The Wider Implications of the Clergy Sex-Abuse Crisis

Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins has written a provocative essay on the wider implications of the clergy sex abuse crisis for American Catholicism. It’s not just that victims have suffered, that clergy have gone to jail, that the Church has paid billions of dollars in lawsuits, that charitable work has been curtailed, and that several dioceses have declared bankruptcy. The scandal has also diminished the Church’s voice on debates about law and religion. Where once people would have paid respect to the Church’s views, even if they disagreed with them, the crisis has so weakened the Church’s moral authority that people dismiss the institution and its arguments entirely. For example, in Jenkins’s view, the ineffectiveness of the Church’s voice has greatly influenced the debate on same-sex marriage:

One great “might have been” involves same-sex marriage. In light of present realities, it is hard to recall just how fringe and even bizarre an issue this seemed just a decade ago, and a large section of the American public is still uncomfortable about legalization. A critical turning point occurred in 2004, when Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court found it unconstitutional to restrict marriage to heterosexuals.

Would the politics surrounding the issue conceivably have been the same if the Boston Archdiocese had not been so overwhelmed by ongoing abuse scandals that its public voice was all but silenced? Would not other Catholic leaders in other states and cities mobilized a much more effective defense of traditional morality, perhaps making it a visible issue in presidential campaigns? In such circumstances, could gay marriage have won?

I don’t know. The Church enjoyed much more deference in the 1970s but could not stop the spread of no-fault divorce. Still, there is something to Jenkins’s argument. I wonder what the implications are for the fight over the HHS Contraception Mandate. Will the lingering shame of the sex abuse crisis cause Americans to dismiss the Church’s claims that the mandate violates its religious freedom, or will the Administration’s resistance to compromise restore some sympathy for the Church?

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