John Allen reports that the US Bishops are taking great comfort in the preliminary report of John Jay College that there’s really nothing distinctive about priests–they don’t stand out in any way from the general society.
Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, for example, said from the floor that the study will be of “great interest,” especially as a way of debunking what he called an “unfortunate media problem” and “a myth, reinforced over time, that there’s something unique about a Catholic priest, about a bishop and his staff,” when it comes to sexual abuse. …
Boosting the apologetic argument that “it’s not just us,” however, may prove to be only the short-term impact of the John Jay study. In the long run, its most significant fallout may come in the arena of today’s growing discussion of Catholic identity.
In theory, Catholicism is supposed to shape a distinctive culture among its followers based on church teaching and tradition; put crudely, Catholics are supposed to be different. In the old days, visible markers that set Catholics apart, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, were intended to symbolize and reinforce a deeper sense of unique Catholic identity. Since the mid-1960s, however, a growing number of voices in the Catholic world have warned that the church seems to be losing this counter-cultural thrust. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, put the point in 1984, “Among the most urgent tasks facing Christians is that of regaining the capacity of non-conformism, i.e., the capacity to oppose many developments of the surrounding culture.”
What the John Jay study appears to suggest, taken at face value, is that at least in the arena of the sexual abuse of minors, a distinctive Catholic ethos is tough to discern. Abusive behavior by priests has mirrored similar misconduct in other walks of life, according to the early results, and the corporate response of the church has often reflected the same patterns as those followed by other social institutions.
It’s deeper than that, though. Catholic theology of the priesthood says that ordination confers an “indelible character“–it makes an “ontological change” in a person. The sacraments are said to confer grace “ex opere operato.” Now the US bishops are rejoicing in this report that can find no difference between priests and non-priests, between Catholics and non-Catholics.