Fr. James Martin is a wonderful man and an intelligent scholar and editor, for whom I have the greatest respect. However, he has the unfortunate habit — which we all indulge at some time or another — of reducing the Catholic intellectual tradition to an unradical mouthpiece for the humdrum status quo that currently dominates our thinking.
One gets the sense that, when considering what hot take to take up, he settles for whatever platitude most naturally trips off the tongue of a suburbanite swishing his fourth afternoon glass of Pinot Grigio. He seems convicted of a baby-boomer theology which, while triumphing at the barbeques of the thoughtless middle-class, sends young Catholics screaming into the arms of the fascist alt-right or the silly socialists for want of something besides middle-aged moralizing.
So it is unsurprising to see him fire off another round of blandness criticizing Pope Benedict’s spotty (but decidedly not bland!) analysis of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Fr. Martin’s poo-pooing of the ex-Pontifex can be pardoned, both because Jesus asks us to pardon unrelentingly and because his culpability is mitigated by the crumminess of his medium, Twitter. But still, as a lingering digital artifact, it’s a wax stain on his clericals.
To Benedict’s charge that a lax, uncritical, and downright stupid theology bred a rubbish generation of priests without the capacity to resist temptation, fraternally correct, or publicly condemn, Martin seems to think it is sufficient to point out one “orthodox” rapist — the founder of the Legion of Christ — to outweigh the scores of heterodox, wishy-washy ignoramuses documented in reports like the recent one from Pennsylvania. Given the obvious hypocrisy of Maciel — a man with multiple families, mistresses, and luxury apartments — this seems like cherry-picking from Padre Martin. If I wrote a book promoting sexual temperance to fund my penchant for employing sex workers, my hypocritical use of orthodox teaching would hardly make me an orthodox believer.
One would have to show a genuine, earnest believer committing acts of sexual abuse to make the point that Martin wants to make, and this raises the question of whether any earnest believer could commit regular acts of sexual abuse without either (a) disbelieving church teaching or (b) holding it cynically. And while it is obviously true that orthodoxy (right belief) does not magically make orthopraxy (right action), orthopraxy isn’t spontaneously generated either, but springs from, and lives in constant relation with one’s beliefs. The intellectual distinction between right belief and right action break down in the life of the human person who both acts on his beliefs and believes in how he acts — a point already made by Pope Benedict XVI. In fairness, Martin may not have read him.
Martin goes on to blame Benedict, my dad, for not understanding that pedophilia is “far more fundamentally” a disease and a “profound psychological problem” rather than a moral issue. Again, one hears the approving murmur of the Basic Class over an opinion about as thrilling as their favorite lawn furniture. But it’s a weird age for rote psychologizing, especially after the laity read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on the widespread, clerical decision to treat pedophilia as a psychological disease. Rubbish priests were shuffled through psychological programs and therapies, declared cured, and then planted in new parishes to abuse — though with a little more psychological savvy, one imagines. Despite this, Martin takes a swing at uncritical Catholicism’s favorite pinata, “moralism,” arguing that the real problem is that “simply admitting one’s moral wrongdoing is insufficient.”
I am not sure precisely who this sort of thing is supposed to convict. Six-year-olds and recovering nihilists might be surprised to find that “simply admitting one’s moral wrongdoing is insufficient.” Pope Benedict XVI and the similarly woke? Oh, honey, no. But, by bravely taking up the flag of the universally accepted, Martin masks the blisteringly obvious fact that pathologizing pedophilia has been equally, if not more, “insufficient” in destroying the wicked and rescuing victims. The vague label of “disease” has hidden crime, encouraged cover-ups under the foolish guise of compassion for the sick, and served as a kind of liquor to dull and confuse the moral outrage and disgust of Catholics, lay and clerical, over the wickedness and intemperance of predatory men. Through this sort of language, our maternal roar for justice, punishment, and the effective disabling of further viciousness is petted into submission. We are assured that we simply do not understand this Very Serious Illness, which requires the outsourcing of decisive action to medical professionals. Our desire to correct, admonish, defrock, imprison, and publicly shame the violent is re-described as its own kind of violence — and an ignorant one at that.
Of cuss-word course there is an element of psychological illness in paedophilia. The person is not a refrigerator of leftovers, in which “the psychological” can be tupperwared away from “the moral.” A “profound psychological problem” is another way of describing a profound problem of the psyche, the soul, the unity of which is disintegrated by habitual sin. The fact that sexually abusing children neither comes from nor leads to psychological health or holism is not a reason to declare it unrelated, or even only secondarily related, to a lack of inner holiness. Rather, it is resounding evidence that the moral life and the psychological life form a whole, and while they are not always synonymous, they are nevertheless inextricably bound up with each other.
Martin’s emphasis on the “disease” of pedophilia is not the kind of emphasis that puts an end to the sexual abuse crisis. It is an emphasis that coddles the laity into the idea that, after all, there’s nothing they can do; that some wickedness is the provenance of professionals well-funded by the state; that what appears as evil is, in its substance, a hidden mechanism of disease known only to the privileged, and if we are all Very Good and Don’t Shout, perhaps one day these experts will describe how such a plague afflicts the cranial matter, and how it was that the Ancient Greeks were so very, very afflicted.
Martin ends his series of critiques with an argument that the moral crisis of the sixties is not to blame for the sex-abuse crisis so much as clericalism. Pope Benedict’s essay, he argues, “blames the sex abuse crisis on the culture, not the church. It focuses [on] the outside rather than the inside, failing to look at the deep structural flaws and sins within the church (specifically, a clericalism that privileged the word of the priest over the victim).”
As finales go, this is flaccid: privileging “the word of the priest over the victim” is ancillary to the acts which cause there to be victims in the first place. “Clericalism” doesn’t sexually abuse children any more than it robs banks. If Benedict is utterly wrong about the abuse crisis, he is not well reprimanded by a reminder of Catholics’ historical, undue deference to the collared caste — which, on its own, may as well have produced a generation of victims forced to volunteer at the parish picnic as a generation of victims of sexual abuse.
The very fact that clericalism took on a definite, sexually abusive form seems to suggest that Martin’s own analysis needs something a lot like Benedict XVI’s analysis. The two could co-author — the Pope points out a motivating cause (crappy theology) and the priest points out an aggravating cause (crappy deference to priests). But as Augustine put it, “charitable synthesis doesn’t get you followers on Twitter, y’all” — and so here we are.
As Martin tupperwares orthodoxy away from orthopraxy, and morality away from psychology, he finishes with the most predictable of neo-conservative compartmentalizations — the church from the culture. Benedict is to be blamed for blaming the culture. Martin, I assume, is to be praised for blaming the church. But I doubt Benedict would concede the point. The Pope’s essay argues that the culture of the sexual revolution both formed and was formed by clerics and theologians. Throughout Benedict’s theological writings, it is clear that the apparent division between “church” and “culture” is, at its base, a true nuptial unity, for better or for worse, in which all culture exists on the brink of conversion into the Catholic Church, a fact which gives them a “history” by giving them all a “destiny.” If “Christians must be to the world what the soul is to the body,” as Lumen gentium quotes, then it makes no sense to arbitrarily demand that all criticism of the sex-abuse crisis focus on the “inside” rather than the “outside” — one may as well argue that healthy living should focus on the body, rather than the soul, or on the soul, while letting the body go to seed.
Perhaps Fr. Martin hasn’t read Benedict in this regard. Regardless, the consequence of his rigid binarism is apparent in his conclusion. Clericalism is not some unique Catholic devilry Martin can safely exorcize without getting holy water in the eye of the “culture”. Catholics are prone to indulge an undue deference to their spiritual authorities precisely as the “culture” is prone to idolize their own, creating corporate hierarchies and pyramids of power, wealth and influence, usually topped by the male sex, in which deference becomes advantageous for all those under him, and in which the seeds of lust find good soil to grow — as the #MeToo moment has shown with great clarity.
Martin wants to blame the Church. But it is obvious that the Church, for the last hundred years, has imitated the same tactics of worldly powers, up to the point where the “institution” looks nearly identical to a large non-profit working the gears of contemporary liberal capitalism — with Human Resources departments, insurance liabilities, armies of lawyers, payroll, and all the rest. In fact, following Benedict XVI’s essay, it would be coherent to argue that it is this highly untheological organization of the institutional Church that makes her hierarchs hesitate to root out the abuse; that the Church should no longer liken herself to the institutions of the world — scrambling for the financial security of the corporation, the glamor of the university, the moral superiority of the charity — which inevitably leads to the same desperate attempt of self-preservation and cover-up as the rest. But when Martin makes the church-versus-culture distinction, he disables our capacity for this insight. His “church-only” criticisms give the air of noble blametaking, but they actually suppress the laity at the precise point at which they are most effective — in recognizing in our institutional Church the same pathetic posturings that we see in our corporate workplaces, public schools, and universities. Against this critique, Martin forces us to dig for some pure “inside problem” — just so long as that problem isn’t theological. Or moral.
There is something disappointing about rooting the sex-abuse crisis in the moral upheaval of the sixties. But this is not because there is no connection between the sexual abuse of minors and a commodified sexuality deprived of the fixed forms which made it something more than a plaything of power. Rather, Benedict’s analysis disappoints because it does not ground this particular historical instance in the history of sexuality. On the basis of his other writings, especially Deus Caritas Est, it is obvious that he does not believe the sex-abuse crisis to have sprung, sui generis, from a particularly crooked bunch of hippies and bad poets. But his essay, taken on its own, does give credence to the idea that he is scapegoating a particular era.
To come to Benedict’s defense (and one must defend one’s own firstborn son!) would be impossible from Martin’s criteria. He rules out the possibility of a legitimate theological explanation of the sexual abuse crisis a priori, and Benedict’s long-view, which goes several thousand years beyond the sixties, is decidedly theological. For Benedict, the sexual abuse crisis is a repetition of a bad theology, one practiced in the temples of the gods that surrounded the Jewish people at the time of the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and in the time that the Hebrew Bible describes. We will do our best to describe this theological theory of the crisis in a subsequent essay, but for now we will content ourselves in defending the fact of theologizing in the face of crisis at all.
The main problem with Fr. Martin’s criticisms, if it could be summed up, is that they have no radical potential. Each “takedown” of the ex-Pope leaves the Catholic laity helpless to reform their Church. Sin that should be punished becomes, primarily, a disease that should be cured by professionals. The idea that sexual sin is aggravated by dissent from Church teaching concerning sexual morality is laughed off, and with it, any hope that lay people can demand any real moral reform — “ignore what the seminaries teach, and what the preachers preach, just focus on getting CCTV set up in the rectory.” Sin, dissent, irreverence, hypocrisy, and cynicism, which can be recognized and opposed, are put aside as irrelevant, and instead, the root of all evil becomes one only accidentally related to sex-abuse — “clericalism” — which is spectral, obscure, and at least in part the fault of the laity. After all, lay people are usually the first the ones to give undue deference to their priests. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report tell many stories of parents, teachers, and children who contributed to the culture of clericalism which covered-up, denied, explained, and put up with abusive priests. It is not the intention of good people like Martin, who level the “clericalism thesis” as the One True Cause over and against the “immorality thesis” proposed by Benedict XVI, but their arguments sound a lot like victim-blaming: “If you didn’t want sex-abuse, you shouldn’t have turned the priesthood into an elite.”
More importantly, the clericalism thesis suggests that rape and sexual abuse simply happen, as if from nowhere, and the best we can muster against the inexplicable is a kind clean-up job — ensuring that accused priests are not privileged over accusing victims and stripping our hearts of clericalism. Say what you want about theological explanations and moral condemnations — at least they aren’t boring. As least they posit a cause. At least they empower the laity to say, “Screw the tyranny of evil men, greedy pastors, cowardly church employees, hypocrites, pharisees, cynics, liars, dissenters, heretics, apostates, thieves, lechers, and the whole cacophony of violent men hiding under the comfy cushion of an institutional Church become indistinguishable from a successful, American-style non-profit. Let’s have poverty, holiness, and something Christ would recognize.” To develop this attitude of reform, we’ll need something a lot more like Pope Benedict XVI’s analysis, and a lot less like Father James Martin’s.