For millions of Roman Catholics, the world began changing in the 1980s — with waves of headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases that eventually led to reporter Jason Berry’s cathartic 1992 book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.”
The National Catholic Reporter wrote article after article about the scandals. A crucial moment came in 1985, when The New York Times published a brutal article about the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who admitted that he abused dozens of children in parishes in rural, southwest Louisiana. HBO eventually made a movie — “Judgement” — about the Gauthe case.
Mainstream news reporters, including me, covered stories linked to the emerging scandal all through the 1980s, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss how to solve this hellish puzzle.
As a series of documentaries by Minnesota Public Radio stated, “It all began in Lafayette.”
I offered this brief flash back as context for an important, but stunningly faith-free, Washington Post “social issues” feature that ran under this headline: “What it’s like to be a young Catholic in a new era of clergy sex abuse scandals.” Here is the features crucial summary material:
In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.
This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.
At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.
Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute.
For starters, the Post does need to run a correction stating that the first national exposure of the clergy sexual abuse scandal did not come in 2002 in the Spotlight work published by The Boston Globe. The Globe work was stunning, and crucial, but it is simply inaccurate to ignore the nearly two decades of work that came before that.
However, the heart of this article consists of interviews with young Catholic women in Washington, D.C., along with experts who describe how their views illustrate the faith impact of the ongoing scandals. There are, apparently, no young Catholic men inside the Beltway.
As so often happens in mainstream coverage of religion, this article contains almost zero material about religious faith itself and how it affects the lives of believers. If you are looking for information about prayer, worship, Bible study, confession and the sacraments, this is not the article for you.
Increasingly over the past few decades, young adults have realized they can choose their own faith or combination of faiths, apart from those of their parents — or affiliate with none at all, said Theresa O’Keefe, a theology professor at Boston College who specializes in young adult faith. A growing distrust of institutional leadership of all kinds also means some students respond rather jadedly as more allegations of clergy abuse come to light, O’Keefe said. …
“The young person has to have a good answer: ‘Why am I here?’ ” O’Keefe said. “The church, particularly the leadership, has to come up with a good answer. Why should people show up? Membership is not inevitable, and meaningful membership isn’t inevitable.”
That’s the right question: Why should people show up? Why do Catholics go to Mass?
Pay close attention to the following and see if you can spot the key word:
Caroline Zonts, a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, said she had started to feel put off by the Catholic Church long before the abuse crisis reemerged.
Raised “strictly Catholic,” she said the socially liberal political views she developed in high school made her feel less connected to her faith. When she arrived at college, Zonts said she stopped practicing Catholicism, although she still considers herself Catholic.
Did you catch the key word? Let’s try again:
Like Zonts, George Washington University junior Evelyn Arredondo Ramirez felt her more liberal political views were at odds with some parts of her Catholic faith. But even as a supporter of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, the 20-year-old still attended Mass most Sundays during her first two years of college.
Her perspective recently began to shift. Already annoyed with homilies that expressed the priests’ political opinions, her frustration was compounded by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and accusations that Pope Francis had knowingly shielded McCarrick from accountability.
Ramirez doesn’t go to Mass anymore and said she worries about her younger brother’s safety around priests in his home parish.
Now, would anyone — in our comments pages — like to take a shot at describing the contents of the “political opinions” expressed in the Mass homilies delivered by this young woman’s priests?
Well, it is clear that these “political” commentaries clashed with her “liberal political views” that clashed with “some parts” of her Catholic faith. Is there any chance that what we are actually talking about here are debates about the content of the Catholic faith’s teachings on moral theology, as expressed in the Catholic Catechism?
Once again, we are dealing with law No. 2 in a lecture that I have given several times in the past two years (click here for one video version), the I call “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Religion Beat.”
Most of what the Post team offers in this piece embraces my journalism law (stated in the negative, in Screwtape fashion) that says: “Always assume that religion equals politics.” After all, politics deals with things that, in newsroom terms, are “real.” Religion? Not so much.
In this case, we also can see the impact of law No. 3: “Treat religious doctrines and traditions as mere opinions.”
So, are there any expressions of Catholic faith — expressed in faith language — included in this piece?
Sort of. The following is about as close as it gets. Note that this interview was linked to a meeting held by Catholic Women at Georgetown, a group that, if one visits its Facebook page (see main image above), appears to embrace a rather faith-friendly approach to Catholicism.
The “revelations” mentioned here are headlines about the sins and crimes of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the horrible report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania.
Among the students who feel unnerved by those revelations is Ana Ruiz, an 18-year-old member of Catholic Women at Georgetown, who said the scandal has made her doubt both her faith and her devotion to the church because the faith itself is closely tied to the institution. Catholics believe the church was founded by Jesus Christ.
“To just kind of see people who definitely do not embody those values that we hold so sacred really makes me question if the institution is working for the good of Christ and the good of the people,” Ruiz said as students cleaned up after the Georgetown discussion dinner.
Although still committed to Catholicism, Ruiz said she could imagine walking away from the institution if she no longer believed it cared about the best interests of lay people. Right now, however, she still feels like God is at the center of the church’s ministry.
What does this crisis have to do with the Catholic sacraments and faith in Jesus Christ?
Sorry, this isn’t that kind of article.