The Church, Sexual Abuse, and "Anti-Catholicism"
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