Abuse Crisis Offers Opportunity for Catholic Left

For Catholics all over the world, the latest revelations about sexual-abuse scandals in the church hierarchy—what was covered up, and when, and how little is being done by the Vatican to hold sex offenders in its ranks accountable—have made for an uncomfortable season. In the United States, anger among lay Catholics has taken on political significance.

Liberal Catholic E. J. Dionne called the church's response "bureaucratic and self-exculpatory" in his Washington Post column. Commonweal, a magazine for progressive Catholics, concluded that "mistakes can be forgiven; what breeds mistrust and cynicism is the refusal to admit error," and similarly called for an "act of penitence on the part of the Pope and the world's bishops." The New York Times's Maureen Dowd wrote that the pope is "morally compromised."

Conservatives, Catholic and not, did not appreciate the criticism.

"The forces of the left are in the process of trying to tear down and destroy every institution in America that stands for something other than big government," Rush Limbaugh recently said on his radio show. "The Catholic Church is despised by the left for its abortion stance ... because it is a religion other than the earth, a religion other than liberalism."

Catholics are an important swing-voting constituency for both parties, with healthy representation on both sides of the political divide. Since 1984, Catholics have chosen the Democratic presidential candidate over the Republican candidate by slim margins, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Republicans have an advantage among white non-Latino Catholics, carrying that group since 2000. The growing, and largely Catholic and Democratic-leaning, Latino community has kept the Catholic vote roughly evenly divided.

This internal tension shouldn't surprise: generally speaking, the church's teachings lean conservative on cultural issues and liberal on economic concerns. For every conservative quoting Leviticus, there should be a liberal quoting the Sermon on the Mount. Many non-Catholics may assume that the laity's views generally mirror those of the church: antiwar, in favor of economic equality, but intensely socially conservative. In fact, Catholics are no more against abortion rights than the population as whole. Last fall, Catholics for Choice commissioned a poll that showed that only 14 percent of Catholics thought abortion should be totally illegal, and 50 percent thought health insurance should cover abortion whenever a woman and her doctor think it is appropriate.

But conservatives have done much more to ally themselves with church institutions, thanks to the increase in recent decades of political organizing around the issue of abortion, leaving more liberal Catholics feeling out in the cold. While pro-abortion-rights politicians are occasionally denied communion, those who supported the war in Iraq against the wishes of the pope suffer no such public indignity. It's worth noting that of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, the five conservatives are all Catholic.

The recent battle over health-care reform has exacerbated this partisan feeling, with liberal Catholics who supported universal health care—long a goal of the church—feeling scorned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' opposition to the bill. The conference was dissatisfied with an agreement that promised to prevent public funds from paying for abortion, and so ultimately opposed the bill. America, a Jesuit-run Catholic magazine, recently published an article by Nicholas Cafardi, the former dean of Duquesne University's law school, who concluded that "the damage to [the bishops'] credibility in being truly pro-life, and not merely pro-life for partisan purposes, is immense."

This context was ripe for both liberal and conservative Catholics to see the most recent revelations of child molestation by priests being ignored through their respective lenses, with conservatives defending the church hierarchy and liberals questioning it. While a few commentators have occupied a mushy middle—notably Michael Sean Winters and Peggy Noonan—most have fallen along party lines.

Bill Donohue, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who is closely associated with conservative bishops, has been unyielding in attacking media outlets that have published reports on the Vatican's connections to sexual-abuse scandals. His organization, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, frequently issues press releases with titles like "Obama Anti-Catholic Rips Vatican" and "Pelosi Lies About Catholic Support."

Other prominent conservatives, from Limbaugh to the Catholic intellectual George Weigel, have chided both reporters and critics of the church for discussing the scandals. Some, like Daniel Oliver in the conservative American Spectator magazine, have incorrectly tried to blame the church's problems on homosexuality.

"It's interesting that the conservative groups are rallying around the church and almost making this a political issue, where it should entirely be a question of how the church is policing itself internally," says Chris Korzen, who founded the progressive group Catholics United in 2004 to encourage progressive Catholics' political engagement. "It's becoming clearer and clearer that the church needs to spend more time focused on its own internal problems, and less time trying to be a political player, particularly in our own country."

Catholic laity are taking a different stance, expressing more disgust with the Vatican's complacency than indignity at secular figures who are taking the church to task. According to the Pew Forum, about a third of Catholics think the pope has addressed the scandals well, while a plurality thinks he has done a fair or poor job, a 17 percent shift in the last two years.

"The clergy sex scandal is really a cause for profound sadness in all Catholics, very real anger," says Morna Murray, the president of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, an organization dedicated to bridging the partisan divide over the Catholic social-justice mission.

Donohue, though, sees a large difference between the most recent revelations and the scandals revealed in the first years of the 21st century. "This is basically a media-driven story, with old cases being trotted out to weaken the moral authority of the Catholic Church," Donohue says. "There is a distinction between their reaction in 2002 and 2010. In 2002, it certainly hurt the moral authority of the bishops in the eyes of the rank-and-file Catholics. The fact that the bishops had success in the House health-care bill demonstrates that they are able to flex their muscles with more authority today."

The question now is not so much whether lay Catholics will start to associate their anger at the hierarchy's response to the crisis with the church's political stances, but whether this feud will exacerbate efforts to find a unified Catholic politics.

"Catholics in the pews have long since stopped listening to the hierarchy on these issues," Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, says regarding abortion, contraception, and gay rights. "What you'll see emerge is more independence among Catholics. Catholics will make up their minds about what we think is ethical, moral, and right."

Korzen points out that Catholic doctrine allows people the right to their own opinions in politics, despite "a sense that when the church speaks on an individual issue or candidate, that's the end of the story." He even quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in his first encyclical that "the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity."

"We have a lot of people calling for a renewed understanding that the church is not just the archbishops and the pope, [but] the people toiling in the vineyard," says Murray. "It's a renewed call for one of the teachings of Vatican II, which is the importance of the laity."

The long-term consequences of these scandals will depend on whether the church takes responsibility for the abuse that occurred under its watch and institutes strong measures to prevent abuse in the future. But what is clear is that the church's political influence has been anything but direct, letting Catholics of all political stripes claim their own piece of the tradition.

"People talk about why they don't leave the church at a time like this," Murray says. "I think a lot of us who are Catholic and believe in social justice believe that is what the church is."

Fernholz is a writing fellow at The American Prospect and a research fellow at the New America Foundation.