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
In the previous installment of this series, I argued that homosexuality has been the main proximate cause of most of the sexual abuse. But if this is so, then clericalism has not only afforded much of the opportunity for the abuse; it is also the main proximate cause of the coverups, which are just as dispiriting. To my mind, that’s just as undeniable as the influence of homosexuality. Why would a bishop cover up sins most of which are also crimes unless he believes that the perpetrators—for the good of the Church, of course—should just get a slap on the wrist and then go about business as usual? That certainly manifests a kind of clericalism.
But the word itself is ambiguous. To understand the role of clericalism, and how some Catholics give it short shrift for ideological reasons, we need to disambiguate the word.
The Oxford Living Dictionary of English defines it thus: “especially in Roman Catholic contexts, the misuse or overextension of the clergy’s authority.” That’s as good a definition as any for clericalism on the part of the clergy, even though it invites debate about what “misuse” and “overextension” can mean. Many Protestants, for example, would see the ordained Catholic hierarchy as inherently clericalist, inasmuch as its claims to sacramental powers and teaching authority are false, and accordingly arrogant, even apart from how such alleged authority is used in pastoral practice. Some of the more extreme progressive Catholics are not far from that view. But that interpretation need not concern us. Few Catholic participants in the debate about the SAAC (sex-abuse-and-cover-up) Scandal are prepared to argue that its main cause is the Catholic understanding of the priesthood itself, as distinct from bad priests. Those who believe as much, wrongly, leave the Church and don’t look back.
When Pope Francis denounces clericalism, as he has consistently done throughout his papacy, what he seems to mean is an attitude that can infect laity and clergy alike. It’s a disposition to see priests as better than lay people, set apart from and above them as a caste meriting social deference, implicit trust, and other privileges most laity don’t get. I call that an “attitude” or “disposition” rather than a belief because, while most Catholics would not assert that such is what priests are, it is historically incontestable that many Catholics, lay and ordained, have acted as though they believe it.
If that’s how you see the priesthood—whether you’re a pew-sitter or a prelate—you end up giving priests too much benefit of the doubt. As a result, there’s too much opportunity for sexual abuse for priests so inclined, too much likelihood of its being overlooked or denied once committed, and too much likelihood of their getting away with it when it’s detected. That’s mainly how clericalism on the part of laity as well as clergy themselves has contributed to the SAAC Scandal. A few of Pope Francis’ critics have even charged that he himself is guilty of clericalism in his own sense of the term, at least with respect to some of his high-level ecclesiastical allies. But that’s not a charge I have time or space to evaluate.
Clericalism in the Catholic Church is understandable for several reasons. First, Catholics believe that priests act in persona Christi whentheyconfect the Eucharist and absolve penitents. That is a very high calling indeed, even though personal merit cannot earn such a calling. Second, until at least the middle of the last century, priests were among the most educated of Catholics. As for celibacy, I’ve known Catholics who believe that if a man is extraordinary in that respect, he’s probably extraordinary in others too and should be treated as such, if only to compensate him for his sacrifice. Perhaps there are still Catholics who believe that, although I do not.
Understandable though it may be, however, clericalism has bad results across the board. I’ve already mentioned excessive deference and trust, but that is less of a problem today than fifty years ago—due largely to the SAAC Scandal itself. Consider instead the material standard of living enjoyed by many priests, and especially bishops, in virtually any region that isn’t war-torn, poverty-stricken, or given to persecuting the Church.
Like most cradle Catholics of a certain age, I have observed that a good many priests, and clearly most bishops, live better than the average lay person in their pastoral charge. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; but too often it evinces too little voluntary self-denial among such priests, and especially of bishops—unless you count celibacy, in which case Catholic priests and bishops are in the same ascetical boat as devout, single lay Catholics with no interest in or realistic prospect of marriage. Both classes of people must observe complete continence, which can be hard and is not always successful. The only difference is that people expect priests to be successful because they have taken a vow. But as we know, not all are. When people live materially comfortable lives, “carnal desire”— to use St. Isaac’s phrase quoted in Part I of this series—becomes more of a problem than otherwise because they needn’t worry about survival, as most of humanity traditionally has, and rarely fast beyond the required minimum. At any rate, I take it that such is what St. Isaac means by the “fattening of the body” as a cause of carnal desire, rather than mere weight gain.
A worse manifestation of clericalism than that is the tendency for the priesthood to devolve into a self-protective old-boys club, of which bishops and religious superiors are temporary local presidents. I began noticing that not long after my reversion—around the same time I gave up trying to become a priest myself. Much incompetence and otherwise irritating behavior among priests went unchecked by their superiors: self-indulgent liturgical ad-libbing, vapid or ill-prepared homilies, a reluctance to hear confessions that was rationalized in various ways, heterodox theological views, and more. And that’s only what I encountered publicly, in church. The thought occurred to me that if a nurse or a business owner did as bad a job as some of these guys, he or she would face consequences forthwith. But they didn’t, and I wondered why. My complaints were almost always met with angry defensiveness or, if lodged with superiors, stonewalling. I came slowly to understand that I was up against the good ol’ boys, who knew how to circle the wagons and make short work of those of who might be imprudent enough to go on the warpath. That kind of experience is familiar among committed, active lay Catholics about matters having nothing to do with sexual abuse. Is it any wonder, then, that so much covering-up of such abuse, and even victim-blaming, occurred for so long, even after bishops learned that “therapy” for abusers was hardly ever more effective than transferring them quietly?
It might seem less harsh to explain the coverups and victim-blaming as desperation to meet staffing requirements. During the decade after Vatican II, for example, many priests and religious abandoned those states of life, and few young Catholics stepped up to take their place. That’s when talk of a “vocations crisis” began. So many pastoral venues had to be “covered,” and there were only so many priests and religious to cover them. It became the path of least resistance for bishops to overlook incompetence, heterodoxy, even sexual malfeasance in order to staff all those places, to get them covered and keep up appearances.
That’s certainly part of what happened. But the mentality behind it is yet another form of clericalism. It’s bishops thinking like bureaucrats, not like shepherds. Anybody who’s spent much time dealing with a bureaucracy knows that what matters most, to most of the staff, is maintaining The Process and The Department regardless of results. Their jobs are hard to lose if they bother showing up for work, and still harder to lose if the place is understaffed. Same with priests. Those who perform poorly are sometimes transferred if there are enough complaints; but rarely is a priest removed from active ministry for reasons other than health or crime. So when a bishop is short of priests, it’s overwhelmingly tempting for him to slot in any warm body available, even one with a questionable history, so long as the boat is not thereby rocked. The sheep just have to take what we get.
The problems I’ve been reviewing all contributed to an undue sense of entitlement on the part of priests and bishops complicit in the SAAC Scandal. There’s no other way to explain how so many priests could have given themselves permission to indulge their sexual desires in criminal acts, or how so many bishops either looked the other way or covered that up—and then, when legal troubles made denial, victim-blaming, and evasion too costly, exempted themselves from the sort of scrutiny and discipline that they now expect priests to undergo. That is why, for decades, former Cardinal and soon-to-be Mister Theodore McCarrick had every reason to believe that he could get away with what he was doing while rising through the ranks. And that’s apart from the question whether he even believed it was wrong. What mattered most was being one of the good ol’ boys, even if you liked boys too much. One can only hope and pray for greater episcopal accountability than that.
Now if clericalism is so plainly a major factor, why do some conservative or traditionalist Catholics deny it is? That some do is clear enough.
For example, an article I’ve already linked to, in which Cardinal Müller acknowledged clerical sexual abuse as an “abuse of power,” bears the headline: Cardinal Müller: Blaming sex abuse crisis on ‘clericalism’ is an insult to victims. Fortunately, the article quotes his entire statement, which is more nuanced. Here are the two key passages:
A priest is given…spiritual authority “in order to build up, not to tear down” (2 Cor. 10:8). The offender’s will for sexual gratification is the cause of the violation of the physical and emotional intimacy of a person entrusted to him. To babble on here of clericalism or of Church structures as the cause (of sexual abuse), is an insult [to] the many victims of sexual abuse outside the Catholic Church.
…when an adult or superior sexually assaults someone who is entrusted to his care, his “power” is only the means (though also abused) for his evil deed, and not its cause. It is indeed about a double abuse, but one may not confuse the cause of the crime with the means and occasions for its implementation in order to unload the very personal guilt of the offender onto the circumstances or to “the” society, or to “the” Church.
That’s it in a nutshell. Highly intelligent, loyal servants of the Church such as Müller, and other such servants I know personally, see blaming “clericalism” as a way to offload responsibility from the perpetrators themselves onto what one could call “the system.” Müller and the others are correct about the tendency to blame clericalism without also blaming disordered sexual desire. The move they view so dimly, which is common in the secular media and among Catholic progressives, makes little or no distinction between clericalism as a distortion of genuine clerical authority, which I’ve already described, and the constitution and norms of the Church herself. That’s one reason why it often involves blaming celibacy—as if there were evidence, which there isn’t, that sexual assault (of either sex) is less of a problem in other churches, where clerical celibacy is rare, or in public schools for that matter. Clericalism is indeed a major problem, and yet for the reasons I gave above, the blame-shifting Müller denounces is mere ideology.
It’s also ideology, however, to imagine that we’ve explained the SAAC Scandal when we’ve identified the above-described ideological mistake and just blame “gays in the priesthood.” It’s ideology because it’s a form of mere scapegoating that is emotionally quite satisfying —an immemorial tactic which, as Rene Girard explained, is possible because those who go in for it hide it from themselves by imagining that they are upholding Truth and Justice for victims. Thus we’re the good guys who have identified the bad guys, the gays. When taken as the explanation, that won’t wash. The reality is more complicated than that.
In the next and final part of this series, I’ll give my answer to the question: what is the root cause of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal?