Although I grew up in an interfaith household [my father was an agnostic and my mother was an atheist], I never learned much about religion as a boy, not even Judaism, since I took a pass on a bar mitzvah and bought Natie Gold’s set of Lionel model trains with the $100 my parents gave me as compensation for not having a big party. My only encounter with the past in high school was Mr. Wepner’s Modern European History course, but all I remember of it is that we had to take notes [uncommon in high school courses in the forties.] In college, I quickly moved to the forefronts of logic and analytic philosophy [which in those days meant the analytic/synthetic distinction and related arcana], and as a graduate student, of course, I learned nothing beyond the four corners of my discipline. It was not until I got my first teaching job as an Instructor in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, assigned to teach the history of Europe from Caesar to Napoleon, that to defend myself against accusations of gross incompetence I actually sat down and read 20,000 pages of European history. Among other things, I discovered the Reformation. To be sure, even growing up in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, I had heard distant rumors of a distinction between Catholics and Protestants, but since that did not seem to have any relation to Gödel’s Incompleteness proof, I paid very little attention.
To prepare myself to confront a class of Harvard preppies, all of whom, it appeared, had taken six or seven years of European history at Groton and Phillips Andover Academy, I actually read some Luther and bought an English translation of Calvin’s Institutes into which I dipped desultorily. I discovered for the first time the subtle distinctions among the various Protestant sects, and managed to commit some of it to memory. Coupled with what I had learned about the almost two millennium old Roman Catholic Church, I was sufficiently clued up on Christianity to avoid embarrassment in my twice weekly classes.
Which brings me to the current Roman Catholic sex crisis. The casus belli of the original Reformation was the sale of indulgences – partial reductions in the punishment required in Purgatory for temporal sins before admission to the eternal bliss of heaven. The broader centuries long resistance to the authority of Rome and the Papacy exploded in a rejection of the political structure of the Church, leading to a splintering of large segments of the Roman Catholic world into a wide assortment of sects: Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, even Shakers and Quakers.
The current crisis is much, much deeper and more dangerous to the survival of the Roman Catholic Church than the sale of indulgences ever was. The immorality of the clergy, their sheer evil [if I may, uncharacteristically, use a term drawn from Theology, not Ethics], the total complicity of the hierarchy at every level from Diocese to Vatican, in my judgment threatens the survival of the Church in its present form.
I do not think we should be misled by the mayfly brevity of our current secular attention. The first Reformation was a century or more in its development. The present crisis is developing at breakneck speed for an institution as ancient and tradition-bound as the Catholic Church.
How will this crisis play out? I have no idea, but it would genuinely surprise me if it were simply to subside and die.