Another common critique of Benedict XVI’s recent essay on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was that he takes up the crusty sword of theology against the very Now, very Relevant enemy of sexually abusive priests and cowardly Bishops. As the good Father James Martin S.J. argued in a round of tweets: “Pope Benedict casts the sexual abuse crisis primarily as a theological problem blaming progressive theology after the Second Vatican Council, as if what was needed to combat abuse was an acceptance of the correct theology.”
Like the demand for a show of concern for victims, this demand that pragmatic, political causes and solutions be the summum bonum of analysis seems to wriggle in its own moral purity. What could be more proper to the crisis than reducing all our twaddle to talk about real world solutions? What could be more improper than waxing eloquent about the “essential content of God’s revelation” when there are rapists to be brought to justice?
Writers who censure theology for the sake of “practical results” do not understand the magnitude of the crisis, nor the way out. Political solutions imply a political subject; theological solutions imply a theological subject. As anyone who was doing anything besides chewing on the table during catechism class knows, the Church is both theological and political; the body of Christ and an institution run by idiots; the banquet of those reconciled to God and the daily becoming-reconciled of those who rarely give God a thought. If the Church is who we proclaim her to be, there will be no solution that is not both theological and political. What, then, is achieved by censuring the theological and demanding a non-transcendent, immanent critique?
By praising the political over and against the theological, critics repeat the very structural sin that made the Holy Church so prone to institutional cover-up — the reduction of the Church to a political institution. This purely political critique is not radical enough. It does not ask “should the Church look like a corporation?” rather, it asks, “given that the Church is basically a big non-profit corporation, why not subject it to the centralized governing of corporations?” This is a good fifth-grade answer, but it assumes that acting like a large non-profit corporation is not a large problem. It is. As the MeToo movement has indicated, there does not seem to be a single major institution that has not, in an act of self-preservation, covered up some form of sexual abuse. From the BBC to Oxfam to the American public school system, if one scratches a modern institution, one finds a sacrificial system of sexual abuse and cover-up nestled comfortably in its heart.
This is not to argue that “everyone else is doing it.” There is no excuse for the sins of sexual abuse and subsequent deceit. But the fact remains that while almost all major institutions, from national governments to national sports leagues, show the signs of systemic abuse, cover-up, and the extensive use of pay-off money to ensure silence, only the Catholic Church has undergone, and continues to undergo, the kind of radical investigations that bring these evil acts to light. As the 2016 Royal Commission report on child sexual abuse in Australia admitted, almost despite itself, “there is a relatively small amount of literature concerning child sexual abusers in institutional settings, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church.”
While this might be technically unfair, it is a great good, and we should thank God that our governments and their army of lawyers are almost exclusively concerned with the Catholic Church. As Christopher Altieri noted, threatening the cash and the freedom of crooked church officials seems to be the only thing that motivates them to change. This is a sad state of affairs, but at least the hyper-focus of legislation against Catholic dioceses will mean that the Church more swiftly becomes poor, humiliated, committed to punishing the wicked and offering healing for victims of sexual abuse.
Benedict denies the supposed efficacy of subordinating theology to politics, decrying the fact that “the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms. The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.”
To take a practical example, Catholics take great pride in reminding the world that it the Catholic Church is the world’s largest charity. The idea that this is a good thing should give us pause, and not simply because it is a transparent attempt to transubstantiate the Church’s theological substance into a political category — rhetorically transforming the bride of Christ into a boring 501(c)3 that the world can understand and approve of. It should give us pause because major “charities” are everywhere being rocked by scandals of sexual abuse, institutional cover-up, and the misuse of funds: Oxfam, United Nations peacekeepers, One, and The Red Cross, come to mind. A recent report ordered by British House of Commons takes “sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” as a widespread phenomenon of which we have only seen the “tip of the iceberg.”
Why? Because contemporary institutions are organized towards self-preservation rather than towards some unequivocally transcendent good. They may begin with the clear-eyed hope for the attainment of a definite good, but the structural means by which they go about attaining this good is always the same: hiring employees, developing a graded scale of pay between them, insuring salaries and benefits, making careful investments– and so on. In all charitable work that involves no vow of poverty, there is a deep tension between these two priorities — between the mission and the security and self-preservation of its members. Thus, even when it has been fairly conclusively shown that a charity is harming, rather than helping, the overall well-being of a country (a problem that we are becoming more aware of in regards to Western aid programs in Africa) the will to self-preservation keeps institutions holding the course.
Obviously, this is all the more the case within for-profit institutions, though their leaders usually have the candor to admit that self-preservation, profit, and “jobs” — rather than any transcendent good — motivates their work. And while it does not explain acts of sexual abuse themselves, it does not take a profound wit to see why a will to preservation, over and often against a desire to attain some definite good, creates the conditions for the cover up of sexual abuse. The will to cover-up grows in tandem with the amount that an institution has to lose, which is a complicated way of rephrasing what Jesus said: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”
In one sense, this was and always will be the case. Every person who takes on any venture will come to a point of reckoning where she must decide where her heart lies — in the security the venture brings, or the good it purports to attain. If she values the good over the security of the institution, then, in the instance of sexual abuse, she will be able to find the wherewithal to expose the crime at the expense of the institution — as a university might sacrifice its good reputation and steady tuition flow to expose, rather than cover-up, a sexually abusive professor, motivated, as they ought to be, by the peaceful education of their students over the security of their corporate body. It will be a sacrifice, but a will to self-sacrifice is the only check to the will to cover-up, for sacrifice is the means by which human beings choose a higher value at the expense of a lower one — transcendent goods over institutional ones, in this case.
It is precisely this will to preservation that Catholic dioceses imitate when they structure themselves as a large non-profit corporations, operating multi-million dollar budgets, employing thousands, and reaching deep into the pocket to operate hospitals, schools, universities, charities, and the like. People who would blame the abuse crisis on celibacy are dense beyond their own expectations. The reason the Church historically veered towards the celibate priesthood was the same reason that the Church veered towards an impoverished priesthood — not because of the relative merits of sex, which it has always described as good fun — but because having families means having property and wealth, and this meant having a lot to lose, leaving the priesthood open to corruption and manipulation by the State.
The critique of Benedict for theologizing, when practical solutions and political explanations are the order of the day, concretizes this vision of the Catholic Church as a large corporation. It bans radical thought and ensures another round of bureaucratic figuring and committee creation which, while improving the operation of the nonprofit (as the Dallas Charter undoubtedly did) ultimately leaves the fundamental source of the will to cover-up unquestioned. (In fact, without spiritual renewal, these moves may bolster the will to cover up by adding more layers of money, employees, and bureaucracy — all orientated towards helping victims — that are themselves susceptible to acting out of self-preservation).
In truth, it is only a radical theological vision that can give us the courage to perform the self-sacrifice necessary to reform the Church, namely, uncovering whatever it has unjustly covered up, accepting the poverty that institutional humiliation entails, and re-ordering the Church into parish-centered communios united under holy Bishops rather than a centralized institution in which the faithful are at the mercy of a Roman bureaucracy in order to get anything done. Only a radically theological approach which answers the question of who the Church is will allow us to live as “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless,” (Ephesians 5:27) in which the best men for the role of Bishop are men who are brave rather than the bureaucrats; prudent rather than paper-pushers; saints rather than soulless administrators; holy rather than hapless homileticians better suited for convincing CNN that the Church is “deeply concerned about victims” than convicting a single soul to repent and believe in the Gospel.
Benedict might be dilly-dallying with theology when he critiques a Christianity in which “martyrdom is no longer morally necessary,” but holy heckfire, friends, don’t we need martyrs over the mealy-minded, budget-balancing, third-class cowards whose first instinct towards evil is to fret over a PR scandal rather than burn it at the stake? We are more likely to call a Bishop to raise funds for cancer research than to raise a cancer-killed child from the dead; more likely to see him cut a ribbon for a new parish center than cutting the head off a heresy or a hypocrite priest from his ministry. The reason we can’t imagine anything more than a banal bishopric, utterly devoid of wonderworkers and shepherds, is because we cannot imagine a hierarchy with nothing to lose except souls; nothing to gain except souls; nothing to manage except that minimum necessary to convert the nations.
Only great leaders and poor administrators can hear “I have been sexually abused by one of your employees” and answer it, in word and action, with joyful obedience to the Biblical injunctive: “Have no fellowship with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:11-14) To expose the fruitless deeds of darkness is not the mark of a good administrator, but of a saint, and the current institutional organization of our Church demands the former, not the latter.
Read Part 3: These are a Few of my Favorite Scapegoats