Paul Kennedy: The Catholic Church Adrift





[Paul Kennedy is a professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.”]

On Good Friday 1613, the English poet John Donne (then dean of St. Paul’s, London, but probably still a Catholic) was dispatched to the west of England on an official mission. As he rode toward the setting sun, he realized with dismay that he was riding with his back to Jerusalem, farther away from the place of the crucifixion and death of Christ. In remorse, he penned one of his most beautiful, famous and difficult poems: “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.”

On the afternoon of Good Friday 2010, I attended the solemn 3 p.m. service at the Catholic chaplaincy of Cambridge University, and then walked westward, to a little cottage on the city’s fringes. And my mind was deeply troubled by an apprehension that today’s Catholic leadership is somehow also going in the wrong direction, is adrift, and appears completely unable to handle the international crisis of the many charges of sexual abuse made against an earlier generation of priests and of their superiors.

The church, my loyal pew-mates will assure me, will survive this crisis as it has survived many greater ones over the past two thousand years, and I suppose they are right. But does it have to “survive” so ineptly? I think not....

If a Church superior really knew (or had the heaviest suspicions) that a member of his clergy had been abusive but sought to cover it up, then that superior is complicit both in the moral/religious and in the civil-law sense. What the civil system will do is up to the civil system itself. But the superior himself should certainly be moved on: There is many a Benedictine abbey with a spare cell for those who wish to reflect on the problems of good and evil, and many a foreign mission or medical station that could take a “worker priest,” stripped of hierarchical privileges, and now devoted to following the path of St. Vincent de Paul or Mother Teresa....

The Church’s destiny has variously been described as akin to a person on a lengthy pilgrimage, or a caravan wending its way across the desert. If those are apt analogies, then it seems to me that the pilgrim has become lost in a forest, or the camel train has encountered a sandstorm. It is time to face the matter with grace and intelligence, and leave the belated breast-beatings and obfuscations behind. And read a few more of John Donne’s poems, both the sacred and the profane, to get a better sense of our round earth and humankind’s curious place upon it.

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/16/2010

I think it's mostly concern about the winnability of criminal cases in which many of the witnesses would probably invoke the seal of the confessional as a defense against testimony.


Tim Matthewson - 4/16/2010

Why the references to Civil Law but none to Criminal Law? Why are there no Bishops in jail? Why did the collective ADAs handing the cases of child abuse and rape never succeed in putting a Bishop on the witness stand and under oath? Is this a sign of favoritism?

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