path had not been blazed by Catholic sources themselves.

The issue of clerical abuse emerged full-blown in a June 1985 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, the widely quoted source for countless later accounts and the direct origin of the phrase "pedophile priest." Since then, the paper has been a continuing vehicle for coverage of the abuse issue and often given platforms to such reformers as Jason Berry, A. W. Richard Sipe, Eugene Kennedy, and Andrew Greeley, the group of commentators and experts who became the media's favorite interpreters of the burgeoning crisis.

The National Catholic Reporter took up the issue so vigorously for praiseworthy reasons, seeking to expose what the paper regarded as a crying abuse of power by the Church, in which ecclesiastical self- protection took priority over the interests of victims and their families. But clerical abuse served the purpose of those for whom a general "crisis" showed the severity of problems within the Church. The exploding concern with clerical abuse in 1986 and 1987 coincided with a "Catholic civil war" in which dissidents fought the Church hierarchy over such issues as sexual ethics, academic freedom, and the role of women. Not all the commentators shared the whole reformist agenda, and Greeley remains a defender of clerical celibacy, but the centrality of the abuse theme is evident in their books and articles.

Of course 6 percent of priests are pedophiles, the Catholic reformers argued, and who knows how many more are involved with teenagers. What else can we expect from a Church that keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual immaturity, that denies the spiritual gifts of women, that preserves an authoritarian system? The abuse issue illustrates (the indictment continued) the secretive workings of the hierarchy, the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy. For feminists, epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their theories would predict of a patriarchal institution that permits unchecked sexual exploitation.

From this perspective, the answers to abuse are obvious: the ordination of women, the end of mandatory celibacy, the democratization of traditional hierarchies, and perhaps the reform of distinctive institutions like confession (which can offer the predatory priest the opportunity to identify and seduce his victims). Nothing will suffice short of the creation of an authentically American Catholic church. As so often in the past, a sexually rooted anticlerical polemic is used to attack the Church. In the last two years, clerical abuse scandals have been employed in precisely this way to undermine the legal and political position of the Church in such strongly Catholic nations as Ireland and Austria.

Due notice should also be paid to the traditionalist and conservative groups that publicized the pedophile issue and exaggerated its severity in order to counter what they regarded as homosexual subversion of the Church. It was the traditionalists in 1989 and 1990 who organized demonstrations at national gatherings of Catholic bishops and focused media attention on the sins of the Church-hoping to discredit liberal and modernist prelates. For both the ecclesiastical left and right, pedophile charges found audiences predisposed to take up an issue that could be used to promote specific policy agendas. It was the enormous utility of clergy abuse that ensured the absence of a pro-Church reaction or even criticism of the often outrageous exaggerations of the problem.

If Catholic factional conflicts encouraged the sensationalistic treatment of priestly misdeeds, so did the Church's organizational structure. Compared to other American denominations, the Catholic Church produced a disproportionately high level of reported scandals, for, unlike most of its Protestant counterparts, the Catholic Church is a hierarchical organization with parish clergy subordinate to episcopal authorities who observe and record their behavior. Each Catholic priest has a diocesan dossier that records official complaints-and such dossiers have ironically provided the material for many legal actions. Lawsuits against the Catholic Church can follow established paper trails to ensure large financial judgments against a whole diocese. The typically more decentralized and congregational polity of Protestant churches makes them less attractive targets. In large measure, this is why the "pedophile pastor" rarely appears in the demonology of television talk-shows and why celibacy occupies center stage in so many analyses of priestly depredations.

During the 1970s and 1980s, psychological values and assumptions permeated the religious world no less than the secular culture, often through the vehicle of self-help and recovery movements. But an intellectual chasm separates the assumptions of traditional churches from those of mainstream therapy and psychology. The medicalization of wrongdoing sharply circumscribes the areas in which clergy can appropriately exercise their professional jurisdiction, and this loss of acknowledged expertise to therapists and medical authorities at once symbolizes and accelerates a substantial decline in the professional status of priests and ministers.

And yet, not only were the clerical abuse scandals generally interpreted according to therapeutic views and policies, but the churches themselves adopted the rhetoric of the therapists. When a crisis was acknowledged in the early 1990s, most statements by the Catholic hierarchy accepted the notion of the compulsive and irreformable nature of adult sexual activity with children and admitted the radical tenet that implicated priests should never be restored to parish ministry. They agreed that child victims urgently required therapy from secular psychologists and counselors, itself a rejection of the means of healing offered by the Church. Catholic authorities accepted without qualms the expansive claims made by therapists about the massive extent and life-long consequences of sexual abuse-both ideas that are in reality open to serious challenge.

The clerical abuse scandal wrought great damage upon American churches, and above all upon the Catholic Church, which suffered blows to its morale and prestige far more serious than its large pecuniary losses. Can anything positive be drawn from this whole mess? Chances of avoiding repetition seem slight: it is probably too much to ask that the news media will in future exercise caution before making wild generalizations indulging ancient religious stereotypes. Meanwhile, the relationship between clergy and laity has been severely tested, and it will be many years before priests are able to associate with young people on anything like the free and easy terms that provided opportunities for abuse. Father Porter casts a long shadow.

Yet other more favorable images emerge from the crisis, including the juries who were able to acquit some falsely accused priests and to reject demands for large financial damages. But two individuals particularly deserve commemoration. One was Stephen Cook, the former seminarian who reported his falsely "recovered" memories of sexual violation by Cardinal Bernardin. His charges were instantly and widely cited by the media, which face no restrictions on quoting the most extravagant allegations once they have been lodged in a civil lawsuit. While many plaintiffs would have pressed their charges ruthlessly in the hope of gaining some compromise settlement, Cook came to realize the falsity of his supposed recollections and publicly withdrew the allegations. Bernardin, who had reacted with astonishing dignity and courage, made a heroic effort to reconcile with Cook and spoke eloquently on the occasion of Cook's death in 1995. Suffering, manipulation, slander, and injustice thus gave rise to charity, strength, forgiveness, and love: a lesson that the oddly matched images of Bernardin and Cook should epitomize many years after the memory of the abusive clergy has passed into oblivion.

Philip Jenkins is Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of Pedophiles and Priests (Oxford University Press).

The 1934 Million Man March

Peter L. Berger

The following is a report filed by Albert Goodwill, an American journalist, after the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg (an event depicted in the well-known film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl).

Nuremberg, a rather sleepy town in Franconia, had never seen anything like it. Tens of thousands of people, from all parts of Germany, descended on the town on the occasion of the annual rally (Parteitag) of the National Socialist Workers Party (NSDAP). This was the first gathering of the party since it took over the government last year. Understandably, it took place in an atmosphere of triumph and celebration. It commemorated the struggles of the National Socialist movement in the past. More importantly, it was intended to show the spirit and the direction of the new Germany following the taking of power by the NSDAP.

The rally was brilliantly organized. The logistics functioned perfectly- no mean feat, given the numbers involved. Event followed event in a masterful choreography, as one party detachment after another marched forward to proclaim allegiance to the cause. The climax, of course, was the arrival of Herr Hitler himself, now in his capacity of Reich Chancellor as well as leader (Fuehrer) of the party. He arrived by plane, viewed the parade, and then delivered one of his customarily long speeches. Observers of Herr Hitler and his movement, of course, had on previous occasions witnessed his remarkable personal magnetism and his capacity to orchestrate ceremonies capable of inspiring mass enthusiasm. In that sense, this rally was nothing new. Its significance, however, does not come from the details of the several carefully staged events. It was, of course, a victory celebration and it was the largest gathering of the party since its beginnings in Munich over ten years ago. But the most significant aspect was the atmosphere that pervaded it from beginning to end.

The atmosphere was festive, uplifting, and, above all, peaceful. There was not a single incident of violence or disorderly behavior. This would be remarkable in itself, given the fact that the majority of the participants were young men, many of them coming from backgrounds of great deprivation and underprivilege. It is more remarkable as one observes the behavior of the large numbers of stormtroopers, the notorious SA in their brown uniforms with the swastika armbands. These are men who have a history of street fighting and aggression. On this day their behavior could not have been improved upon by any group of American Boy Scouts. They were relaxed, friendly, solicitous of people with problems. An old lady who had inadvertently strayed into the path of the parade was gently and courteously escorted off the street by two smiling stormtroopers as bystanders applauded.

This rally showed quite dramatically what has been noted before: Whatever else one may say about it, the NSDAP has given young German men a new sense of identity and self-confidence, and in many cases it has channelled individuals with a criminal past into a disciplined, socially responsible way of life. This achievement must be seen against the background of recent German history. It is a history of defeat, national humiliation, economic misery, and the tangle of social pathologies for which the Weimar period has come to stand. Among these pathologies are the decline of the family, the open display of sexual perversity, crime and juvenile delinquency, and a general disintegration of morality and any sense of national purpose. The NSDAP has been in the forefront of the struggle against all these wounds in the body of German society.

Pointing out these things, of course, is not to endorse the ideology of the National Socialist movement or to admire the personality of its leader. An American observer will inevitably be repelled by the antidemocratic animus of the movement. Its paramilitary paraphernalia- uniforms, banners, chants, general strutting about-will seem slightly ridiculous to him, as will the theatrical mannerisms and the hours-long speeches of Herr Hitler. More seriously, Americans must have moral qualms about the strident anti-Semitism of the NSDAP, and about some of the methods used by it to intimidate its political opponents both before and after its takeover of the German government.

It is important, however, to place these negative aspects in a larger context. And it is very important not to look at these things through American eyes. No American can fully appreciate what these Germans have gone through, and Americans should be wary of imposing their own values on people with very different traditions and experiences.

The outside world, and especially the democracies, must ask what kind of a future Germany is to be desired. Is it a Germany still wallowing in defeat and resentment, suffering from all the social ailments listed? Or is it a Germany confident of its identity, self-assured and disciplined, determined to regain its social health? To ask these questions is to answer them. The events in Nuremberg not only help us to understand the spirit of the new Germany, but provide some grounds for expecting that the harsher undertones of the National Socialist movement will come to be muted as the NSDAP attains political respectability.

It is noteworthy that Herr Hitler's speech at the rally was not marked by the usual anti-Semitic diatribes or, for that matter, by threats against his political adversaries. The speech accentuated the positive goals of the new regime-national self-confidence, solidarity, and the tasks of reconstruction. As usual, of course, the speech was too long for American ears, and there remained traces of Herr Hitler's somewhat bizarre views. It is all the more important not to confuse the message and the messenger. It is difficult to find fault with the message.

If one wants to influence a politically powerful movement, it is far better to engage it in dialogue than to isolate it. Nuremberg 1934 suggests that the time has come for a creative dialogue with the new Germany.

Peter L. Berger is Senior Advisor of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a member of the Edito-rial Board of First Things.