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Catholic Scandals

In his Sunday (8-26-18) column for The Washington Post, E. J. Dionne raises a question that is on my mind often: given everything that’s coming out about the extensive sexual abuse among Roman Catholic clergy, why is it that I’m still in the church? The question is further complicated by the utterly offensive and beside-the-point statements coming from church leaders such as Cardinal Raymond Burke and former papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, that this sexual abuse is attributable to a “homosexual culture” or “homosexual networks” in the church. The very suggestion reeks of ignorance at best, for pedophilia has nothing to do with homosexuality, any more than it has to do with heterosexuality; and this problem is all about predatory pedophiles using the church structure, and its networks of secrecy, to target their victims.

Dionne gets very much to the heart of the matter when he writes, “The great missing piece in the church’s response was the failure of the hierarchy to atone—truly, deeply, credibly—for putting institutional self-protection over the interests of the young and powerless who were harmed.” What is it about the current hierarchical structure that enables the creation of pedophile networks and a pedophile culture within the church? That’s the question we need to answer, for the evidence suggests that pedophiles are attracted to this structure in pretty sizable numbers; and once inside this structure, they have found ways to let their evil predilections flourish. I suspect that part of what has allowed this to happen is that the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality, teachings that, whatever the habitual gestures about sex as a gift from God, tend more toward denial than complex understanding. Combine these simplistic attitudes toward sexuality with a highly secretive and self-protective hierarchical structure, and the result is a highly toxic mix.

None of this is to say that there are not plenty of truly good and virtuous people among the clergy. As an undergraduate, I attended a seminary run by Benedictine monks; throughout my life, I have known hundreds of priests, many of whom have been or are my friends—and although I was indeed sexually abused a couple of times when I was a teenager, it was never once by a priest, not once. Actually, my experience with priests has been pretty positive. But this is also not to deny that the church is saturated with abuse and needs to change.

A close reading of the Gospels, along with a little historical understanding, shows Jesus to be struggling to keep his Jewish traditions viable during a time of Roman occupation. Although the Romans allowed local traditions to continue, the cost was that locals also had to pay tribute and obeisance to the emperor. Understandably, many Jewish people asked how to live their faith in these conditions. Also understandably, there was a range of answers to the question, ranging from careful accommodation to outright insurrection. It seems that Jesus and those who followed him were not really in either of these camps, though what he offered was a compassionate and sometimes witty way of responding to the occupation while remaining always on the side of the most needy and downcast. Therein was Jesus’ version of the kingdom of God during a difficult political era.

One problem with the Catholic church today is that we are still occupied by Rome. Obviously, the empire is no more, but we have yet to shake off the strict hierarchy that the church took over from the empire, with our archaic system of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and so on. We’re trying to live in the contemporary moment within a grossly outdated structure. Jesus and those devoted to the Jesus movement were struggling to keep their faith alive during a time when the empire and its hierarchical structure had taken possession of them. In many ways, those of us devoted to the Jesus movement within Catholic tradition today are engaged in exactly the same struggle.