The doctrinal and liturgical differences between Catholics and Southern Baptists may seem dramatic to theologians, but it is the similarities of those religions that strike the dispassionate onlooker.
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When the Baptists this week trooped off to Birmingham, Alabama, for their annual convention, for instance, sexual exploitation by clergy and staff was much in their thoughts. What used to be regarded as a Catholic curse has gone ecumenical. Thus, in April, repeat child molester Jonathan Bailey, former youth pastor at First Baptist Church in New Orleans, was sentenced to 23 years.
An investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News identified Bailey as one of 400 Southern Baptist church officials — four of them in Louisiana — to have been accused of sex crimes in the last 20 years. “There seems to be a growing sense of vulnerability and a willingness to address this crisis,” the Rev. Russell Moore, the Southern Baptists' head of public policy, has said.
It's about time, but then the Catholics were in no hurry to come to grips with the sins of their ministry either. Even now, 34 years after the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe's guilty plea in Lafayette first revealed how the church was protecting the pederasts in its ranks, the Vatican is not insisting that sexual predators be turned over to the police. The suspicion remains that the church's first concern is its own.
The Catholic church has identified thousands more sexual transgressors than any other faith, but this, perhaps, is a result of universality rather than openness. Religion evidently offers a cover for many a pervert; Episcopalians have been confessing their sins in this area, too.
The scandals have even touched royalty in the person of Britain's Prince Charles, who will be head of the Church of England when he ascends to the throne. The prince remained the friend and benefactor of Peter Ball for years after he resigned as the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester in 1993 to avoid prosecution for abusing a novice monk who went on to take his life by suicide.
Ball was eventually imprisoned in 2015 for abusing a procession of young men who asked him for spiritual guidance.
Back when sex crimes in the house of God were thought to be a Catholic preserve, a popular theory was that if priests were allowed to marry, they would not violate young boys. Not only have predatory Protestants disproved that, but it has become apparent that some Catholic men of the cloth who violate the celibacy rule are strictly heterosexual anyway. It is by no means unknown even for prelates to become fathers in the literal sense. When one was found to have produced a second son, a British newspaper headline gleefully announced, “Bonking Bishop Scores Twice.”
A Protestant bishop is free to marry and have as many children as he wants without attracting a snarky headline, but that didn't stop Ball.
A striking similarity between Catholics and the Southern Baptists is that they do not allow the ordination of women. Religious conservatives evidently still agree with Samuel Johnson's long-ago dictum, pronounced when he was told about the peculiar habits of Quakers: “A woman's preaching is like a dog standing on its hinder (sic) legs. It is not well done, but you are surprised to see it done at all.”
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On the issue of slavery, Johnson, who died in 1784, was way ahead of his time. He was against it, whereas the Southern Baptist Convention was established in 1845 after a rift with abolitionists. The convention finally passed a resolution endorsing racial reconciliation in 1995, and in 2016 voted to “discontinue display of the Confederate Battle Flag.” That came a year after Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston church, and a month before the New Orleans City Council approved the removal of the Confederate monuments.
So religious institutions do sometimes change with the times, albeit at a sluggish pace. To the outsider, Catholics and Southern Baptists are much the same in that regard, too.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.