Clerical Leadership

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When Vatican II began in 1962, I was already an adult, a college graduate, and a grad student in philosophy at Notre Dame – and so I’m old enough to have memories of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church in the United States.  I vividly recall many things about the American Church in those old days, some of them pleasant memories, some not so pleasant.

But one thing I remember is how effective our clerical leadership was in keeping Catholics within the Catholic fold, not allowing them to stray into Protestantism.  (I’m using the word “clerical” here in a very broad sense, so as to include bishops, priests, and religious sisters and brothers.)

Even though in those days the United States was an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, few Catholics turned Protestant.  And even fewer turned atheist.

What a contrast with the present, when the great external danger to Catholicism is no longer a moderate thing like Protestantism, which in its traditional form (the form given to it by the Reformation of the 1500s) retained much from Catholicism.  No, today and for some decades past the external danger to American Catholicism has been a very extreme thing, atheism.

For the past half-century or so our clerical leaders have on the whole done a remarkably ineffective job at keeping Catholics, especially young Catholics, in the fold.  Our people are drifting away from the religion, and drifting not toward a rival version of Christianity, but in the direction of a complete rejection of Christianity, and even a rejection of God; and our leaders seem to have no clue as to how to stop the drift.

When I speak of a “drift toward atheism” I have a number of forms of atheism in mind:  (1) Outright and explicit atheism;  (2) Agnosticism, “shy atheism” or “an atheism that dare not speak its name”;  (3) A thoroughgoing religious indifferentism;  (4) Moral atheism, that is, guiding one’s life without reference to God;  (5) Nominal (or liberal) Christianity, which may be called “incipient atheism” – for I agree with Cardinal Newman that liberal religion leads logically in the direction of atheism.

Why have our leaders been so ineffective?  Allow me to offer a few very tentative suggestions.

1. The smallness of their numbers. Following Vatican II tremendous numbers of priests and religious sisters and brothers ran away from what had seemed to be their vocations, and they have never been adequately replaced.

2. The modesty of their leadership talents. The pre-Vatican Church abounded in talented leaders.  My impression is that our leaders today are on average far less gifted with leadership talents than their pre-Vatican II predecessors.

3. In recent decades, our leaders have lacked the confidence that all effective leaders need; and, of course, “leaders” who doubt their ability to lead will, for that very reason, not be able to lead.

4. My guess is that they lack confidence because many of them do not whole-heartedly believe in the faith; they have their doubts.


5. The child-molestation scandal. This damaged the moral credibility, especially with regard to sexual morality, not just of those guilty of these crimes but of all priests and bishops.  You may say, “This isn’t fair – to blame everyone for the sins of a small minority.”  And you’re right.  But it doesn’t matter.  The general public, including much of the Catholic public, regards these sins as collective guilt.

6. The question of homosexuality. Homosexuality has poisonously permeated the priesthood during the past half-century, and it has done this in three ways:  (a) Some priests have been active homosexuals;  (b) Many others have had a homosexual orientation, even though they have abstained from homosexual practice;  (c) Still others, while neither practicing homosexuals nor inclined in that direction, are “soft” in their disapproval.  They don’t share the Church’s traditional abhorrence at the offense.

7. Fear of disapproval. Priests and bishops know that if they emphatically reaffirm certain age-old Catholic teachings – especially those regarding sexual conduct, but not these only – they will meet the strong disapproval not just of the world at large but of many of their own people, the Catholic people of their diocese or parish.  And so they decide that discretion is the better part of valor.

8. And there is a great danger that especially confronts bishops. Once you become a bishop, you are courteously welcomed into the local elite.  You are now regarded, at least in a formal way, as the peer of local bankers, businesspersons, college presidents, mayors, governors, newspaper editors and publishers, etc.

Though these people are too polite to mention it to your face, most of them regard any authentic version of your religion as out-of-date.  Catholicism may have been a splendid thing in the Middle Ages, in the days of Aquinas and Dante and Giotto; and even today it is a tolerable thing provided those who profess it don’t take it too seriously.  And so if you’re a Catholic bishop and you make it clear to everyone, both your own people and the non-Catholic world at large, that you whole-heartedly believe in Catholicism and you wish it to be a strong force in shaping American culture, you will lose face among your elite peers.  You may even become a laughing-stock.  But as I said, these are polite people; they won’t laugh in your face; they’ll do it only behind your back.

There was a time in Church history when bishops were willing to be thrown to the lions.  I’m sure that many of today’s bishops, if given the choice, would be willing to die for the faith, willing to receive the crown of martyrdom.   However, martyrdom isn’t currently being offered.  Until it is (maybe a few decades from now), many bishops would prefer to avoid the “mini-martyrdom” of being laughed at.

It’s too pleasant a status to be a member in good standing of the local elite.


*Image: The Life and Martyrdom of St. Stanislaus of Szczepanów, Bishop by an unknown artist, c. 1520 [National Museum, Warsaw, Poland].

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.