Is Awareness of Abuse Now an Essential "Stake" in Catholic Identity?

Since June 2002 in the printed pages of America magazine and here on its blog (such as, more recently, here and here), I have tried to make occasional theological sense of the unfolding sexual/managerial abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church. As someone who works in the area of practical theology, the lived experience of faith, critically and appreciatively understood, is an important consideration for me in trying to do any theological work. 

Reading today's newspaper made me wonder anew at what Catholicism is facing (or not facing). Like some other commentators, I believe that this scandal is as much about the fundamental terms of the church and theology as it is about problematic "accretions" to an otherwise unproblematic ecclesial-theological substructure.


In today's New York Times, I read about the response of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to allegations made in the current trial in Philadelphia exploring sexual abuse and coverup at allegedly high levels of the Catholic Church there. According to news coverge, Bishop Bransfield was refuting claims that he himself was guilty of sexual abuse and that he also knew of abuse by another priest. 

Of course, I don't know what the truth is in this particular case, and as much as anyone, I hope for a fair trial and a just verdict in every aspect and for everyone affected.

But my point concerns the highly visible, public proliferation of these disputes, reports, and trials regarding abuse in the Catholic Church over the past decade in the United States, and what they might mean for the ongoing and unfolding experience of Catholic identity in this country. Again and again for ten years running, the press has been filled with testimonies, accusations, and sometimes denials, concerning abuse of young men, teenagers, or children by priests. A great many of these testimonies and accusations have proven true. This is so much the case that, as I argued in a recent book, the sexual abuse of minors is the awful lodestar for all future Catholic theology in the United States. It is a call to a major theological rethinking of the church in practice. Moreover, these crucial matters are so frequently on the radar for so many baptized Catholics that I wonder whether, ten years into the latest ecclesial convulsion, Catholic identity in the United States is being marked anew by the crisis -- in a way that will and should change the sorts of questions that students of theology ask about what it means to be Catholic. 

Here is more of what I mean: about fifteen years ago, theologian Kathryn Tanner (now at Yale) wrote a deeply reflective book called Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Augsburg Fortress, 1997). While not itself a work of Catholic theology, Tanner argued that developments in cultural studies, including theories of ordinary life and everyday experience, could help theology understand that religious communities are rarely joined by consensus on normative beliefs or practices.

Rather, she suggested, theologians should study religious identity as a matter of proximity to some "common stake" about which members disagree and about which they care. In other words (and Tanner is not the only one to argue something like this), religious identity is usually more a matter of where one stands with regard to matters on which people take sides than with regard to some presumed essential, ahistorical essence like the way "principles" or "values" are often portrayed.

What holds people together in a "shared" religious identity is not that they have basic agreements, but that they have "common stakes" on which they take up varying tensive perspectives. For many Catholics, I think, a rough and ready sketch of those common stakes would probably include: teaching authority, mass, priesthood, Eucharist, the body, women, divorce, sexuality, and more. Many Catholics disagree on what these "matters" (symbolic while always tied to real persons/experiences) mean in Catholic life, yet the felt significance of these stakes helps make up the core of Catholic identity. I am here applying Tanner to Catholic identity; Tanner herself does not do this. Moreover, her argument is more subtle than I can render in a brief blog post. If you are interested, I suggest you read it for yourself. 

With apologies for lack of nuance, what I am wondering here is whether sexual abuse has now become, or is in the process of becoming, one of those "common stakes" for Catholic identity in the USA.

That is, whether a felt response to clerical sexual abuse (and various items related to it) is now what is "called up" in people's minds and hearts when they picture what has to be accounted for when talking about Catholicism. This is not to suggest that baptized Catholics (whether they identify as practicing, non-practicing, post-practicing, or something else) all agree on the causes, course, and consequences of the sexual/managerial abuse scandal, but that sexual abuse is inching its way upward into the lived palette of colors available for public discussion of Catholicism. 

We will have to await future studies to see if this is indeed the case, but how Catholic identity is interpreted today will set up the very frameworks for the studies that will be undertaken tomorrow.

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Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
Although  sex abuse happens in families and in other institutions, it does seem like the abuse crisis in the church says something particular about Catholicism.  I just watched a video lecture by a medieval history professor at Northwestern about the medieval roots of the sex abuse problem in the church.  It was chilling how the justifications used by the current church leaders for covering up the abuse and moving priests/monks around are the same ones that were used in the middle ages, with back-up from theologians like Augustine.   The video is here ...
david power
6 years 9 months ago
I am afraid to watch that video Crystal.I still retain a certain love for Augustine  and will bookmark the link for another day...
This is a great posting by Tom , and I think he is correct or at least the answer to the question he poses is yes.
But there are two things I have noticed quite clearly.The difference between catholics from countries with a media less beholding to the Church and those with a media that is still afraid to mention certain taboo subjects.And the difference between catholics who are trying to look the truth in the face (perhaps they just hate the church)and those whose institutionalism is far greater than any desire to look at reality.In the first case it is striking to see in countries like Italy and Mexico and Peru how little coverage the sex abuse scandal gets.I have friends from all of those countries and most of them know next to nothing about the coverup .They think it is a case of a few kids getting abused and then the bishops finding out and putting a stop to it.
The second is very visible even here on America.Certain commenters have never registered what happened.In Theological terms I believe  it is called willful ignorance, kinda like my approach to Crystal's video link.These catholics are hoping that some day soon the old battles can be resumed (women priests, abortion,gay marriage et al).These commenters get fired up about economic issues or things like the Mass or Papal authority questions .Of course we all get turned on by different things ,but it is clear that many "conservative" catholics are trying to block out what happened.They have not reached the level of empathy that Jesus exhibited in the Gospels.Why not?Difficult question to answer.Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa were both far more concerned with the Priesthood and keeping up appearances than with the abused.They too could not reach that empathy.Maybe we feel that Empathy will lead us away from so many levers of power.  It may even unravel what we consider sanctity to be.      
Thomas Farrell
6 years 9 months ago
I have not read Kathryn Tanner’s book.
I’ve read only Tom Beaudoin’s account of her book above.
From his account, I do not understand how this stake-talk would work.
Let me back up. For years, I’ve been interested in in-groups and out-groups, and in how they are formed. From ancient times, some famous in-group/out-group contrasts include Greek/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, and Christian/heathen (or pagan).
I am willing to allow that my long-standing interest in in-group/out-group contrasts may be interfering with my understanding of Tanner’s talk about stakes as summarized above by Tom B.
But let me use my terminology regarding in-groups and out-groups, and try to put it together with Tanner’s terminology about stakes, and then try to put it together with Tom B.’s discussion of Catholic identity.
So if Tanner thinks she is discussing in-groups and out-groups, then the so-called stakes that are involved in defining the identity of the in-group should work out in such as way that the group identity of the in-group makes the in-group separate and distinct from the out-group. The in-group holds one position regarding the stake that the out-group clearly does not hold.
However, as I say, I may not understand Tanner’s line of thought.
But this brings me to Tom B.’s discussion of Catholic identity with reference to the priest-sex-abuse scandal and the bishops’ role in bringing us this scandal.
Tom B. suggests that for American Catholics today there are at least two contrasting views of the scandal and of the bishops’ role in the scandal. Next, he suggests that this difference in views can be understood in terms of a stake, as Tanner has used this terminology. Next, he also suggests that the different views regarding this stake may be influencing Catholic identity.
But the different views regarding this stake are intra-Catholic differences.
So the different views regarding this stake do not strike me as influencing Catholic identity, in the sense of defining and differentiating Catholics from non-Catholics, which is what I would understand Catholic identity to mean in terms of in-group/out-group formation.
Molly Roach
6 years 9 months ago
Just a clarification regarding Bishop Bransfield.  He did not testify at the hearing.  A witness testified about him.   The bishop denied the testimony the next day.
COMMENT: Molly, thank you for this clarification. That was my mistake in my original draft of this post. I have now corrected it thanks to your note. 
Liam Richardson
6 years 9 months ago
And we might also ask how it has affected and will affect the Society of Jesus in the United States.
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 9 months ago
One of these things is quite unlike the others. Mass, priesthood, Eucharist, the body etc. are the usual sorts of things of which religion is composed; things from the physical world which we imbue with supernatural significance, and subsequently, being unable to establish the supernatural qualities empirically, we argue over just what they are.

Child molestation, in contrast, is not supernaturally significant in any way. The facts can be established (if at all) by the ordinary means of criminal law: physical evidence, sworn testimony, patterns of behavior, etc.

The reason the priestly pedophilia scandal is such a "stake" in intra-Catholic non-dialogue is that it contradicts the mostly sacred dogmas of each side's secular religion: on the one side, the dogma that homosexuality is generally normal and benign, and on the other side, that authoritarianism can ever be normal and benign. Neither the secular press nor the Catholic press can report competently on this, because both have become fundamentally partisan, inflexibly committed to one or the other secular dogmatic system.

This is one of the times when it is a great advantage to have a Magisterium in a far-off country where people still know a bit of history. The old men in the Vatican know that since time immemorial homosexual men in positions of power have exploited powerless boys, whether slaves, serfs, orphans, prisoners, apprentices, conscripts or refugees. Thank God for the Magisterium.
david power
6 years 9 months ago
I am sure that you wrote that tongue-in-cheek.
The idea of a knowing and indulgent magisterium is really the stuff of hollywood.These guys are more Dr Strangelove than Shoes of the Fisherman.
I think that God is not really to thank either if you have old men prepared to turn a blind eye to the rape of kids.That is man.
Thank Man for the magisterium.  
Molly Roach
6 years 9 months ago
Maybe we are at another place where awareness of abuse must be an essential stake in adult identity.  This would mean, among other things, that we stop sentimentalizing childhood,  grow in truly adult perspectives on sexuality, learn to recognize fellow adults who seem to be in trouble, and consistently protect children from those troubled adults.  There's a lot of sacred cows that have to go down for this to happen and no doubt, they will make a lot of noise on the way down.
Danny Haszard
6 years 9 months ago
Not  to diminish the high crimes of the RCC but Please examine the Jehovah's Witnesses who go door to door and come on our property.
  Jehovah's Witnesses pedophiles.

 Many court documents and news events prove that Jehovah's Witnesses require two witnesses when a child comes forward with allegations of molestation within the congregation. Such allegations have customarily been treated as sins instead of crimes and are only reported to authorities when it is required to do so by law, (which varies by state). It has also been shown that child molesters within the organization usually have not been identified to the congregation members or the public at large.
These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.
The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.
*tell the truth don't be afraid*
Danny Haszard
Jim McCrea
6 years 9 months ago
Let the Vaticanes appoint an investigative team composed of three women religious superiors to investigate and have "improvement" authority over US bishops who are guilty of coverup or abuse themselves.
Juan Lino
6 years 9 months ago
I pray you are mistaken Tom!  The possibility that the sexual abuse crisis, rather than the fact that we are an Easter people (and all that that assertion entails), would become a “common stake” for Catholic identity in the USA is something that pains me very much.  

I relate to with what Crystal and David wrote but I also see the possibility that you might be right Tom as a great opportunity for us to proclaim with joy that our primary lodestar is the certainty that Christ, Divine Mercy and Love incarnate, accompanies us with His love and grace in our journey through life. 


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