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January 23, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – It is often said in the context of the clerical abuse crisis that the laity must act, or be given responsibility. It is natural enough, in reaction to a problem arising with one part of the Church, to hope for salvation from another, and there are some wonderful historical examples of lay action to deal with clerical failures. 

My personal favorite is the action of the laity between 1268 and 1271, during the time of the longest conclave (Papal election) in the Church’s history, which took place in the town of Viterbo. Becoming impatient with the Cardinals’ inability to agree on a new Pope, the town authorities locked them into their meeting room, and proceeded to remove the roof and restrict their diet to bread and water. Something similar had already happened in the conclave of 1241.

Such rough handling of Princes of the Church must be seen in the context of the cheerful physicality of the Middle Ages, but the general principle is simply that the laity have, if they stop to think about it, all kinds of ways of making their needs and desires forcefully known to their pastors.

There have been various actions by the American laity in recent months to protest against past crimes and present foot-dragging, but vigorous action by the laity is impeded by a number of factors.

First, there is the question of Catholic lay leadership. The civil authorities in Medieval Italy were Catholics, and governed a Catholic population. If a bishop or the college of Cardinals was behaving badly, legal and civic leaders with a real understanding of and sympathy with Catholic principles were on hand to deal with the situation, and had the moral standing to act on behalf of the Catholic people. America has never been a Catholic country, and the involvement of the secular courts, for example, however necessary it may be, can create the opportunities for anti-Catholic and anti-clerical grandstanding by prosecutors and judges.

Second, insofar as there is a Catholic political elite, they are not necessarily faithful Catholics. Nancy Pelosi, now the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is one of the most senior Catholics in the political sphere, but is an advocate for legal abortion and was an early supporter of same-sex “marriage.” Such non-Catholic Catholics have been enthusiastically embraced by elements of the hierarchical Church, reinforcing the idea that they represent lay leadership. But no-one who rejects the teaching of the Church on life and sexuality can act as an impartial advocate for justice, in a crisis in which dissent from the Church’s teaching among the clergy is entwined with sexual libertinism.

Third, it is not, sadly, only elite Catholics who have embraced liberal attitudes. If we were hoping for a ‘pitchfork rebellion’ by ordinary Catholics, we have to contend with the fact that self-identified Catholics overwhelmingly endorse divorce and contraception, and half of them are ignorant even that the Church teaches Christ’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

Like Nancy Pelosi, these quasi-Catholic Catholics are no doubt disgusted by the behavior of sexual predators, and appalled by the institutional cover-up which has protected them. What we cannot expect from them, however, is a sense of what is the root of the problem, and we can be sure that they will not be very friendly to some of the solutions.

Thus, mainstream reporting on the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report studiously avoided the reality that the majority of cases involved the abuse of boys and young men, including seminarians. The liberal view of the crisis is that it is about pedophilia, the one sexual appetite still normally regarded as bad, and that relating it to homosexuality is an unjust attack on homosexuals.

Part of the solution to the crisis is going to have to be a reassertion of sexual norms in seminaries, and the exclusion from seminaries, in accordance with the longstanding and still current law of the Church, of those with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’. This is going to be attacked by the mainstream media and the political establishment as a witch-hunt. Which way will liberal or nominal Catholics jump? It doesn’t take much imagination to see that bishops cleaning up their seminaries need expect little support from that quarter.

Admittedly, Mass-going Catholics may be more conservative than the ‘self-identifying’ Catholics of opinion surveys, and there is at least a body of orthodox Catholics active in Church affairs. This latter group could be very useful to bishops wishing to pack boards of trustees and lay committees of various kinds with reliable Catholics, but they aren’t necessarily the Church’s major donors, and it would be foolish to imagine they constitute a majority of the typical congregation.

The resolution of the current crisis in the Church will require not only a conversion of heart among many priests and bishops, but among many lay Catholics as well.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.