Friday, May 24, 2019

The Theology of Sexual Abuse II

Every now and then I take a look at Commonweal magazine. As far as religious commentary goes it's a bit left-of-centre so I don't normally take what they have to take too seriously. But this article, by Cathleen Kaveny echos--and develops further--some of my own thoughts on the subject.  I'm glad to see that at last some people are beginning to see past the "sexual" element of the abuse crisis and delve deeper into the the theological problems which have underpinned it.

Kaveny takes a rather justified swipe at Pope Benedict's take on the subject. I'll let Kaveny do the talking. I've reproduced the article at length on what I believe is fair use grounds. If anyone has any objection I'll take it down:
The debate about Benedict XVI’s recent intervention on the sex-abuse crisis has focused on his account of its root causes, which occupies the vast majority of his letter. To the delight of conservatives and the consternation of progressives, he blames the lax sexual morality of the 1960s, rather than the enduring phenomenon of clericalism.
In my view, the problem with Benedict’s letter is far more fundamental. It also transcends the American progressive-conservative divide. He gets the basic moral description of the acts of sex abuse wrong. He frames them as acts of sacrilege, rather than grave injustice.

So what? Benedict clearly thinks these actions are unacceptable—why quibble about details? Because details matter, both theoretically and practically. If we get the description of a misdeed wrong, we fail to grasp the underlying moral reality of the situation. That, in turn, can lead to disastrous strategies for reform.

What is the bedrock moral description of an act of clergy sex abuse? Is it a terrible act of injustice toward vulnerable persons, especially children? If so, then clergy sexual abusers belong in the same category as others who have betrayed their position of authority in this manner: they are like sexually abusive teachers, Scout leaders, and medical professionals. Trading upon their power, they have inflicted physical and psychological harm on their victims. In this perspective, the fact that the perpetrator is a Catholic priest is a circumstance that exacerbates the wrongfulness of the act but does not change its core moral description as an act of gross injustice.

Or should clergy sex abuse be understood most basically as a grave act of sacrilege? If so, clergy sex abuse should be grouped with other acts of sacrilege, such as desecration of the Host, blasphemy against the Blessed Mother, and the commission of any serious moral wrong inside a holy place. From this perspective, the fact that the perpetrator is a priest does not merely exacerbate the wrongful act; it constitutes the core of it. The priest is befouling his holy vows. The fact that he does so by abusing a child adds to the wrong, but does not change its core moral description—it is an act of sacrilege, akin to celebrating a Black Mass.

By framing sex abuse as a matter of sacrilege, Benedict reinforces the disastrous playbook that has guided the church’s response to the abuse crisis for the past fifty years.
Benedict’s letter seems [Ed: seems] to put clergy sex abuse in the category of sacrilege, not injustice. He does not use the term “sacrilege.” But it is the category that best fits his account of why the act is wrong, especially when sacrilege is understood broadly as a violation or misuse of the sacred. He presents the major victim as the Faith itself—not the children whose integrity was violated. According to Benedict, the “alarming situation” is that “the Faith no longer appears to have the rank of a good requiring protection.” What bothers him most about one of the human victims he encountered is that she can no longer hear the words of consecration without distress, because her priest-attacker used them in the course of the abuse. He says nothing about how the abuse would have affected the entire course of her life. He does not issue a forceful call to protect children, but rather implores us to “do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.”

Benedict’s approach has dangerous consequences. If the real victim is the Faith, then the overriding task is to protect the institution of the church, which instantiates the mystical Body of Christ in time. If the worst consequence of the crisis is the widespread loss of faith in the church’s credibility, then it is better to handle specific instances quietly—so as not to scandalize the faithful. Offending priests should be quickly laicized, so that they do not continue to befoul the Body of Christ. Once they are no longer part of the hierarchy, they are no longer the church’s problem. Victims should be encouraged to remain quiet, perhaps with a legally binding confidentiality agreement, so they don’t erode the church’s ability to pass on the faith. They should be discouraged from seeking monetary damages from the church, since it is the original and primary victim of the priest’s transgression. Finally, secular law enforcement should not be involved in most cases, since their involvement occludes the mystical and transcendent nature of the problem.

By framing the basic offense as a matter of sacrilege, Benedict reinforces the disastrous playbook that has guided the church’s response to the abuse crisis for the past fifty years. He provides a lofty theological rationale for protecting the institution rather than the victims. He offers not a clean, well-lighted path to reform, but rather a detour back into the muck.

Benedict’s intervention is ironic. He blames revisionist moral theologians for the crisis, claiming that they look only at the motive and circumstances of sinful human actions, rather than focusing on the moral quality of the act itself. But Benedict himself is the one who refuses to look closely at the sinful acts in question here. This implacable defender of the existence of intrinsically evil acts refuses to call these acts by their most basic moral name: child rape.
I've got to applaud her for a far more sophisticated analysis when compared to mine. Though I didn't read Benedict as seeing sexual abuse as  sacrilegious rather Benedict seemed to recognise that the Church's traditional approach of seeing the crime only through the perspective of the abuser was deficient: still he does sail close to the sacrilegious dimension, and while he may not have stepped over the line many bishops and cardinals have taken exactly this "theological"  approach.

I think what Kenevy highlights is the distortion of moral reasoning that has come about from an excessively theological approach to religion.  Simple people--i.e. the laity--lacking proper "training or spirituality" didn't fall into this error. Child rape was seen for what it was: not the wounding of the mystical body of Christ but simply child rape.  They knew that the Church would suffer for having this stuff exposed but they never forgot that primary concern was the well being of the child and not the "mystical" Church.

Now Benedict is a good guy and one of the sharpest tools in the shed but when someone like this gets it so wrong you've have to realise that the there is something amiss with the Church. I also want people to note that Benedict is considered an orthodox conservative.

I'm still running on the hypothesis that secularisation phenomenon in the West is primarily driven by a withdrawal of Grace by God because of His displeasure with his Church. I think this hypothesis has significant traction when you see what results orthodox theologians acting in good faith produce.

3 comments:

collegereactionary said...

I read this as the failure of the church to carry out its justice.

The Church is a sovereign body, and it has more power over its own clerisy than it has over anyone else. The opportunity should have been taken to do justice publicly, and thus to enhance the moral authority of the church.

As a side note: you're forgetting that the 'child abuse' scandal is largely about homosexual relations with marginally underage boys. That act is illegal but tolerated within wider society, so It hardly makes sense for the Church to punish priests for it. So from the perspective of the church, the only thing they can get their priests on is their homosexuality. Which is a moral offense, but hardly an injustice.

Bruce said...

“They knew that the Church would suffer for having this stuff exposed but they never forgot that primary concern was the well being of the child and not the "mystical" Church.”

Maybe, but if the mission of the Church is to maximize the number of souls saved and minimize the number of souls lost to eternal suffering then I guess you can understand the concern over the damage to the Church.

The Social Pathologist said...

@collegereactionary

The opportunity should have been taken to do justice publicly, and thus to enhance the moral authority of the church.

Exactly.

That act is illegal but tolerated within wider society, so It hardly makes sense for the Church to punish priests for it.

Not in my bit of the world. Child abuse is seen as one of the vilest things imaginable by both religious and secular.

The Church has pretty clear guidelines about the limits of sexual behaviour. Child rape is more than a moral offense it is also an injustice.

@Bruce

but if the mission of the Church is to maximize the number of souls saved and minimize the number of souls lost to eternal suffering then I guess you can understand the concern over the damage to the Church.

And the actions the clergy chose have managed to damage the Church and minimise the number of souls saved. The sexual abuse scandal is a huge component of the DeChristianisation of Ireland.

I understand that there are many circumstances where secrecy should be maintained. Had the Church appropriately punished the perpetrators and kept things quiet I don't think there would have been anywhere near the fallout that we have seen.