Not Too Big to Fail: Break Up the Catholic Church

Not Too Big to Fail: Break Up the Catholic Church
Dan Kraker/Minnesota Public Radio via AP
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Thousands of sex crimes by priests over at least several decades, compounded by institutional cover-ups, in Pennsylvania and around the worldCenturies of financial and other corruption. A culture of secrecy that facilitates and hides criminal activity.

This is the Catholic Church’s record, and it has no viable plan to change its criminal culture. It’s time to break up the Church.

Splitting the Catholic Church into several or many separate churches is the best way to sharply reduce church sex crime, corruption, and cover-ups. The separate churches would compete with each other for members and clergy in the same way that non-Catholic churches do. The competition would produce more transparency and better practices that would minimize church crime and corruption. Some of the separate Catholic churches would be scandal-free; others would not. But as with non-Catholic churches, both worshippers and clergy would vote with their feet, move to better-run churches, and thereby impose competitive discipline, financial and otherwise, on poorly run churches.

For at least some of the churches, the better practices adopted would include ending the requirement that priests be celibate. Eliminating the celibacy requirement would be the most effective step to reduce church sex crime.

Why? The celibacy requirement operates like other prohibitions. Prohibitions don’t prevent activities. They produce black markets and crime. For example, the Volstead Act did not end alcohol sales. It instead created a vast black market that facilitated illegal alcohol sales (and financed organized crime). Prohibitions against drugs, gambling, and prostitution have produced similar results. They haven’t ended drug use, gambling, or prostitution; they have caused these activities to flourish illegally.

The clerical celibacy requirement is no different. Prohibiting priests from marrying and having sex leads priests to commit sex crimes to satisfy their powerful, all too human, sexual needs and desires. Ending the celibacy requirement, as the Church of England did in 1549 not long after Henry VIII separated it from the Catholic Church, and allowing priests to marry and have sex will sharply reduce church sex crime, just as the repeal of Prohibition sharply reduced illegal alcohol sales.

Splitting up the Catholic Church would require the pope and the top levels of the Church’s hierarchy to cede much of their power, but separate Catholic churches could adhere to the same theological doctrines, celebrate the same Mass, and continue their educational and charitable good work. They also could theologically diverge and form different denominations, as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and other Protestant denominations have.

The breakup of the Catholic Church could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A “big bang” approach would declare each parish, diocese, or archdiocese an independent church entity and allow the new independent entities to organize into associations, remain standalone churches, or further subdivide. Another approach would call for conventions of Catholics in each nation to organize their churches. Like non-Catholic churches, the resulting separate Catholic churches could end up organized in a myriad of ways. The Orthodox Church has 22 self-governing churches with the same or very similar theology and worship. Protestant churches range from those with a single building to the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Splitting up the Catholic Church, however it is done, would increase competition, produce more transparency and better practices, and accomplish what the existing Catholic Church has proven it cannot: sharply reduce church crime and corruption.

The Catholic Church is not too big to fail. It’s time to break it up. 

David M. Simon is a Chicago lawyer. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the law firm with which he is affiliated. For more, please see

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