The following op-ed was published on the website of The New York Times on September 6, 2018:
I have counterintuitive advice for the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, who feel battered and besieged: Welcome the anger of the laity.
In the past two months, the church has been rocked by multiple accusations in quick succession, including charges of widespread clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, decades of molestation by a cardinal and cover-ups extending all the way to the top of the Vatican.
Almost two decades after the sex abuse scandals of the early 2000s — which elicited promises of “never again” — anger among the laity is palpable and widespread. I hear it every day, in every conversation with faithful Catholics, conservative and liberal.
The first impulse of many leaders in the church has been to find a way to deflect or quell this anger. But this is a deadly error.
To an outsider, this might seem like a crisis involving sexuality and celibacy. It’s not. From the predation to the cover-up, this is a crisis of betrayal, much like that between spouses — an apt and common metaphor to describe the relationship between the clergy and laity.
The spousal bond is a cosmic kind of love. Happy couples, even secular ones, have a strong sense of what is meant by “one flesh,” and indeed, feel an almost visceral intermingling of their identities. Marriage is the one place where guile should be unnecessary and indeed, futile. This surrender to spousal love can be the source of the greatest joy and pleasure.
But woe be to the partner willing to betray this bond. If a friend or business partner double-crosses you, it feels awful. In contrast, spousal betrayal is so catastrophic that psychologists often compare it to death. Whether the clergy is aware or not, the Catholic lay faithful smell death in the air these days.
When people are betrayed, they begin to question everything. Did you ever mean it when you told me you loved me? Articulated or not, Catholics are beginning to wonder something similar: If some priests and bishops don’t believe the church’s most obvious teachings on pastoral care and sexual morality, what else do they not believe? Do they think the Gospels are false?
Anger is normal and healthy — in fact, necessary — when there is betrayal. And it is not necessarily dangerous. To extend the metaphor of a marriage, anger is not correlated with separation and divorce, according to the relationship expert John Gottman, a professor at the University of Washington. Anger says, “I care about this and want to fix it.”
Anger is hazardous only when it is suppressed. Why? The radio host Hugh Hewitt gave a clue when he wrote in The Washington Post recently, “Those of us in the Catholic community who gave the church a second and even a third chance have been left disgusted.” The key word here is disgust, a feeling of revulsion that creeps in behind unremediated anger — disgust with the people and institutions that not only have failed to care for the vulnerable and follow their own teachings to behave morally, but also do not care enough to hear and absorb the anger of the laity.
The sociologist Warren TenHouten observes that when disgust is added to anger, it creates a particularly deadly psychological compound: contempt. Contempt is, in the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
Professor Gottman says that contempt is the best predictor of permanent separation; indeed, it is signs of contempt — sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, hostile humor — that he looks for in couples on the way to divorce court. Perhaps you have been amazed at how two people once in love now talk about each other in the most dismissive, disparaging terms. It is because unsettled anger has spawned disgust, producing cold contempt.
Contempt presents an existential crisis for the church today. Imagine a cheating husband telling his wife, “Let’s pray for all of the people who have been hurt by my philandering, including me.” If the reaction to righteous wrath is defensiveness, opacity and anodyne platitudes, today’s anger will become mockery and derisive jokes by ex-parishioners tomorrow.
The bishops should open themselves sincerely to confrontation, and gratefully embrace the results. These will certainly include a full investigation with lay oversight and swift, remorseless consequences for perpetrators and their enablers, no matter how famous and powerful.
Anything less is to invite the greatest threat to the love of the laity for their church.