Our view: Individuals will decide future of Catholic faith

You may have seen this. It’s been resurrected by many in recent days, for good reason.

In 1969, after the tectonic shifts wrought by the Second Vatican Council, a priest by the name of John Ratzinger — his own life tainted for many by service in the Hitler Youth — was asked about the future of the Catholic Church.

“Let us, therefore, be cautious in our prognostications” the future Pope Benedict XVI said, “What St. Augustine said is still true: man is an abyss; what will rise out of these depths, no one can see in advance.”

Roman Catholics throughout the Scranton Diocese and across the commonwealth grapple this week with that abyss, with the exposure of the depths of depravity in some of their priests that spanned decades, and with the horrifying extent of how far bishops — including James Timlin — were willing to go to keep these sins of the fathers covered up.

How much atonement will be enough? What punishment will be just? Catholics may ask themselves if Timlin and other bishops named in the report should be defrocked, perhaps even ex-communicated.

The grand jury report is damning in the blame of many bishops, and in the culture of secret files and code words that permeated the entire approach to priest sexual abuse through the decades. It is unequivocal in noting “individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability.”

Catholics who respect and appreciate their own parish pastor may be wondering — indeed, may have a moral responsibility to ask — how well the hierarchy polices itself. If bishops fail, do the Metropolitans — with their limited authority — step in? Does the Nuncio in Washington have an eye out for transgressions of those below his station? How well does the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops patrol its own ranks? Has the pope done enough to show in no uncertain terms that cover ups and secrets will not be tolerated when it comes to the safety of children and parishioners?

What actions will be sufficient to keep a person from leaving the flock, to justify returning to Mass this week, next month, next year? Are apologies enough? Or is it time for another tectonic shift, a radical restructuring. Is the demand for priest celibacy an edict that needs to go? Should women be allowed to be ordained?

What is the future of the Catholic Church in the wake of the grand jury report? Ratzinger — hardly absolved in this debate thanks to his own prominence in church hierarchy during the cover-ups — may have answered the question long ago.

“From the crisis of today, the church of tomorrow will emerge — a church that has lost much,” he said in 1969. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.

When all is said and done, no religion is about its clerics and leaders. It is always quite literally a matter of personal faith. Each Catholic in this county and this state will decide whether and how his or her faith endures this scandal. The future of the Diocese of Scranton, and the Catholic Church, will emerge from those decisions.