We’ve been thinking a lot around these parts about the fact that religion is losing currently because it has quit leading culture and started catering to it. This is especially true in Evangelicalism, but I have Catholic friends that would argue Vatican II is pretty much the same thing.
An interesting back and forth between Damon Linker and Rod Dreher contends that the Internet is contributing to the problem as well – especially for Catholicism. The contention is, in essence, that you can no longer “cover-up” the scandal. Linker puts it this way:
Stated simply, the problem is this: Traditionalist churches preach a moral outlook that diverges sharply (especially in sexual matters) from the latitudinarian and egalitarian ethic of liberalism that increasingly dominates the lives of 21st-century Americans. When a scandal reveals that those who preach the stringent traditionalist view of morality fall far short of the standards they publicly demand of others, it makes them look like hypocrites and the church’s teachings look like a cruel sham concocted by psychologically unbalanced clerics.
But that’s not even the heart of the problem. To become a potentially church-destroying trend, which is what I think it could develop into over the coming decades, it must be mixed with one additional ingredient: The technologies of publicity (email, instant messaging, social media, news sites greedy for clicks) that have proliferated in the past generation.
Both admit, as I would be quick to point out, that scandal in church is as old as church. I know of no one that takes their faith seriously that has not had to deal with how to relate to the institution that they believe is God’s representative on earth when that institution fails. Anybody that has done serious work in a religious institutions has run into a scandal. It is the nature of the beast. And there have always been elements that sought to cover such up. But religious institutions, even the Roman Catholic church, are all about people knowing other people’s business. Every scandal I have ever run into everybody knew about, just nobody talked about it much and thus maybe those not paying attention (the irreligious) did not know, but that does not mean the information was not readily available.
Word of religious scandal may spread a bit faster and seemingly less gossipy than it once did, but that only reinforces the church’s lack of authority with those that already doubted its authority.
Scandals hurt the church’s authority more than they used to because the church no longer responds to scandal authoritatively. “Gotchas” rarely remain a problem if the situation is dealt with swiftly and definitively. The current crisis over the jetliner shoot down in Eastern Ukraine is a perfect example. Our president has chosen to declare it, unacceptable, but he brings no consequence to bear on the situation. Thus Obama only looks more weak and powerless than he did before. And so, anymore, churches respond to a scandal. They declare it bad, but there are no genuine consequences. Pastors and priests are counseled and restored; no longer are they defrocked and shamed.
The roots of these issues are deep in theology and psychology and they are not for this blog – they are for each church to struggle with.
What is for this blog to say is that if a priest is caught in sexual impropriety and the word goes out over Twitter, “See we told you the church were liars,” and the particular diocese in question responded repeatedly with a tweet, “Priest X is no longer is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church,” the “liar” meme would die in a big hurry. That is an authoritative response using the internet. The internet is not the issue.