The faith of American Catholics has had a bad week.
I started the week following Melinda Selmys' posts about Humanae Vitae. A lot of people have been saying that the encyclical was "prophetic" because it said, with birth control, men would cease to respect women and treat them like objects. I hate this argument, first off because a men who actually respected women would respect them regardless of what pills they were or weren't taking; and second off because mistreatment of women is not new at all.
In fact, even the sexual revolution wasn't as new as people seem to think. Paul VI gave a lot of "predictions" that were actually descriptions -- because birth control had been available since the early 20th century. All that sleeping around in jazz age novels? It wouldn't have worked out very well without diaphragms and condoms, both of which were available at the time. Abortion, of course, has been practiced since at least Roman times.
Anyway, Melinda has been making the argument that the Church's claim to infallibility was actually an overreach. What the Church actually has is a general promise that God will "lead it into all truth" -- not that Popes won't make mistakes, but that the Holy Spirit will eventually correct them. This seems plausible to me -- the only proof that the Church is infallible is that it claimed it was, in Vatican I, so if you don't already agree, there isn't really a reason why you should.
There were all kinds of debate going on about that -- people were very emphatic that the Paul is infallible, that Paul VI exercised that infallibility when he banned birth control, and that anyone who disagrees or disobeys is going to hell. That context made things a little awkward later in the week.
About the same time, there were the McCarrick revelations. It's still unclear how many bishops knew what he was up to, but certainly some of them must have. I've also read that the papal nuncio was informed in 2008, which means Benedict must have known. I'm of the view that Benedict actually did a lot more, quietly, to deal with abusive priests than either John Paul II or Francis. He defrocked quite a few, and he did force Maciel into retirement.
But, on the other hand, Maciel's retirement was a beach house in Florida, surrounded by mistresses and adoring seminarians. Benedict was hardline on abuse compared to some of his contemporaries, but not at all as hardline as perhaps the situation called for. So maybe he did know about McCarrick abusing his seminarians and didn't think it was worth doing something about.
For the first time, I'm seeing the Catholics I know actually getting angry about abuse. They aren't defending the church, and they aren't pulling any tricks like "what about Protestant ministers who do it too?" or "that was a long time ago!" or "our standards are better now and this will absolutely for-sure not happen again." They're mad. They realize that they, the Catholic laity, are not to blame, but their bishops may be. Some have been talking about withholding donations from their dioceses, or perhaps a prayerful protest in front of the chancery. And I think that's all very good. Don't be a human shield for a bishop who didn't do his job. Be the first to demand some accountability.
But then, with impeccable timing (which almost certainly was entirely coincidental) Francis shook their faith all over again by coming out more strongly against the death penalty than John Paul II had. Instead of saying it's always avoidable in our time, and therefore should be avoided -- which is a teaching broadly ignored by American Catholics, on the grounds that it's only "prudential" -- Francis said it's "inadmissible" without giving any such exception.
Personally, I'm against the death penalty, but I'm getting the impression that American Catholics are in no mood to listen to the Pope right now. How dare he make a new rule for them to have to absorb, when he hasn't even cleaned out the episcopacy yet? And I'm not unsympathetic. It turns out it is kind of annoying to have the hierarchy binding up heavy burdens for the laity to carry, especially when they aren't even carrying their own loads themselves.
Then there's the whole issue that the church has already proclaimed the death penalty to be moral, almost certainly infallibly, in the opinion of many. I went through this whole conundrum some time ago and reached the conclusion that this is one of the issues on which the church has already contradicted itself, but the new proclamation is bringing more people face-to-face with this problem. Was the magisterium infallible in those proclamations in the past, or is it now? Is it even possible to tell? Some people are concluding it can't have been infallible then, others that it can't be infallible now. Some people say the past and present declarations aren't entirely contradictory because the words "intrinsically evil" weren't used in the present one, and "morally obligatory" weren't used in the past. Some people say that they'll never understand it, but they'll just try to believe it despite the contradiction. Some people say this is proof that the Pope has committed heresy and forced a schism. I have never seen any church teaching which gives the laity authority to decide the pope has committed heresy, nor any understanding of a schism that can be anything but you separating yourself from the Pope, not vice versa, but of course people latch onto this because they disagree with the Pope, but don't want to stop being Catholic. Which is funny given that earlier this week the same people were telling Melinda that she couldn't disagree with the Pope and still be Catholic.
I guess what people are finally noticing is that they don't have a vote. This is a purely top-down system. It was very simple for medieval peasants to assume the bishops knew what they were doing, but it's a lot harder for modern, educated Catholics with an internet connection to believe the same. They know the bishops are up to no good, at least some of them, and they know several successive popes have failed to do anything about it. They also know what popes of the past declared, and that it is wildly different from what popes of today have said. They know that there are teachings of the church that don't work out well in their lives. That makes it really hard to have any confidence in the institutional church.
Yet ... so what if you don't? There's nothing you can do. You can't vote your bishop out of office. You can't demand the Pope take back what he said. You can refuse to donate, but the diocese will just fire all the catechists and shutter the schools ... they will be the last ones to suffer. You can protest, but they can just ignore you. In Chile, actual fighting broke out in the cathedral when Bishop Barros was installed, but the ceremony still went on. Why should they be concerned that the people are angry? What is anyone going to do? They know, and the laity knows, that no one can actually leave. Outside the church there is no salvation. If you make too much of a fuss, they can deny you the sacraments, and you won't have any recourse.
It does a lot to prove my thesis that where there is no accountability, there is always going to be oppression. Every authority must be accountable to those it professes to serve, or it will abuse that authority. That's happened pretty much universally, so no surprise that it's happening in the Catholic Church.
The question is, why in the world would this structure be divinely ordained by someone who could clearly foresee how it was going to turn out? And why do people still trust it?
These days, I feel more and more like I escaped from a burning building, but I'm helpless to pull other survivors from the wreckage. Some feel like there isn't a problem, while flames spread around them. Some are angry that I'm still hanging around if I don't want to be in the building anymore. And some love the building so much, they can't bear to leave. I don't know. I don't even know how to handle respectfully the reality that's going down right now. I can't leave well enough alone, because I care too much; but I can't actually do anything helpful because I'm not part of the family that's going through the crisis.
All I can do is say -- yes, it's terrible. I'm angry that you trusted these guys and they treated you so badly. I support whatever you can think of that might call them to account.