Frank Keating, who recently was forced to resign as head of a national review board investigating the criminal conduct of the Catholic church has an op-ed in the NYT defending the church. He created a firestorm because he had the temerity to say that the bishops, who were behaving like mafia bosses, were, well, acting like mafia bosses.

What I don’t get is why Keating and others remain loyal to their church. I understand loyalty to their faith, even though I don’t share it. But the things that make the Roman church unique aren’t really doctrinal but rather organizational: the belief in apostolic succession and an infallible papacy. Otherwise, they’re just Lutherans with a more impressive art collection. So, when it becomes obvious that the highest levels of the American branch of the church have been corrupt to the core for decades, covering up the most heinous crimes imaginable among its own priesthood, why bother to remain loyal to a leadership that has to be dragged kicking and screaming to reach even the barest level of decent behavior?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    Actually, there are a number of substantial theological differences between Lutherans and Catholics. However, I think you do hit on a key issue–the Catholic faith is very much bound up in reliance not just on a set of systematic theology, but also to a specific institution.

    Protestants, as a group, aren’t (although some individuals may be more wedded to a particular denomination than to their theology). I currently am a “Southern Baptist” but not only have I regularly attended other protestant churches in the past, I could easily take my theology and leave if the Southern Baptist Convention were to do something I found to be intolerable. Indeed, my home church could leave the Convention and still remain a church, indeed could still call itself “Baptist”–it would just be independent. As it is the local Southern Baptist Church is not required to do anything that the Convention decrees (in fact, the Convention doesn’t decree, per se). Many protestant denominations are confederal, to put it in polisci terms. Although there are some protestant denominations that use a rigid institutional structure.

    However, in the Catholic context, a given parish is part of the overall rigidly hierarchical structure, and no such independence in possible.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yep. I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with the Lutherans, since they’re the “original” Protestants. The Episcopalians would probably be a better analogy, although they claim to be both Catholic and apostolic.

  3. jen says:

    Steven said what I was going to say. Dang it!

    As far as the Episcopalians claiming to be Catholic, it’s catholic with a little “c” – in the original definition of catholic it described the whole Christian Church (followers of Christ rather than the smaller denominations). So technically, all Christians are catholic in that sense – we’re all part of one body of believers.

    The Roman Catholic church took it to another level. And then Luther’s Reformation established the break-up of the larger body to the smaller denominations we have now.

  4. Brian says:

    As I pointed out at my blog last weekend, it’s the Mafia bosses who had a reason to be upset with Keating.

  5. I don’t know if I can do your question justice, as I now am, and as half the Internet (including my site) have disappeared from my ISP’s DNS servers, but here goes:

    Perhaps there is more to the Church than its organization. Even if not, that’s not an inconsequential artefact. It may mean nothing to anybody else but me, but that organization extends to the beginning of our modern Christian heritage, and however you look, it is through it that we reach to its earlier roots.

    As an organization, it dates to before the election of its first Pope in 133 AD. It gave us the Bible. It gave us Christian theology, which grew into many flavors. The Catholic theology even alone is a rich one, that — although you seem to dismiss it lightly — a lifetime’s dedicated work would not be sufficient to master (and which at its essence springs almost whole from a few dozen words). That theology was harvested from all the world, and informed the minds and hearts and spirits of men for what will soon be millennia, and it flourishes today.

    It gave us colleges. Hospitals. Not only specific institutions, but the prototypes for those institutions. It provided a skeleton for a way of life that made possible the Renaissance that splintered it, and in many ways, bettered it. It was through its sundered, Byzantine, “organization” that much of the knowlege which fueled that rebirth came. Knowledge which would not have survived without it.

    We learn, if not all believe, and even if not many act on it, that the church is one body, and our concern is all the members of that body. The admonishment is to live so that they will know us by our love. That is not something that changes because a few, or many, of its stewards have forgotten it, or misconstrued its requirements.

    It has been the home and haven for millions now departed, whom we believe are cojoined in a community with us. It has seen their joys, tribulations, labors, and sacrifices. Indeed, sacrifices which deserve more than to be tossed aside because there is a more appealing clique, or a less embarrassing one.

    Tellingly, it’s structure has allowed it to remain in existence for all this time. Perhaps the current climate needs a less rigid set of rules, but I take solace in the fact that my Church is built to last. It has seen a history of storms. I believe it will endure a future of them as well.

    Today we readily cast aside lifetime commitments, and our “stars” are famous for it. But my grandparents were wed until Death parted them, and they honored their union, and each other, all their days. I shudder to think that my wife might leave me because I am ill, and mentally and physically far less than I was when we married.

    One might as well wonder why military units don’t discard the decorations which other men died for as to wonder why we don’t flee the Church. Did you serve in a unit with a proud tradition of faithful service? I remember one of the first ships I served on, which was described to me as much degraded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Stoners, thieves, violent men, un-seamanlike layabouts victimized it, and as far as many could see, unmade it.

    The Reagan build-up gave it a new life, and the care and pride of the few who loved what it was made it worth honoring when I was a young man. The NCOs who trained me — who saw the changes for themselves — could not help but relay the history they had seen. Some would say it was only a machine, but those I served with would’ve largely given their lives rather than shame its name. The concern for my shipmates which they taught me, even if I cannot recall how to determine 2 × 2 from day to day, will stay with me as long as my mind still functions. If the you can understand why that might be so, does the continuing reverence for the Catholic Church really surprise you?

    One may not be able to go home, but roots so deep are an attachment, a touchstone, a source of faith, a foundation, and a powerful refuge all in itself. It seems silly to abandon it for even a foul period of abhorrent behaviour.