The Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., doesn’t claim to know how the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church will be resolved.
But the Georgetown University theology professor, one of the premier Catholic intellectuals of modern times, came to Sacred Heart University Feb. 6 to offer a bird’s-eye view of how the Church found itself in crisis and how it might find its way out.
“History is my passion and the lens with which I approach most everything I think about,” he told a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 in University Commons. “The lens is not a crystal ball.
“Historians can provide perspectives, not a solution.”
O’Malley’s talk, “The Current Crisis: Thoughts and Historical Perspectives,” was part of Sacred Heart’s Contemporary Catholic Conversations series presented by the Curtis Center, the Department of Catholic Studies and the Jorge Bergoglio Lecture Series. It was co-sponsored by the Human Journey Colloquia Series.
O’Malley received an honorary Doctor of Theology degree, honoris causa, from SHU at a special academic convocation in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit earlier in the day.
To O’Malley’s way of thinking, the Catholic Church has been in crisis since the days of Apostle Peter’s ministry. After all, he said, one can always point to scandal—from Judas’ betrayal, to the Reformation, to persecution during the French Revolution.
However, the current crisis is distinct due to “the heinousness of the acts” and the witting and unwitting cover-up of the corruption of minors, O’Malley said.
“In that regard, our crisis is serious beyond measure,” the Jesuit said.
While the Vatican and others originally saw the issue as “an American problem” or felt the “barely concealed glee of the media” blew it out of proportion, O’Malley said Catholic leaders have come to realize that the problem stems, in part, from the longstanding culture and institutional forms within the Church.
Clericalism within the Church’s hierarchy—the “clergy knows best” attitude—breeds a certain exceptionalism and cronyism that left some priests believing they were above the law, he said. The same phenomenon can be found in the military, police, political factions, the media and academia, O’Malley said, but clericalism in the clergy itself is “especially deplorable.”
O’Malley believes the Catholic Church must continue to address the ways it welcomes and includes the laity to take leadership roles within parishes and throughout the Church hierarchy. He believes bishops and the entire Church leadership have made significant progress in dealing with allegations and making the Church a stronger and safer place.
The Church could do a better job of promoting the steps it has taken to right wrongs, and he’d like to see the media make the public more aware of those efforts.
“The record is not perfect,” he said, “but it is remarkably good.”
O’Malley pointed to Pope Francis’ support for synods—advisory groups often comprising both clergy and laity—as a step in the right direction. He also applauded the pope’s call for women to hold a more prominent place at each level of Church hierarchy.
“That’s an astonishing statement,” O’Malley said.
Synods could more fully involve the laity, help hold bishops accountable and provide the transparency needed to move forward, he said.
“Will it ever happen?” the historian asked. “I do not know. I do not have a crystal ball.”