The ignition, however, was less of a spark, and more the overwhelming scorch of the sexual revolution. Meanwhile, various bishops, mostly unwittingly, I believe, gradually twisted the angle of the Church's cultural magnifying glass through early abuse coverups and cultural syncretism until, eventually, the heat was focused enough to cause a flame. It's been alight for decades, but it only recently got uncomfortably hot. So, feeling caught, churchmen quickly poured whatever they could on it to stop it from spreading, including a little gas.
The 2018 youth synod is a tactical disaster, but not because it's more of the same. It's not the right sort of move at the wrong time, or a move with the wrong ideas. It's just altogether impractical. It's like watering flowers with a fire hose while the edifice around them is violently consumed.
Not that trying to squelch the inferno at this point would be of any use.
* * *
As my own state of Virginia comes under new scrutiny by the commonwealth's attorney general, I wonder if bishops throughout the country don't subconsciously wish that the Church's institutions would just finish burning down so we can get on with building new ones. Two days before the attorney general's announcement, a priest serving in our diocese was placed on administrative leave for "alleged sexual misconduct with a minor in 1975," when he was "roughly 18 years old, more than 20 years before he was ordained a priest." I don't know this priest, and I have no further knowledge of the case. But this is a typical, tactical response, even when no formal charges can be mustered. And it's not limited to priests; lay leaders, teachers, and others under a cloud of suspicion—however tenuous—are a combustible payload more usefully thrown at the flames than out the window.
It's a reasonable strategy; maybe even the most reasonable one. As I've written before, people in positions of moral authority should be judged at a high level—even if they're not shown to be guilty, or couldn't even easily be shown to be guilty. The liability that they might be is significant. When there's no practical option to investigate cases carefully, respecting the dignity of the accused along with expeditiously pursuing public good, the best choice is simply to pile the accused on the pyre.
The blood on the bishops' hands, then, is just as much that of their sometimes sacrificial victims as it is the real victims of sex abuse.
* * *
The Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment is timely, but extremely ironic. Many young people who've trusted the Church in the past have routinely been abused and disregarded by her—both sexually, but more probably in subtler, more sophisticated ways. And some who've more recently given up their lives and families to serve the Church, often with full knowledge of what some churchmen have done, and with zeal to help bring healing to the faithful, have instead themselves been offered up, either as a holocaust to appease righteous cries for vengeance or simply as convenient, collateral damage.
Discerning one's vocation to holiness is as important as ever. And the particular vocations of the Christian faith are no less wonderful, although they have been badly singed and temporarily disfigured. But we can't be surprised that young people don't find refuge in the Church, or that priestly vocations continue to languish. We can't really even be hopeful that those trends will change anytime soon. The brilliance of the Church's own, ancient faith, drawn from the kerygma of the Gospels, is lost to us, in particular as it concerns anthropology and morality. Ratzinger wrote that post-conciliar moral theology "ended by marginalizing Sacred Scripture even more completely than the pre-conciliar manualist tradition," and that scripture can no longer "offer moral principles that would suitably guide the construction of our actions." But the scriptures show what the early Church claimed, that Christian faith is "a road, a way"—"Not a theory, but the response to the questions, 'How do I live?' and 'What do I do?'" The tools we need to speak that way—as Degnan says, with a "supernatural awareness and vocabulary in our experience of the world"—are now engulfed somewhere well beyond our reach.
Degnan concludes saying that we should not lose hope.
The task of winning the hearts of young people—as Pope Francis clearly understands—is, as always, vital to the life of Christianity. It must be pursued. The reality is that only a smaller, more zealous, and hopefully purer Church will accomplish it.