Since last summer I have taken part in about a dozen panels and programs across this country that were organized to discuss the causes and consequences of the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy. I have visited several cities and met people from every walk of life—victims, survivors, bishops, priests and religious, lay leaders, moms and dads, young and old. It has been humbling, enlightening and inspiring to take part in these important conversations—the most important conversation we could ever have.
As you might imagine, there are recurring insights and themes. And not a few people have named what they believe to be the principal cause or causes of this catastrophic phenomenon. Even Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, recently weighed in, arguing in an open letter that the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s created the conditions in which evils like sexual abuse could flourish. After 1968, he wrote, “there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good any more than anything fundamentally evil; there could be only relative value judgments.” The danger of relativism is not a new theme for Benedict. And I have expressed similar concerns about the loss of absolutes, often citing his insights about this phenomenon in this column.
If the cause of every major ecclesial scandal just happens to be that thing that you hate and have railed against for years, then you should ask yourself whether your view may be biased.
But it is precisely this familiarity that troubles me. The cause of the greatest crisis facing the contemporary church just happens to be the very same thing about which Benedict has been concerned for his entire career? That seems suspicious, almost as if he might have had his answer before he had his question, the kind of inverted reasoning one usually finds in ideological and similarly circular forms of thought. Of course, even if such thinking is at work, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Benedict’s conclusion is wrong. But it does give me pause, all the more because I have discerned a similar pattern in the observations, commentaries and conclusions of many people in the U.S. church, some of whom are sympathetic to Benedict’s worldview and some of whom are not.
I have heard, for example, from a number of people who have been concerned for many years about homosexuality per se, or the presence of a large number of homosexuals among the Catholic clergy, that what caused the sexual abuse crisis in the church was homosexuality per se or the large number of homosexuals among the Catholic clergy. Similarly, I have heard from a number of people who have been concerned for many years about the lack of female ecclesiastical leaders that what caused the sexual abuse crisis in the church was the lack of female ecclesiastical leaders. I have also heard from people who have expressed deep concern over the years about the culture of clericalism in the church that what caused the sexual abuse crisis was the culture of clericalism in the church.
Ideological bias structures much of the public discourse. But we cannot allow it to structure our ecclesial conversation.
You see my point. There appears to be a kind of circular reasoning at work. Again, it does not follow that these conclusions are necessarily wrong. But if the cause of every major ecclesial scandal just happens to be that thing that you hate and have railed against for years, then you should ask yourself whether your view may be biased.
Ideological bias structures much of the public discourse. That is a long-term menace, but on most days, it is mainly a nuisance. But we cannot allow it to structure our ecclesial conversation and we certainly cannot permit it to shape our thinking about a topic as fundamentally important as the causes and consequences of sexual abuse. Undoubtedly, the sexual abuse crisis in the church has causes and consequences that are specifically ecclesial and specifically Catholic. But prudence dictates that we avoid jumping to the conclusion that those causes and consequences are obvious or that they necessarily involve our usual suspects, whoever or whatever they might be.
It is also certain, however, that the sexual abuse crisis in the church has causes and consequences that are not specifically ecclesial or Catholic, and we should allow for the possibility that those factors might be even more decisive. If this were not true, the list of institutions facing sexual abuse crises—the federal government, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Boy Scouts, the Chicago public school system, the New England private school system—would not be growing daily.
Our search for the causes and consequences of these atrocious crimes must be fearless, exhaustive and without bias. Since we are dealing with sin, however, we must also bear in mind that the ultimate cause and consequence is beyond reason. For while some may say the cause is the sexual revolution and others might say the cause is clericalism, the third chapter of the Book of Genesis tells us that it is somehow neither and somehow both.