The Catholic defense is a simple one: “How dare you!”
Impugning the Catholic Church makes you anti-Catholic, which is, obviously, bigotry, no different, the Vatican offers, than anti-Semitism.
Disregarding the irony or the sheer preposterousness of the greatest historical force for anti-Semitism suddenly claiming its mantle, there is another, larger problem with this argument. What we are seeing since the recent revelations of systematic abuse by priests in Europe, and before that by priests in the US, is not anti-Catholics attacking the Church but Catholics themselves in a furious revolt.
Non-Catholics, whatever their feelings about the Church, are not the victims here—nor the prime antagonists. This is an internal matter. Indeed, it involves the most Catholic of the Catholics, a collision of priests and seminarians, or priests and the children of parents trying to raise their sons as close to the Church as possible (mostly sons, although the most recent news involves a priest in Minnesota charged with molesting a 14-year-old girl—a priest who is still working in India). Everybody else is, at most, a rubbernecker.
The better metaphor then is not anti-Semitism or any other religious animosity (the organized letters I’ve been getting from Catholic groups in the last few weeks keep asking why I don’t attack the Muslims), but, instead, the internecine conflicts that brought down the Soviet Union.
The Church, like the old USSR, is the steward not just of its philosophic or spiritual views, but of its power. The sexual abuse scandal is only minimally about doctrine (the obvious debate about priests and celibacy). It is, more centrally, about the ways in which many Catholics believe the Church has abused its power.
The Church, like the old Soviet Union, is dependent upon a certain acquiescence, if not good will, of its own citizens. The threat from within is greater than the threat from without.
True, as with the USSR, if the Church loses its power, it loses its doctrinal authority. Curiously, Timothy Shriver, a scion of one of one of history’s most important Catholic families, discussed the other day
in a Washington Post
op-ed the changes that would have to occur within the Church to give it a chance of survival. He called it, quite specifically, a conversion to what sounded, in his description, an awful lot like Protestantism.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.