In 1968, it was the disastrous anti-birth control encyclical ''Humanae Vitae," which opened a gulf between the hierarchy and the laity and which lately has the church on the wrong side of the global fight against HIV/AIDS. The coterie of American bishops chosen by Pope John Paul II failed their greatest test by protecting abusive priests instead of the children who were their victims. Now, church authority stands on the edge of yet another act of moral self-mutilation with a coming ''instruction" banning homosexuals from seminaries. Such a policy threatens to turn an imminent program of ''apostolic visitations" of US seminaries, which overtly targets ''heresy," into a full blown sexual witch hunt.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have had direct and indirect contact with well-connected Catholics here -- hardly a hotbed of liberalism -- and the coming instruction is regarded as a catastrophe in the making. With boards of Vatican-appointed investigators poised to swoop down on American schools in which new priests are trained, interrogations of candidates and loyalty tests for teachers already betray a nostalgia for the bygone era of thought-control and snitching. A formally licensed obsession with homosexuality will push the investigation into a realm, as one senior priest put it to me, more of Joseph Stalin than Jesus Christ.
Instead of asking hard questions about the root causes of the priestly sex abuse scandal -- facing problems of the clerical culture itself, including celibacy, authoritarianism, discrimination against women, the immaturity of church teachings on sexuality -- Rome is preparing to scapegoat homosexuals. The idea is astoundingly foolish, based on fantasies of sexual deviance. Supposedly aimed at seminarians, the new discipline is an attack on the priesthood itself, especially on those openly gay men who have proven themselves as faithful servants of the church. It is an invitation for such men to return to the closet, a retreat into psychological imprisonment. Such demonizing of homosexuals is profoundly unjust.
But the policy, combined with the investigation's threat against all nonconformity, infantilizes every present or would-be member of the American Catholic clergy. During the abuse crisis, the ineptness of bishops brought stern challenges from the middle ranks of clergy. Are bishops now attempting, with this ruthless discipline, to eliminate the capacity for independent moral thought that made those challenges not only possible but necessary?
From Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, comes the chilling news that one of the brave priests who saved the church's soul by calling for Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation, the Rev. Walter Cuenin, has been unjustly fired from his position as pastor at Our Lady, Help of Christians in Newton. Cuenin is an exemplary priest. That he has been slandered by the archdiocese in the process of his removal is a mortal betrayal. There are reports that many of the other pastors who challenged Law have been shunted aside as well.
Cardinal Law, the icon of failure, is ensconced in a prestigious position here in Rome. He is an icon of denial, too. Instead of a reformation of all that made the sex abuse crisis possible, the hierarchy is circling its wagons. Good people are being sacrificed. Cruelty as a mode of church governance is back. Sexual imperialism is reasserted as a method of control. The culture of dishonesty lives.
Will it work? The people I talk to here think not. There are gay bishops in the church, some of whom will feel forced to support the new scapegoating. What happens when, in return for their hypocrisy, they are ''outed"? Theologians, whose work of rational inquiry requires a free play of the mind, will reject the strictures of a heresy hunt. Gay priests will refuse to be closeted again, and their straight brothers will not participate in the denigration. Religious orders will defend their members. When the grand inquisitors arrive at seminaries, candidates for the priesthood who have any self-respect will simply walk away. The Catholic people will not allow their good priests to be insulted further.
Can the church be spared this disaster? As of now, the power to avert it rests with one man. The new policy has not been formally promulgated. Pope Benedict XVI could call it off. Whether that is likely to occur is not the point. The world has been awaiting the revelation of his capacity for moral leadership. It is here.