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:

I: Searching for the Cause (Monday)
II: The Role of Ideology (Tuesday)
III: Homosexuality in the Clergy (Wednesday)
IV: Clericalism (Thursday)
V: Discovering the Root Cause (Friday)

Discovering the Root Cause

According to contemplative inquiry, ‘world’ is said to be a general word which refers to distinct passions. When we want to speak of passions in general we call them “world.” But when we speak of particular passions, we use their distinctive names.

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.

When these passions desist from their course, then correlatively the world ceases to exist— as in each of the saints who while living are dead, they are alive in the body but they do not live according to the flesh (Cf. Col 3:3; Rom 8:4). See in which of these you are alive and then you will know to what degree you are alive to the world and how much you are dead to it.

St Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life (translated by Mary Hansbury), 39–40.

The root cause of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal has to do with something simple and ancient, which St. Isaac was not the first to note. What has been true since the early Church, and perhaps was true even then, is that not many of us are dead enough to “the world” to live, reliably, the divine and eternal life won for us by Jesus Christ and bestowed at baptism. That such is true of laity, which is plain, is a very important part of the root cause. I shall return to that. For the moment, I shall focus on clergy.

Re-read the passage from St. Isaac with which I began this part. For our purpose, just review each item on the list of “passions” St. Isaac provides. As you do, relate each in your own mind to the sexual abuse and, just as important, to the coverups. When a man is not dead to the world, then either comfort, sex, power, pride, or some combination thereof have an ugly hold on him. But one needn’t think that through for oneself in order to understand the SAAC (sex-abuse-and-cover-up) Scandal, which has been unfolding in waves for decades. One could always read Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ’s 2003 address to the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, given when the previous iteration of the scandal was in full swing. It sums up the problems with remarkable candor and courage. It has guided my thinking about the scandal since I first read it more than a decade ago. Too few clergy are committed to dying to—i.e., overcoming—“the passions” in St. Isaac’s sense of the term.

“Not enough dying” to world/self is the same as insufficient spiritual growth. And it’s also a truism that, in the spiritual life, there is no stasis: one is always going either forward or backward. Yet our tradition offers plenty with which to go forward. It’s called asceticism. The classical-Greek word ascesis means, roughly, ‘athletic training’. Spiritually, that involves regular prayer, acts of self-denial (which used to be called, significantly, mortification), and a life of loving sacrifice without resentment, which is open to laity and clergy equally.  All those can and should include offering unavoidable or unjust sufferings to the Lord, by way of uniting them with his redemptive Passion. Another term for such practices is spiritual combat: resisting evil, which begins and ends with pushing back against the evil in ourselves by the means already stated and other means, especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. That’s rigorous training indeed.

Of course there’s never enough asceticism and spiritual combat in the Church, even among clergy. If there were, we’d all be living saints, laity and clergy alike. But that’s exactly why it won’t do to explain the current scandal just by saying there’s not enough of it. At the same time, it is particularly lacking today. The root cause of the SAAC Scandal is exposed when one understands why.

Start Within

Thanks mostly to technology and relative political stability, people in the developed world since World War II live at a level of material comfort and convenience that royalty centuries ago could only have dreamed of. Even many who are poor by contemporary standards enjoy a higher “standard of living” than most people, globally and historically, have traditionally had. By now, thanks to the Internet and social media, we can also interact freely and quickly with many people we have never met in person, but in practice we prefer to interact online mostly with those who see things pretty much as we do. Each of those two facts tend to make us too self-satisfied.

The first causes people to take for granted as their due what are really extraordinary and fragile privileges. For example, even Americans who express concern about “anthropogenic climate change” are generally unprepared to give up their air conditioning or SUVS.  The second allows people to keep confirming their opinions and prejudices, and in so doing divides us into tribes who barely understand one another and often demonize each other. So in an age of unprecedented prosperity and communication, we tend to think too highly of ourselves, shirk sacrifice whenever we can, and nurse a sense of aggrievement against those who substantially differ from us about important matters.

Among Catholics too, the net effect of all that is to discourage self-criticism and encourage ideological scapegoating, which both conceals and reveals the root cause of the SAAC Scandal. People lose sight of the fact that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” That manifests itself in the politicization of Church life, in which everything is seen in terms of a clash between those closer to the “progressive” end of the spectrum and those closer to the “traditionalist” end. And that affects how intelligent, committed, and vocal Catholics tend to explain the SAAC Scandal. Most blame other Catholics who are “not like us” instead of seeing the root of the problem as lying within ourselves. That tendency expresses and reinforces ideological thinking, in which we mask our true motives from ourselves.

The root of the problem does lies within those of us who have not come close to attaining sanctity, which is most of us. It is that far too few of us see the need for, or even understand, thorough ascesis and spiritual combat. Since Vatican II and largely for the reasons I’ve just noted, awareness of the centrality of asceticism and spiritual combat for Christian discipleship has shriveled. Priests don’t talk about it much: They often repeat that God loves us, but most Catholics have thereby been left with the impression that God is satisfied with us as we are, except for a few stains which aren’t that hard to remove. That impression is false. If we truly want to be what God created us to be, we must die to the world in ourselves, which is the same as observing the injunction to deny ourselves and take up the cross (Matthew 16:24). That is hard and painful. It is as radical as one can get. Nobody likes it. Few do it voluntarily, even though the vagaries of life and the consequences of our own bad choices force many of us to do it anyhow.

In ways I’ve already explained, the SAAC Scandal has resulted from worldliness and lack of asceticism among priests and bishops. But similar problems can be observed in the laity. Save for a few days during Lent—or as part of a weight-loss program—fasting among Roman as distinct from Eastern Catholics has gone by the boards. (I once gave a talk at an RC parish that included references to the wisdom of Scripture and the Fathers about fasting. People complained that there were no donuts to go with the coffee.) When said to somebody who is suffering, whether mildly or severely, “Offer it up” is taken more as the Catholic equivalent of “Shut up and deal” than as an invitation to exercise the common priesthood of believers. Even clericalism on the part of laity is a manifestation of such worldliness. If priests and religious are seen as a special caste meriting social deference, implicit trust, and other unusual privileges, what makes them special is that they are called to greater concern for spiritual things than the rest of us, which in practice is taken to absolve us from as great a commitment to attaining sanctity ourselves.

Then there’s the fact that most Catholic married couples in which the wife is of childbearing age either use or have used contraception to limit births. That is clearly contrary to a teaching that the Vatican has deemed “definitive and irreformable” (Vademecum for Confessors, ¶4.) For many couples, living out such a teaching would be a challenging ascetical regimen indeed. “Natural family planning” is no picnic even when it works as advertised. For some, it would be heroic. But only a rather small minority take the teaching seriously, and in the developed world, not many bishops and priests think it worth insisting on. Perhaps they fear emptying pews and coffers if they did. But then, they already face that. The process has just taken a bit longer for the Catholic Church than it has for liberal Protestant denominations.

The hard truth is that many of the lay folk who are among the most outraged by the SAAC Scandal, and rightly so, have been unwittingly complicit in it. Priests come from families, and much Catholic family life for the past several generations has been virtually indistinguishable from that of the wider society. I include a good deal of my own adult life in that indictment, but I’ve talked about myself enough already. The crisis generated by the scandal will not be overcome until both lay and ordained Catholics become aware of the underlying problem of ascesis, and resolve together to address it long-term.