The Catholic Church sex abuse crisis has raised questions mostly about the repression and prevention of crimes. Theological issues surrounding the abuse crisis are yet to be named; very little has been debated and even less decided regarding changes to the formation and the models of the priesthood. But the most important, and so far unexplored, issue is the impact the abuse crisis has on ecclesiology. The abuse crisis could potentially reopen ecclesiological debates that we consider settled, such as the Donatist controversy solved by Augustine’s emphasis that moral purity is not required for the efficacious functioning of the sacraments. The meaning and consequences of the crisis could also alter ecclesiological understandings of church-state relations and, more generally, relations between religious and secular law.
The meaning and the consequences of the abuse crisis will be far-reaching and it will take a long time to figure out the magnitude of the changes in the relations between church and state, and between religion and the secular. There are, however, a few provisional observations we can make for the field of ecclesiology.
The first observation is that the scandal has been dealt with differently depending not only on the role and presence of the Catholic Church and of the media in a particular country, but also depending on the particular arrangement or establishment of religion in that country. The most interesting example is the Australian case, with the institution of the “Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse” (2012), its final report with its recommendations (2017), and the response of the Catholic Church in Australia to the recommendations (2018). The Australian case offers a sharp contrast to the United States, where the separation between church and state is an obstacle—if not constitutionally, at least politically—to creating a federal government-mandated commission that could investigate American churches and religious groups. Other areas of the world would suggest different church-state relations and effects on the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis. It is therefore not feasible to enumerate possible solutions to the sex abuse crisis (whether in the form of investigations the Church and/or the state could enact, or the changes to church governance that might be undertaken) without understanding the particularities of various church-state systems. The abuse crisis has revealed that despite the “universal” self-understanding of Catholicism, there is a plurality of Catholic Churches shaped by diverse kinds of relationships with the state and secular law.
A second observation concerns how a global situation characterized by the collapse of trust in institutions and between institutions affects ecclesiastical responses to the abuse scandal. The Catholic Church today is pushed not only to put trust in the secular criminal justice system, but also to make critical decisions, such as firing bishops or accepting their resignations, based on sentences issued by secular courts, some of which have been overturned after the pope’s dismissal of the bishop previously declared guilty. The Church’s trust in the secular law of states is relevant for ecclesiology because it redefines the boundaries between secular and religious law in favor of secular law—at least in the case of clergy accused of sexual abuse. This development is part of a significant shift that reframes the Catholic teaching around religious liberty issued at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae. Two elements were added since then that had no role in the debates at Vatican II: the persecution of Christians (in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia) and the rise of biopolitical issues (such as abortion, contraception, and euthanasia). Once aware of the threats to the religious liberty of Catholics, the Church asserted its exemption from or objection to secular law, and affirmed the need to protect its freedom by and from secular law. The sex abuse crisis intervenes in this trend in an opposite direction. If one considers the recommendations sent by the Royal Commission in Australia, and especially the debates surrounding the recommendations, it is hard to miss the rise of a new jurisdictionalism. The recommendations about clerical celibacy and the seal of the confession make this development all too clear.
The sex abuse crisis suggests a third, counterintuitive observation: The once accepted parallelism between church and state has collapsed. In the last essay published by one of the most important church historians in Italy of the last century, Paolo Prodi (1932-2016) wrote that until the twentieth century, Western Christianity was a product of the period between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and emerged via three actors: the church, the state, and the market. Now the market has become something completely different from what it was in the early modern period. But from a historical-theological point of view, the most radical transformation is now affecting church and state. Five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Prodi wrote, the division of labor between churches and nation-states is no longer holding; their cooperation, celebrated with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that put the century-long wars of religion in Europe to an end, is no longer keeping them together. Political power today roams out and beyond the control of nation-states, and religious power roams out and beyond the control of churches and of organized religion. In the long history of the West, the coupling of “the sacred and political power” and “church and state” have been closely associated. Now they are dissociated and alienated. This is true for Christianity but also for other religions, in different forms—Islam included. The crisis of multiculturalism and of laïcitè are part of this picture.
The collapsed parallelism between church and state is relevant for the sex abuse crisis because historically, in the medieval and early modern period, these entities were mirror images of each other; they developed institutionally and philosophically via imitationis or through antagonism, but always thanks to that particular coexistence between the religious and secular that was European Christianitas. What seems to be lost today is the coexistence not just between the Catholic Church and “the Catholic state,” but also the idea of state tout court or at least its theological and philosophical legitimacy. This mirror of the state for the church seems no longer available, because of the state’s crisis of legitimacy and because of a growing alienation between the secular state in the West and Catholicism. Vatican II did not open a new age. Rather, it closed the age of medieval Christendom. The Catholic Church is journeying through this transition toward a different model, that is, a plurality of models, as it becomes a global church.