The day the Antichrist is ripped from his papal throne, true religion will guide the world. Or perhaps it’s the day the last priest is gutted, and his entrails used to strangle the last king, as Voltaire demanded. Yes, that’s when we will see at last the reign of bright, clean, enlightened reason—the release of mankind from the shadows of medieval superstition. War will end. The proletariat will awaken from its opiate dream. The oppression of women will stop. And science at last will be free from the shackles of Rome.
For almost 500 years now, Catholicism has been an available answer, a mystical key, to that deep, childish, and existentially compelling question: Why aren’t we there yet? Why is progress still unfinished? Why is promise still unfulfilled? Why aren’t we perfect? Why aren’t we changed?
Despite our rejection of the past, the future still hasn’t arrived. Despite our advances, corruption continues. It needs an explanation. It requires a response. And in every modernizing movement—from Protestant Reformers to French Revolutionaries, Communists to Freudians, Temperance Leaguers and suffragettes to biotechnologists and science-fiction futurists—someone in despair eventually stumbles on the answer: We have been thwarted by the Catholic Church.
Or by the Jews, of course. Perhaps it’s no accident that anti-Semitism should also be making a reappearance these days. The poet Peter Viereck’s famous line—“Catholic-baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals”—gets quoted in too many contexts to express the connection anymore, and, God knows, the history of Catholicism has plenty of anti-Semitic sins to expiate. Still, Jews and Catholics do have this much in common: In moments of uncertainty and doubt, the people of the West go harking back again to their old gods and traditional answers—blaming the Jews and the Catholic Church.
As it happens, the question Why aren’t we there yet? is, in its way, a biblical question. Christianity spread across the world the Bible’s new idea of history—born from the vision that God is a God who entered time, and time is moving toward a goal. Even modern nonbelievers still somehow believe this part; in important metaphysical ways, their progressive view of the world remains Christian, albeit with Christ stripped out.
Innumerable books have been written about the good effects of this forward-aiming view of history, from Christopher Dawson’s old Progress and Religion to Rodney Stark’s recent The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Perhaps not enough has been said, however, about one of its bad effects. As we wait for the Second Coming—or its many secular stand-ins—an odd, hysterical impatience can take hold. We worked so hard, and still the change in human nature didn’t come. Still heaven didn’t get built on earth. Evil must have intervened, and since the past is the evil against which progress fights, what more obvious villain than the Catholic Church, that last-surviving remnant of the ancient darkness?
Welcome to the Year of Our Lord 2010. Welcome to our own odd hysteria.
The best sign of such hysterical moments may be the difficulty of anything sane or sensible being heard in them. As Newsweek noted on April 8, the surveys and studies over the past 30 years show “little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue.” Nonetheless, in 2002, after the last set of revelations, “a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 64 percent” of Americans “thought Catholic priests ‘frequently’ abused children.”
A poll released on April 13 this year found that between 8 and 11 percent of Canadians say they know personally a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest—which works out to well over 2 million people, out of a national population over 33 million. Given the number of Canadian claims over the last 50 years, that would require every abuse victim to know thousands and thousands of people—but the poll respondents aren’t lying, exactly. They’re responding, quite accurately, to an atmosphere, reinterpreting the past and reinventing the present to conform to the ambient understanding of the world.
Even in such an atmosphere, however, it’s worth setting down the sane, sensible thing to be said about the new round of Catholic child-abuse cases that has obsessed first Europe and now America in recent weeks.