Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. MartensApril 26, 2010

There is an important article by Joseph Bottum at The Weekly Standard.com on the recent “odd hysteria,” that is, the media’s response and role in the recent and revived claims regarding sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups of this abuse by some in the Church’s leadership. That Bottum calls it an “odd hysteria” does not mean that he considers claims about sexual abuse in the Church to be concocted nor that he feels there have not been grave errors made by the Church hierarchy, only, in my words, that the Catholic Church has been made to bear far more of the weight of the sin of sexual abuse in our culture than for which it is responsible. As I read Bottum, and as the article is titled, “Anti-Catholicism, Again: The Permanent Scandal of the Vatican,” he believes that there is a deep animus against the Catholic Church on display in the “odd hysteria,” that has its roots in the Protestant reformation and that was imported across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA centuries ago.  More than that, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the claims that the Catholic Church made and makes concerning the Truth and Tradition put it in permanent opposition to the forces of Progress, which wished and continue to wish for the Church’s end. Bottum makes a partially insightful point when he speaks of the Christian roots of what he sees as anti-Catholicism:

 “Christianity spread across the world the Bible’s new idea of history—born from the vision that God is a God who entered time, and time is moving toward a goal. Even modern nonbelievers still somehow believe this part; in important metaphysical ways, their progressive view of the world remains Christian, albeit with Christ stripped out.

Innumerable books have been written about the good effects of this forward-aiming view of history, from Christopher Dawson’s old Progress and Religion to Rodney Stark’s recent The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Perhaps not enough has been said, however, about one of its bad effects. As we wait for the Second Coming—or its many secular stand-ins—an odd, hysterical impatience can take hold. We worked so hard, and still the change in human nature didn’t come. Still heaven didn’t get built on earth. Evil must have intervened, and since the past is the evil against which progress fights, what more obvious villain than the Catholic Church, that last-surviving remnant of the ancient darkness?”

It is insightful because I believe, with him, that “even modern nonbelievers still somehow believe this part; in important metaphysical ways, their progressive view of the world remains Christian, albeit with Christ stripped out.” I think he has put his finger on a deep impulse in our culture, that remains more Christian than it knows. I say partially insightful because I am not certain that most people see the Catholic Church as the “last-surviving remnant of the ancient darkness” or that recent newspaper reports reveal "anti-Catholicism." I believe that there is in fact lurking in all of this an inchoate longing for the Truth that the Catholic Church proclaims. If the Church truly bears the Truth, and if we as Christians believe it to be so, how can people, all created in the image of God, not respond in some deep way to the bearer of this Truth? Our culture is confused in many ways about the very nature of Truth and so the response to the Church, and in this particular case the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, will take many forms, some ridiculous and some unjust, but the reason the Church remains at the heart of the story is that most people expect the Church to live up to its claims to be different, to be better, to be set apart. In fact they need the Church to be better. I think the focus on the Church is not indicative of people considering Catholicism as the “last-surviving remnant of the ancient darkness,” but on the Church being the beacon of light and the Hope of the world, even if this cannot be expressed coherently by many of the Church’s supposed enemies. For it is one thing to pretend at chaos and nothingness, as our culture does, it is quite another to grasp it and live it and revel in it. People seek Truth. The Church offers Truth. The failings of the Church to live up to its call and the Church’s inability, from the point of view of many, to deliver on the Truth frightens a culture that is unmoored. It needs the Church more, I think, than most in the Church know.

Related to this is the other thing that frightens us in our culture: If nothing is true than everything is permitted, especially in the realm of sex, as Bottum discusses. Again, this sort of cheap hedonism is easy to chirp in cafes, nightclubs and while sharing a joint with a friend, but there are deep concerns regarding the turn our culture has taken with respect to sex and, again, rightly so, if we believe that the Church’s teachings regarding sex are true. If they are, then even when the Church’s teachings are mocked and rejected, they ought to speak at the deepest level even to those whose own practice of sexuality defies the teachings of Christianity. The culture defies, however, only to a point. Bottum says,

“The current hysteria over the Catholic sex-abuse scandal derives at least in part from the same source that fed the panic over rape at preschools and day care centers 20 years ago. These are, in this one respect, two chapters of a single story—the story of a culture whose views of sexuality put its children at risk.

That risk is real. Our contemporary understandings of sex are a jumble of contradictions and insanities, and the young are among those paying the price. The news reports about the Catholic scandals have purchase on us precisely because they echo down the canyons of our cultural anxiety. And to account for that anxiety—to localize and personalize its causes—Catholicism is far more useful than outlandish charges of Satanism ever were.

For some of the commentators on the current scandals, any stick is a good one if you can poke it at religion. Most people, however, are just looking for an explanation. They worked so hard to build the life the contemporary world demands, and still they are anxious. They rejected the sexual strictures of the past, just as they were taught to do, and still their children are in danger.”

Easy relativism runs up against the reality of the sexual abuse of children, in our homes, schools, childcare centers, and institutions like the Church and in other religions. Relativism crumbles in the face of reality. We know it is wrong to sexually abuse children, but we have dismantled most of the arguments against sex with anyone. This is why the Church faces the most anger of any other institution, though, not "anti-Catholicism": the Church ought to be better, it ought to hold the line on sexual behavior, and it ought to root out this sinfulness in a more forceful manner than any other institution. Rather than "anti-Catholicism", I would say that the cultural response to the Church points to the continuing vigor of its teaching and why it is so important that the Church live up to its teachings. If not in the Church, where?

What I find missing from Bottum’s article and in so much of the writing defending the Church against “anti-Catholicism” is a long view of history and the Scriptures themselves. The desire to explain everything in terms of the past 40, 50 or 60 years misses the very point that Bottum was making. The biblical tradition teaches us that history is a constant battle in which sin and evil vie against God and the goodness which is entirely God. Most utopian movements which emerged in the West are more Christian than they know, as Bottum states, but they run up in their bold visions of a new world  against the reality of sin, which most of them want to consign to the dustbin of history. They will try to explain sin as social or economic oppression, let’s say, and so when such oppression is gone, a new world dawns. It is wrong. Yet, many Catholic commentators, Bottum included, seem to want to explain the recent scandals in the Church as a product of Vatican II, or cultural currents present in the wider culture since the ‘60’s, as if on the list of things the Baby Boomers created is now sin. Read the Bible and the Church fathers: all of these sins, sexual included, were present in the early Church and the broader culture. This is a part of the never-ending battle, which will end only when God makes all things new again, as we heard in the second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Revelation 7: 15-17:

 “The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The world since Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has had to account for him, the Truth of what he said and did and is, or the falsity of it. It is far easier to engage in this discussion as a dilettante when the culture is steeped in the Truth and the behavior of most people is guided more or less by Jesus’ teaching, and you can gain a frisson of excitement by opposing yourself to the teachings of Jesus. But when everyone wants to be a bad boy or a bad girl, all of the sudden, the game gets serious. How far are you willing to go? Is everything up in the air, even your children? Now you need to seriously consider the Truth. For his disciples, Jesus Christ is that Truth. If the Church does not bear witness to the Truth of Jesus Christ, that is the scandal that shocks the world. The scandal is not “the Vatican,” but a Church that is seen to behave like the rest of the world. The Church has had “success” in worldly terms only to the extent that it bears witness to the scandal of the cross by living up to Jesus’ demands for his disciples. We need to get away from short view discussions of Vatican II priests and JPII priests as the cause or solution to our problems and return to the Hope to which we bear witness in the person of Jesus Christ.

When we do, we will also see the problem with short term analyses of sexual abuse. It is not a product of a certain age. It was current in the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus' day and in fact a normal, accepted part of life. Jesus warned against the mistreatment of children because he knew it would always be a temptation to take advantage of the most vulnerable in our midst. It was a problem in the first century, in the fourth century, every century after, prior to Vatican II and after Vatican II, because it is a problem of sin. What we need to put in place, as I think the Church has done in some jurisdictions, is the best procedures for vetting candidates to the ministry, the best protections for children in Catholic schools and churches, the will to be honest when such abuse happens, not to cover it up, and then to remove offending persons from ministry. It means constantly keeping Jesus' teachings about children in mind, not our own desires and whims.

The “odd hysteria” that Bottum sees is not "anti-Catholicism," but the longings of the world to know that the Catholic Church will not give lip service to the Truth but will live it out. It is the Hope of this world, whether the world wants to admit it or not. I think that in the challenges to the Church from those whom we often see as despisers, we hear the cry of a lost world asking that the bearers of the Truth deliver on the Hope. This side of God wiping away every tear from our eyes it is an ongoing struggle, that began with Adam not in the last 50 years or so, but we can fight harder and better and deep down the world knows it.

John W. Martens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago
This is an excellent article and should be the start of an ongoing discussion. I would continue with your idea in the last paragraph and propose that most of what has ever been called "anti-Catholicism" is really the expression of profound disappointment by so many people of good will that the Church does not live up to its calling. The abuse scandal is only a recent example.

Many of us could go on and on about our disappointments. These disappointments are not self-centered or trivial; they are not due to our failure to accept the truth of Christ as faithfully taught by the Church. They are the result of Holy Spirit working through us, telling us where our Church is wrong and needs to change. They are the result of knowing the truth through our own experience of life but then having the Church tell that black is white and white is black.

The history of the Roman Catholic church has been an ongoing battle between its unredeemed Roman nature and its redeemed Catholic nature. This is the same battle that Jesus described throughout the gospel according to Matthew - between the world of the Scribes and Pharisees on the one hand and the Kingdom of Heaven on the other. It is the same battle that St. Paul describes in terms of the "Law of Sin and Death" and the "Spirit of life in Jesus Christ."

Some people in good conscience cannot stomach the tension and leave the Church feeling guilty. Some people are spiritually ripped apart at an early age by the inconsistency and become angry. Others are able to see the Kingdom of Heaven through the stench of world and find great solace in the Church. Rather than condemn those who struggle loudly, maybe we should look at ourselves in light of the Gospel and see where we need to change.
13 years 10 months ago
It's absolutely true that the hierarchy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church has been saying one thing and doing another for at least most of the last 50, 60, 70 or more years and now that people are able to follow the paper trail, read the Philadelphia Grand Jury and other reports they have realized that what has been going on has been pretty much a ''Do as I say not as I do'' policy. Of course, some translate that to the ''Pray, pay and obey,'' model and that's gone now that it has become clear that predator priests and the image of the institution has trumped the children in the bishops' mindset.


Professor Marci Hamilton and Sister Maureen Paul Turlish on NPR's Radio Times on WHYY in Philadelphia 04/12/2010


Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims' Advocate
New Castle, Delaware
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago

Would you mind clarifying your last paragraph? The way I read it, your paragraph seems to say that we in Western culture are overemphasizing our revulsion and rejection of sex crimes against children, and that our unwarranted revulsion is people who reject morality into a frenzy. I know that I often write too fast and read too fast, and things do not always come out the way they were intended.
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago
As long as we label people who are angry with the Church as "religion haters" we can never live up to our calling to love our enemies. There are a lot of very good reasons not to have subconscious good feelings for the Church. The Church has a very long history of doing much evil in the world (as well as much good). But when the Church does evil it becomes exceedingly evil because the Church is given a special position of trust with our souls. Our government does not have that place of trust, our employers do not have that place of trust, neither do our schools. But the Church claims to hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, with the power to bind our sins and loose our sins.

Romans 9, 10 and 11 provide great insight into why so many people of good will are disappointed with the Catholic Church. Simply replace "Israel" and "Jews" with "Catholic Church." St. Paul's frustrations are the same as my own. Likewise, in Matthew, replace the words "scribes and pharisees," etc. with appropriate Catholic terms. The results are quite humbling.

The Reformers tried to solve the problem by diminishing the Church so that it had less ownership of people's souls. When a Protestant Church does something evil, the same act is less evil than when the Catholic Church does it. It is more like when a school or the Boy Scouts does evil. This is because Protestants do not give the Church mystical or spiritual power. But that is not a very satisfactory answer either because it dimishes the power of the Church to do good.

The real answer is to live up to our calling to which Christ has called us, with all humility and love. To me, this means we must confess our sins publicly and completely (public people, like bishops, must confess public sins publicly), seek the truth openly and honestly, and love those who would seem to hate us by listening to their stories and appreciating their griefs. Only then will we understand what is necessary to clean up our church.
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago
So my question to all of you, John, David, Sr. Maureen and others:

How can we live up to our calling? How can we help our Church live up to her calling? What, specifically, is our calling?

Maybe our problem is we have become unclear as what our real calling is and how to live that calling in our modern world. Maybe that is why people are so angry.

Jesus said "If your right eye offends you, pluck it out. It is more profitable that one of your members should perish than the whole body be cast into hell." What parts of our Church are leading us into hell; what practices; what beliefs; what attitudes?
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago

I have been thinking about your comments all afternoon, including your feeling of being at sea. Here are some thoughts.

Do not hate those who seem to hate the Church. Jesus said "Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." In case you need a prayer try this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, please bless 'Maureen Dowd,' shower her with your love and enfold her in your arms." Pray it continually until all you feel is love in your heart for Maureen Dowd. [Feel free to substitute anyone whom you feel is abusing the Church or irritating you.]

Consider that people who are angry and have left the Church are like sheep that have gone astray. Your job is find them and individually love them back into the Church by hearing their pain and bitterness, without judgement, bearing their sorrows as Jesus bore ours. Jesus said "What do you think? If a man has an hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly I say to you he rejoices more over the one than the ninety-nine that did not go astray."

The Church does not need us to defend it. Did not Jesus say "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"? Our job is to help the church "Walk worthy of the calling wherewith [it is] called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering bearing one another with love." When we do that, in true immitation of Christ, then the Church will grow and prosper and the Kingdom of Heaven will be upon us.

Blessings and Peace to you, Jack
George Purnell
13 years 10 months ago
The New York Times, and especially Maureen Dowd, have done the Church a great service by shining light on darkness.
cc h
13 years 10 months ago
Let's begin by changing the language when discussing sexual abuse. It is a CRIME, crime, crime. Referring to it only as a sin makes it into a religious issue. It is a criminal issue.F
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago
For the record, I want to make clear that I consider sexual abuse to be a crime. In my non-legal opinion, I think that such crimes should be prosecuted by the State against the perpetrator. I also think that any involvement in the affair by the Church other than to assist the prosecution could constitute criminal conspiracy.

Sexual abuse is also a sin. But I see a conflict of interest when an employee of the Church confesses that sin sacramentally and asks for reconciliation. To avoid this conflict of interest, the Church might be wise to refer the penitent to someone who has no entangling relationships with the Church - say an Orthodox or Anglican priest or a Protestant minister - maybe a Wahabi Imam.
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago

"What I am struggling with is how to best call the Church to be holy - apart from doing better myself, as a small part of the body of Christ - in its leadership structures and practices."

Most Protestants would say that the Church is the mystical body of all believers, which is quite different from the denominational structures also called churches. As such, the "holy catholic church" is holy only to the extent that the people within it are holy in their personal lives.

I see the Catholic Church as different. My understanding is that the organic structure of the Catholic Church is itself called to be the instrument of holiness to the world. This requires institutional holiness as well as personal holiness.

Jesus talked a lot about institutional holiness, especially in Matthew. When Jesus talked about the temple, the high priest, and the scribes and pharisees he was talking about the need for the Church to be institutionally holy. But I cannot read Matthew without feeling that nothing has changed in two thousand years.

John, you are a professor and connected to the seats of power in the church. I hope you can figure out how to make it happen. The gospel according to Matthew is the blueprint. My prayers are with you.
Molly Roach
13 years 9 months ago
David don't despair.   I do think you may be projecting your own happy history as a Roman Catholic onto the current scene and finding that that takes you nowhere.  One of the disciplines in spiritual direction is that you cannot imagine the person you are listening to is like you.  You have to keep listening which means (and this is the discipline)you have to remain open to the person in all his/her difference from you. Frustration is often rooted in comparing others to ourselves and not being able to account for the differences and not being happy with the differences. The discipline is the stay with the tensions of the differences and try to discern meanings.   I do have to tell you that it is not a small area in which our leaders have made errors of judgement.  To facilitate the rape of thousands of children, to protect the offenders, this is a way to create conditions for despair because it betrays sacred trust.  When trust is lost, restoring it is challenging to say the least because it will never be "the way it was."  A restoration of trust is a new situation in which those involved have come to a new understanding of each other and themselves.  It does not come fast.
Mona Villarrubia
13 years 9 months ago
I have just read this thread and want to reflect before I respond on the spiritual and theological questions. Meanwhile, thank you to Norman Costa for asking such important questions. As I have said elswhere, the damage to one's faith and one's hope that is caused by sexual abuse at the hands of a priest has nowhere been dealt with by church officials. It is the pattern for commentators and church leaders to asume that victims are all now ''haters of Catholicism.'' What if we are not? What if we are trying to remain Catholic? Who in the Church is helping us with that? Let alone helping us with psychological healing.
And to respond to David - please excuse my bluntness - the victims I know personally (including myself and family members) were abused in the following ways: oral, vaginal and anal rape, genital manipulation, digital penetration, the cutting of the penis. I myself experienced my first orgasm as a child of less than ten years of age on the lap of a priest. The resultant confusion of pain, pleasure, obedience, respect, religious piety, and profound fear and shame have yet to be resolved for me. I am 54 and have had years of therapy.
I have also lost a close friend and fellow survivor of clergy abuse to suicide. My parents are just now starting to receive counseling. they are in their 80's. So forgive me if I find it difficult to be ''loving'' towards those who dismiss this issue as exaggerated, or as media hysteria. I will understand if America moderators choose not to publish this response.
Mona Villarrubia
13 years 9 months ago
David, and Norman, thank you for your support. I was afraid I had been too blunt. Concerning whether there was an awareness of the extent of the abuse, in my experience within my immediate family and extended family, and in the victims community in SNAP, it is common for people to say they believed that their experience was an isolated one. And if they reported it to the diocese, they were told that theirs was the first such report against their perpetrator. In a number of cases these victims later learned, as the result of other victims coming forward, that they had not been the first, and that at the time of their reporting there had already been other - sometimes numerous - complaints. So it is clear to me that the issue was very well known to the religious authorities within many dioceses. But the victims for the most part continued to believe it was isolated. Of course the requirement of secrecy regarding any settlement meant that they could not share their information.   I never knew about my siblings or my parents' abuse until after 2002. When the extent of the abuse in America began to hit the news it was a double-edged sword for victims. On the one hand it felt very affirming - I am not crazy, I am not alone, people might believe me now. On the other hand it felt overwhelming, devastating. Ironically many of us had remained in the Church, believing our abuse was an aberration, our perpetrator a criminal unknown to his (her) superiors, and we still experienced the beauty and solace of our faith tradition. But the other side of the sword was the realization that not only was our perpetrator not an aberration in an otherwise healthy community of priests but one of many such men whose predilections had been the subject of jokes among fellow clergy (I heard this from a priest). And their superiors, far from being unaware had been complicit in their protection from civil authority and their reassignment to unknowing parishes whose children became the next prey. This was the knowledge that robbed us of our faith in our church. And robbed me of my vocation to teach religion in the church: the behavior of the hierarchy was indefensible and I would not attempt to defend it to my students.
we vnornm
13 years 9 months ago
Child sexual abuse is a crime, a sin, and an action that can leave lifelong and crippling scars. I think everyone on this blog agrees with this. Right now I am worried about those "other 60,000" victims of sexual perpetrators (occurring every year) who receive less than adequate attention. Justice demands that more attention be given to these children. Others have analyzed the past 60 years in the Church and it has brought good results. At least for me, I think some good can be done right now with this "other 60,000".
I am glad that Joseph Bottum is cited. Not only does he have good common sense, his grasp of history is incredible. 
Norm  (we have worked together), if you want to get together on this, let me know! bvo

The latest from america

Graham Greene crafted some of English-language literature's finest works, part of a fascinating life marked by bouts of uncertainty and the certainty of doubt.
James T. KeaneFebruary 20, 2024
It is an extraordinary testament to a person’s pastoral care when they are remembered as someone who was a steady presence in the most difficult times.
Five years after Pope Francis convened an unprecedented summit on sex abuse, the Catholic Church’s in-house legal system and pastoral response to victims has proven still incapable of dealing with the problem.
The cardinal's warning comes after lay German Catholics involved in the Synodal Path called on the bishops to defy Rome and stick to the reform course.
KNA InternationalFebruary 20, 2024