A critical component of modern conservative thought in the United States has been the outsized role played by Catholic men and women, particularly those who converted to Catholicism as adults. Even as white Evangelicals constitute the Republican party’s most loyal faction of religious voters, Catholics remain prominent among conservative public figures. It’s an impressive cast that includes everyone from leading journalists and academics to presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices.
There is what might be called an attractively “Tory” quality to this: a conservative elite committed to an old-world church, bound both in internal organization and in the public imagination to ideals of tradition, hierarchy, and historic continuity.
Many conservatives clearly find the Catholic Church deeply attractive on intellectual and aesthetic grounds. The notion of a nearly two-millennia-old religious institution, serving as a guardian of pre-Enlightenment wisdom, is compelling to anyone whose worldview is defined by a skepticism of progressivism.
Catholic art, architecture, titles, music, dress, and liturgy offer a similar oasis of the pre-modern in a modern world, a refuge of traditionalism within a culture that scorns the old. These characteristics of Catholicism are often admired by conservatives of other faiths, or even those of no faith at all.
As scandals within the Church dominate recent headlines, however, a sense of disillusionment and betrayal, both spiritual and moral, now pervades much of the commentary from conservative Catholic intelligentsia in the U.S. The Pennsylvania grand-jury report — and its monstrous tales of rape and sexual abuse committed by priests, as well as related cover-ups — has prompted many leading center-right Catholic commentators to new heights of rhetorical fury. At the same time, their fresh outrage feels continuous with a preexisting sense of unease at divisions and controversies within the Church. There is a sense that the church whose legitimacy they have exerted so much energy towards defending is simply not honoring its end.
Catholicism distinguishes itself from many Christian denominations with its hierarchy, which is both beautifully elaborate and unapologetically undemocratic. While every church has its ministers, the Catholic Church places unique importance on the organization of its clergy and the handing down of its leadership roles throughout its 2,000-year history. At its best, this creates a vast yet coherent church family, animated by a common love of God. At its worst, though, it means the Church can be deeply susceptible to crises of legitimacy when its officials debase their positions through heretical belief or evil actions.
This is why, when sex scandals within the Church come to light, observations that the “vast majority” of clergy did nothing wrong strike many as unmoving. If, as Catholics maintain, the Church’s hierarchy derives its legitimacy from a transmission of spiritual authority passed down from the Apostles, then even isolated instances of malfeasance within that hierarchy can shake people’s faith in this claim.
Even before the Pennsylvania grand-jury revelations, and the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick before that, many conservative Catholics in the U.S. already felt alienated from the papacy of Pope Francis. It was already clear before the recent allegations that he may have actively protected Cardinal McCarrick that traditional-minded Catholics were not eager to defer to Francis’s leadership on doctrinal questions. His recent declaration regarding the injustice of the death penalty was scorned by many Catholic commentators, and his preoccupation with climate change, immigration, and capitalism equally so. Even John Paul II, a Catholic saint and symbol of the Church’s resistance to Soviet atheist tyranny, is now increasingly likely to be judged for his weaknesses as a disciplinarian of Church crimes.
Fresh proof that some priests and bishops were indulging in and covering up sin more vicious and sacrilegious than any parishioner would have dared to contemplate is but the latest blow in this breakdown of trust.
The greatest victims of the failures of priests and leaders in the Catholic Church are of course those whose bodies were violated and brutalized, and who were then denied justice. Yet those laymen and women who have used their public positions to praise the Church’s virtues face their own tragic moment in which their faith enters an unprecedented era of hatred and rejection.
America is not a Catholic country, so one can’t easily make analogies to societies such as those in Ireland, Spain, or Quebec, where the decline of the Church’s moral authority helped herald the secularism that defines those nations today. American secularism is a product of different variables, which has given American Catholic intellectuals a different role, since the case for their Church draws heavily on its existence as an institution admirably contrary to the predominantly Protestant character of American life.
That argument can still be made, but in the wake of scandals, it is becoming more convoluted, more rooted in faith alone, and thus less persuasive in an irreligious age when broad skepticism of Christianity is becoming increasingly mainstream.
A Church whose most powerful appeal rests on transcendent claims now looks very much of this world.