Editor’s Note: This week we are running a five-part series looking at the Catholic sex-abuse scandal from the perspective of an abuse victim. The parts include:
The Role of Ideology
In Part I, I explored some possible causes of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, including a loss of faith and clerical celibacy. In this part, I’ll explore the role of ideology in finding a root cause.
I should take a moment to explain the concept of ideology, which was first introduced by Karl Marx. An ideology is a set of beliefs—often forming an entire worldview—that is held for self-serving reasons other than the more respectable ones its adherents give. By Marx’s account, the self-serving reasons are always economic. They can be, but the contemporary phenomenon of “cultural” Marxism indicates that there can be other such reasons, so long as they reduce ultimately to some form of will-to-power.
I would argue that the secular, progressive worldview today is a good example of ideology. It is ideological precisely in virtue of how it purports to expose ideology. But making the full case for that is beyond my scope here. I shall confine myself to the aspect of the secular-progressive worldview pertinent to our topic, which is shared by most (though not all) progressive Catholics. It thus points to the core problem I’ve identified: rejection, even incomprehension, of the asceticism necessary for spiritual growth.
I’ve already noted that the rate of SSA men in the RC priesthood is substantially higher than in the general population. For reasons I shall set forth in the next section, that is a proximate cause of much of the abuse component of the SAAC (sex-abuse-and-cover-up) Scandal. But progressives are loathe to admit that. One sign of the sort of ideology guiding them is that nothing bad may be said about homosexuality. Because homosexuals really were an oppressed minority—and in some places, still are—their accredited victim status among progressives makes them de facto immune to criticism from those not belonging to said minority. That immunity applies as much to SSA priests, precisely as SSA, as to any other homosexuals, because any such criticism is seen as a retrograde attempt to revive the bad old days of irrational animus against homosexuals. But that narrative is only a sign of ideology. It is not what constitutes the ideological substrate.
What helps form the substrate is a belief that started taking hold among Catholics during the decade of my life I will describe below—the one which, as it happens, followed the publication of Paul Vi’s Humanae Vitae in 1968, and in which the “sexual revolution” got fully underway. When the progesterone pill for women hit the mass market in the early 1960s, the Church felt obliged to consider whether the traditional teaching on birth control needed to be re-examined. Many theologians thought either that the Pill did not fall under the ancient stricture or that, if it did, contemporary circumstances required that the ancient stricture be dropped. Much has been written and debated about the contraception issue, and I cannot review all that here. What is clear is that people had been led to expect change, and most were aghast, even angry, when it did not come. Humanae Vitae was and still is rejected by most laity. It has accordingly been allowed by most clergy to become a pastorally dead letter. That is very significant for my thesis.
I understood the anger, but after my reversion I could not share it. it seemed to me, and not just to me, that if the Magisterium had been so wrong for so long about something so important, it would be thereby be thoroughly discredited. Moreover, the dissenters did not understand, because St. Paul VI had not explained adequately, what St. John Paul II did explain adequately in his “theology of the body”: The traditional teachings on sex and marriage form part of an organic whole with the Church’s long-developing appreciation of the dignity and vocation of the human person.
In that vein, it also seemed to me and some others I knew—including the late Elizabeth Anscombe, arguably the greatest female philosopher ever—that if it could be morally acceptable to intentionally render otherwise fertile sexual acts infertile, then there could be no principled objection to intrinsically non-procreative forms of sexual intercourse, whether performed by heterosexuals or homosexuals. As late as thirty years ago, many Catholics who dissented from Humanae Vitae denied that if they thought about it at all. But by now, it is exactly the conclusion that most American and Western-European Catholics, especially younger Catholics, have reached. The majority of self-identified Catholics in the U.S. see no reasonable objection to sodomy as such. They believe that as long as it somehow expresses “love,” which of course includes mutual consent, any sort of sex act at all can be perfectly fine.
So how does such a belief among Catholic progressives, even more of whom hold it than Catholics in general, become ideological? Well, start with the fact that most now see sexual pleasure divorced from procreation not merely as permissible but, in many cases, as a right or even a duty—something which, for most people, is necessary at some point for a fulfilling life. That holds for many married people regarding contraception, and especially for homosexuals regarding sodomy. Now as in the 1970s, when Catholic progressivism was at its height, the belief in question is so strong that its adherents have a very hard time understanding how the Catholic hierarchy can continue upholding the traditional teachings for any motive other than sheer will-to-power: in this case, maintaining its ever-diminishing authority. If that’s how one sees things, then one cannot help seeing the Church’s official teaching as ideological.
But—here’s the key point—seeing the teaching that way is itself ideological, and in two ways.
First, it depends on dressing up as a right or a duty what is really only a desire: sexual pleasure without the massive inconvenience of procreation and, in the case of homosexuals, sexual pleasure also and even without having to relate to an intractably “other,” the opposite sex. Nobody can survive for long without food, but anybody can survive indefinitely without sex. No human being can thrive without experiencing some sort of love, but love need not be expressed sexually and, in many contexts, should not be. To claim as a right what, in this instance, is really only a desire—even if an understandable desire—creates a gap between the stated reason for what one advocates and the real reason most have for desiring it: the prospect of deep pleasure without apparently significant cost. That’s ideology—which is really a form of collective rationalization.
Seeing the Church’s traditional teaching as ideological is itself ideological in a second way. Since it is inadmissible in progressive circles to blame the abuse component of the SAAC Scandal on homosexuality in the clergy, an ideologically acceptable explanation must be found instead. Hence the progressive theme of “clericalism.” The error here is not citing clericalism itself, of course, but citing it to the exclusion of homosexuality. That allows Catholic progressives to depict the root cause of the SAAC Scandal merely as a form of will-to-power: the same degree of will-to-power, on the part of some of the same men, that explains the Church’s official teaching against contraception and sodomy itself! That adds irony and hypocrisy to the toxic mix. Such a view fits very well with contemporary secular-progressive ideology and, indeed, is but a baptized instance of it.
Consider the following passage from one of the handful of spiritual masters considered a saint in both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions:
The passions are part of the ongoing course of the world; and where the passions have ceased, there the world has ceased proceeding on its course. The passions are: love of riches; amassing of possessions; the fattening of the body, from which proceeds carnal desire; love of honors, which is the source of envy; administration of government; pride and pomp of power; elegance; popularity, which is the cause of ill-will; fear for the body.St Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life (translated by Mary Hansbury), 39–40.
All ideology is a sign of what many spiritual writers, and indeed Pope Francis himself, call “worldliness.” It is a systematic way to rationalize as necessary, even noble, concessions to what St. Isaac of Nineveh called “the passions,” which he identified with “the world” in each of us. Ideology makes humility, asceticism, and spiritual combat difficult or even incomprehensible. The malign influence of ideology in explanations of the SAAC Scandal is not limited to progressive Catholics, of course. We find it among conservative and traditionalist Catholics as well. But I shall start with the facts that ideology prevents progressive Catholics from acknowledging as they struggle to understand the SAAC Scandal.
In the next part of this series, I’ll look at one of the most common—and most controversial—reasons given for the Catholic sex-abuse scandal: the prevalence of active homosexuality in the priesthood.