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Baptists are facing the same difficulties as Catholics



In early June, the top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — the second-largest religious body in the United States after Catholics — met in Birmingham, Alabama, to consider sex abuse of youth by leaders in the denomination’s network of churches.

The meeting heard testimony of victims and considered options to correct the problem, which is said by many to be very bad. One participant said sex abuse of the young is an “epidemic” in Southern Baptist churches around the country.

Coincidentally and simultaneously, this country’s Catholic bishops gathered in Baltimore to look at the same problem. In many ways, Baptists and Catholics are as different as they can be. Very often, the differences between the two groups have prompted hostility, each for the other, on both sides.

In the Catholic Church, the ordained run the show: the bishops, priests and deacons. Ultimately, all answer to the pope, the bishop of Rome, which is a notion that disgusts Baptists.

Laypeople, on the other hand, are in control of Baptist churches. Preachers fulfill pastoral responsibilities, but laypeople hire and fire the preachers, and preachers and all church personnel are subject to laypeople. Laypeople set policy.

Catholic clergy and Baptist clergy are alike in this respect. They insist upon rigidly following the moral principles deduced from the Gospel, and they see Jesus Christ as the ultimate and only reliable standard for human behavior. He is the Son of God and savior of humankind.

Putting the differences and the similarities together, what does this common outrage over the sexual abuse of the vulnerable among Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists tell us? Here are six points to consider:

1. Celibacy is not a part of it. Catholic priests are unmarried because the Catholic Church sees lifelong virginity as a spiritual value. Baptist ministers are married men, usually with children. Baptists certainly do not tolerate sexual immorality, but they scorn celibacy as unbiblical and unnatural in the psychological sense.

For that matter, pedophilia is not exclusively a problem of homosexuality. This will dispute what many Protestants — and many Catholics — think, but look at the facts. For Baptists, same-gender unions and marriages are strictly forbidden.

2. Putting the problem in the hands of laypeople is no sure remedy. Decisions are not exempt from bad judgment or bad influences just because laypeople are involved.

3. Thinking first and foremost about the image of the denomination and working within “good ol’ boy” networks, all the while discounting or altogether ignoring injuries done to victims, has fundamentally and repeatedly stood in the way of correcting bad situations.

4. Compromising what is basic to the Gospel — and each denomination’s sense of itself — is consistent. No activity is farther from each communion’s core of beliefs than sex abuse of the young. Both Baptists and Catholics have heard the Lord’s warning that it would be better to be thrown into the sea tied to a millstone than to lead a child into a sinful circumstance (cf. Mt 18:6).

5. Sexual abuse of youth is a psychological illness. Healthy sexual relationships, such as in marriage, do not cure it or prevent it. Abstaining from such relationships or being in unfulfilling sexual relationships, such as unhappy marriages, do not trigger the impulse to be intimate with the young.

6) Abuse is exploitation — using power, wherever its origin — for the worst of purposes in the victimization of the defenseless and innocent.

What can be done? Baptists and Catholics love their respective churches and wish to see their churches admired. Churches are admired when they practice what they preach.

It all has implications far beyond internal policies in either case. America desperately needs strong, clear, bold and believable religious voices. Despite their differences, American Catholics and Baptists are about the only ones left who still say that faithfulness to the moral principles revealed by God is the only path to follow, or else we will reap the whirlwind.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.

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