Monday, March 29, 2010

Wanted: A Sign of Hope in the Catholic Sex Scandal

Not being a Catholic I don't have much cause to talk about the heightening sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. But as I was thinking about it yesterday I remembered what Timothy Radcliffe OP said about symbols in What is the Point of Being a Christian?. Our age is one in which images are more powerful than ever, so much so that some worry about the diminished power of words. If the Church is to communicate effectively it must also harness the power of images - and of course we already have powerful images in the sacraments. In the Lord's Supper, for example, we have a "foretaste of the feast to come." It is a sign of hope. Through these signs of hope

we open windows for God's transforming grace in the world. It is through attentiveness to meaning and not brute force that we share in God's speaking a word that brings the Kingdom, that says "let human beings flourish" and we will. In The Merchant of Venice Portia says, "How far that little candle throws his beams/So shines a good deed in a naughty world."
He gives the example of the former Pope:
When Pope John Paul II went to Jerusalem many Israelis were sceptical, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs. What difference might this visit make? More words. But he transformed the situation when he went to the Wailing Wall and took his silent place there with Jews lamenting the destruction of the Temple. He shared their desolation. They were moved "by the sight of that frail, lonely individual standing by the wall of what was once the Temple, carrying with him the weight of centuries of estrangements, determined to repent of the past and chart a new way forward". Signs that speak, work.
Pope Benedict needs such a sign now. He should gather together a representative group of the abuse victims and announce new rules stating that all suspected cases of child abuse should be handed over to the local authorities and any priests attempting to cover up such cases will themselves be subject to severe disciplinary action by the Church. Then Benedict should abdicate.

I don't know what he knew or didn't know. It hardly matters: public perception is that he had some part in the cover-up. There could be no more powerful sign than for one of the most powerful men in the world to give up his power as an act of contrition. Even if he contributed in no way to the cover-up it would still demonstrate real humility and willingness to sacrifice himself for the sins of others.

It would also serve as a sign of hope because it would show determination to make abusive priests accountable for their sins. It would be very difficult for subsequent popes to return to the status quo ante. Such a sign would perhaps "open windows for God's transforming grace in the world". 


  1. I think that would be a powerful sign.

    My own sense is that facts that will surface will make this clear one way or another. I think there's a decent chance that he handled things wrong in his early years but became more aware of how to handle this correctly as time went on. Though I can also imagine him turning out very complicit. Or perhaps more innocent than the media suggests. That being the case, I am not ready to decide how this should be handled.

    A new policy regarding local authorities is something I would not expect. The Roman Catholic church does not have a Two Kingdom theory, as far as I know. The church is considered to have real jurisdiction. So their decision to investigate on their own reflected a doctrine of the church. The consequences were, as we all know, tragic. But the doctrinal problem remains. Who is in authority is a real question. It is not decided by who does the job better. It is decided philosophically. I happen to think the Roman Catholic church is wrong here. But given their assumptions, I don't expect a huge change.

  2. I have to say, the more I hear about this the more I feel this is really deeply embedded in the Catholic church. The best argument exculpating Benedict XVI is "everyone did it" -- think about that. Everyone knew the church was honeycombed with men who abused sometimes five, a hundred boys. I don't normally want to be a creepy anti-Catholic conspiracist, but if you read even summaries of what Leon Poodles has written about this, this goes way deep, and back into the 1940s (in other words almost as far back as living memory). I wonder, was this really the "sexual revolution" that caused this, as conservative Catholics want to claim?

    Then you think about how common pedarasty was in organizations like the Spartan army, or the Mamluk armies in Egypt (virtually universal in both cases). Those organizations were powerful, confident, sure of their rectitude -- and the bonding that made them powerful was based on rape of the boys joining it. How different was/is the Catholic church? Suddenly like with Girard telling us how killing the innocent is embedded in our societies, you wonder, is pedarasty really not just an occasional diversion or vice, but a powerful device for social construction.

    I don't know, but boy, I can't help but wonder . . .

  3. Really fantastic comments, both of you. You've given me new ways to think about this.

  4. CPA, there is a lot to consider in your suggestions. I would want to add the idea of honor culture to this. I think the idea of "bonding" tends to bring to mind tender emotional connection. Therapeutic considerations of unmet needs. Which may explain some of what happens in our time. But more likely, I think this would have been about dominance in the older cultures. I don't know exactly how it would function. But this is a point James Bowman makes in his book Honor: A History. We have a generic word "sex" that we expect to have explanatory power, when in fact it usually fits into a larger picture whose categories have to be learned. When we look at the Catholic church, dominance may or may not work in this fashion. Though some accounts I've read where it was just part of a larger pattern of abuse suggest it sometimes did. Then I start to wonder about corrupted images of unlimited authority that lead to this.

  5. I don't know, Jeremy. What you suggest appeals to my sensibilities pretty strongly, but I wonder if from a Catholic perspective — a non-progressive or -dissident perspective, that is — the idea of papal abdication in face of scandal, even if the pope himself is implicated, can make the same sort of sense. The office is understood to be by God's appointment, isn't it? We tend to see it as a position of personal privilege & an elected post, but tmy sense is that our habitual view is alien to their ecclesial system's own logic. I suspect abdication would be received as dereliction, abandonment of the sheep, even under these circumstances, rather than as a sacrificial gesture. That is, if it were to appear to the Vatican as an option for Benedict, which I'm guessing it wouldn't. (For one thing, in a body as vast & systematically hierarchical as the Catholic Church, you can imagine that scandals taking down Popes could quickly get to be a regular occurrence. — And think of that in terms of the opening of opportunity for more aggressive power struggles among the Church's factions. Not necessarily a message of hope & peace for the people of God on that score.)

    Seems worth considering, too, that there are distinctions between kinds of signs to be thought through. To put it kind of crudely, you know, image management is a pole apart from the Church's propagating sacred things of the Church via her sacred — which is in part to say, her given — images. I don't mean that I think you're confusing things that are so different. But image is tricksy business. 'The power of images' is something to be wary of in our time, maybe, precisely because of its practical potential.

  6. Should have said, maybe, precisely because of its practical meaning.

  7. Paul:
    Excellent points. After reading your comments I see that I haven't done a good job of trying to see this from the Catholic perspective, from within their understanding of the papal office.

    Just a point of clarification: The only reason I suggested he should resign in the face of this scandal is because of its enormity. I've read commentators say that it is the worst thing to happen to the Catholic church in well over a hundred years (I can't vouch for the accuracy of that statement). I don't think popes should resign over every scandal. Just that this one is so incredibly huge and ugly.

  8. Yes, that's how I took you, and I see it too: this scandal seems to outdo, for extent of evil & its effects, anything else in the historical neighborhood you might compare with it. That's the sense people within & without the Church who'd call for a major hierarchy shakeup have to argue from. It's potent — and the more potent because here everyone is watching & forming some judgment. But perceptions of what's an enormity or an emergency demanding shakeup are fairly malleable. (Think what happens to political perceptions in this country every few years as presidential election approaches, how frequently we manage to understand some development — say, the problem of winding up or down one war or another, or an ideological confrontation like we've had over health-care reform — as the crucial thing for generations.) I gather that the Church's volatility — prone even to violent conflict — in centuries past has led to some considerable structural reinforcement, with time, for all kinds of threat of political upheaval. And I gather that her memory's long & will tend to ensure that even this mess of messes doesn't crack the defenses against a new period of volatility.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.