Part 1:

Many stupid things have been said about Pope Benedict’s recent essay on the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. This is hardly surprising. An ex-Pope launching out a take on one of the most shameful events in Christian history is bound to agitate the opportunistic glands of even the most tempered of journalists — and we do not live in an age of temperate journalists. Some of these criticisms can be dismissed with the same brevity and nonchalance with which they were proposed.

Jamie Manson, who writes for the Catholic Reporter with the certainty of someone who has already been paid and expects no readers beyond her editors, mailed in an old undergraduate essay criticizing the Pope for not buying the repression thesis, namely, that the trouble begins with the Church’s “limited, taboo-based teaching on sexual morality,” which is “rigid” and “shame-based.” I suppose this sort of thing may have worked before we read Foucault, when we could still think of sexuality as a pure river of light, only ever damned by being dammed. But now, as we all clamor with the MeToo movement for a return of shame, taboo, and the repression of sexual desire from our elite, this sort of thinking looks a little decrepit.

Christopher Altieri, writing for the Catholic World Report, summed up the criticism that the essay “was at once reductive and deflective, promising a treatment of the crisis in the Church and offering instead a panoramic reminiscence of cultural decadence.” This criticism is itself reductive and deflective, taking a fair swing at the alarmism in which conservative websites presented the Pope’s essay, while ignoring the essay itself. I don’t know exactly how I would introduce something so bold as a “treatment of the crisis,” but it would not have been in the manner which the ex-Pope introduced his own essay: “I compiled some notes by which I might contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour,” the was-Pope said, like a cringing layman knocking on the door of the rectory of a Clericalist Priest.

The same could be said against the general criticism that the once-Pope was theologizing when he should have been apologizing for his failures and/or offering political and pragmatic solutions to the wickedness that seems to be the eau de cologne of the prelates of our Church. I rather agree with Dr. Janet Smith, who wrote that these criticisms “mistake the genre of the piece.” This widespread mistake merits forgiveness as much as any other sin — be it that special kind of forgiveness which encourages the sinner to reread more carefully. The expressed goal of the piece is to “contribute to a new beginning.” What kind of beginning? Not, it might surprise us to note, the beginning of a new FBI investigation, but a new beginning in light of the fact that the sex-abuse crisis “has caused more than a few to call into question the very Faith of the Church” which requires us all to work together to “make the Church again truly credible as a light among peoples and as a force in service against the powers of destruction.” The fact that he then proceeds to discuss the Faith of the Church might disappoint our desire for a personal apology or a slick tell-all, but it hardly justifies our feeling that we were conned. The ex-Pope wrote what the ex-Pope said he was going to write.

Others were simply sad to see that one-time-Pope’s essay wasn’t great. They are correct. It wasn’t great. But most essays aren’t great. This essay isn’t great. If I could give these critics any advice on coping with this terrible disappointment, it would be: Stop being clericalists and expecting a literary gold star to pop out of a guy’s pen just because he happens to have once been a Pope.

But enough with the low-hanging fruit, sweet as it may be. Two criticisms that seem to repeat themselves need to be addressed. The first is that the Pope did not devote enough attention to victims.

What spirit motivates us to demand that a Pope, writing about the sex-abuse crisis, shows adequate concern for victims? One would assume that the very fact that he is writing against sex-abuse, seeking its causes, and suggesting solutions indicates “concern.” But this is insufficient. What is needed is an explicit mentioning of victims, and in good quantity. As Massimo Faggioli bemoaned in Commonweal, victims “are mentioned only once in this long text.” (How many times, one wonders, must one victim-mention in order for an essay to be an appropriately sincere take on sexual abuse? Third time’s the charm? A tithe of the whole?)

What Jamie Manson writes is a good example of this trend: “[Benedict] recounts a story of a young woman who was sexually abused by a priest, who would begin his violating act with the words, ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’ But he seems more concerned with ‘protect[ing] the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse’ than he is about the woman.” Manson argues that Benedict is not concerned enough. And it is this demand for an intense, grimacing concern for victims, an emotional concern which clearly shows itself in the words of those speaking on sexual abuse, that characterizes so much of the impassioned critique of church leadership.

On the face of it, it is a good thing to demand “concern for victims” from our church leaders. The tepid reactions of doubt and suspicion towards those who make claims of sexual abuse are shameful. But once we begin to scratch at the surface, things get weird. It has become the rote practice of angry Catholics to dehumanize victims of clerical sexual abuse, not by ignoring them, but by sacralizing them. They become, by virtue of suffering evil, infallible weapons foisted into the service of the cause of the one who regards them with deep enough “concern.”

On the one hand, this is simply a good rhetorical device. In the world that Christianity has made, the only way to be a Good Guy, rather than a Bad Guy, is to be on the side of victims rather than on the side of the victimizer, or as René Girard puts it, on the side of the Paraclete (the lawyer for the defense) rather than on the side of Satan (the accuser). Once a writer criticizes someone for not paying enough attention to victims, he insinuates, without evidence, that he does care deeply about victims, and thus fights for the Army of Light, against the calloused, victim-blaming Army of Darkness. But it is evil to use people who have actually been raped or otherwise abused as a rhetorical device.

Actual concern for victims is the good that we’re all after here. It is a habit of soul that Christ made possible, and which we only maintain by the continued practice of acts of charity and compassion. The requirement of an adequate show of concern for victims to validate an argument, or at least to give it rhetorical force, disembeds this virtue from the soul and forces it to dance for the sideshow of political posturing. Here, “concern for victims” can be completely absent from the actual life of an actual person and transformed into a box that is or is not checked within a Bishop’s apology, a investigation’s introduction, an angry op-ed, or a papal essay.

The result of treating victims of sexual abuse as playthings of rhetorical power is sadly obvious: “Concern for victims” has become a meme robotically repeated in dioceses throughout the world — “My personal affection for the people of the Archdiocese of W. goes hand in hand with my concern for victims and survivors” — as if merely repeating the magic formula will produce the desired exoneration. A recent Atlantic article quoted “the prominent sexual-abuse survivor and advocate Marie Collins,” who resigned from the Vatican commission for the protection of minors saying, “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the Church [for abuse victims]…yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!” The demand for displays of “deep concern” in order to ensure the validity of a critique of the crisis has given the wicked another way to hide, just as it has given the angry another way to achieve the delightful tickle of self-righteousness — without doing much of anything at all.     

One gets a sense for this subtle dehumanization when one recognizes the rigid limits everyone puts on “listening to victims.” Christopher Altieri, in his critique of Benedict’s essay, quotes the following:

“The Catholic writer and speaker, Leticia Ochoa Adams, who is also a survivor of sexual abuse she suffered from a close family member, remarked, “I don’t think any of these men get that we do not care anymore about how sexual perversion was popular at some point in history.” She went on to say, “What I want is someone, anyone, to say, ‘this is how I failed, I’m sorry, how can I be part of the solution?”

In the context of Mr. Altieri’s critique, however, I doubt that this respect for the voice of the victim has a particularly broad tolerance for what victims might actually say. Imagine, for instance, a victim who, being dutifully asked by a Bishop, “how can I be part of the solution?” were to receive the answer, “Bishop, by way of solution, I think you should put a strict ban on homosexuals entering the priesthood; I think you should screen all current priests for latent homosexual tendencies and defrock all those who fail to pass.” Suddenly, despite all the infallibility invested in the victim, advocates of this kind of language will get the perverse sense that this is the wrong kind of victim.

Conservatives who have used the sex-abuse crisis to rally against Pope Francis have increasingly attempted to tap into the rhetorical power of the victim. But they would be horrified if the victim for whom they advocate thanked them for their deep concern and argued that, in order to end the crisis, the Church should begin ordaining women to the priesthood. Once again, they would have the wrong kind of victim on their hands, at which point, they would be obliged to rhetorically swap out their victim for some other, more useful, recipient of sexual abuse.   

I do not doubt that a genuine concern and sympathy began this sort of talk, but Satan has made it his own. Whenever the demand for “concern for victims” is levelled, it is always levelled as a demand for a public display of “concern” for victims who are considered as abstract entities that agree with the writer, rather than as particular people. In truth, being the victim of sexual abuse does not destroy your humanity; it does not suddenly render you into an angelic entity with always-accurate takes; it does not make you into a glowing orb of righteousness that can transfer public purity onto whoever has enough “deep concern” to associate themselves with you; it does not “make you” into anything — except someone for whom justice is due. The sacralization of the victim into a culture-war weapon obscures our actual duty to administer justice to the oppressed.

What would a desacralized concern for victims look like? Like nothing special. Concern is not a public artifact, some Christian organ that we can waggle in front of the news media to impress them with depth and breadth of our emotional life. It is an interior disposition of the soul to comfort, heal, and seek justice for actual, particular victims of sexual abuse as they are given to us throughout the course of our daily lives and according to our station. It manifests itself in acts. When it must speak; when real concern becomes an object of public inspection, I imagine it looks an awful lot like Pope Benedict XVI’s essay. A bumbling take; one that no one has formatted into our culturally-approved, easily-repeatable, “concern for victims” script; one that resists the temptation to squeeze the dry rag of “profound grief” that produces nothing but suspicion and contempt upon those who do not grieve as profoundly; one that does not make the writer “look good.” And indeed, this was the sad expectation of many of the critics of Pope Benedict’s essay. “The communications of the pope emeritus should be handled by official Vatican media…[t]he publication of Benedict’s essay has already damaged his reputation,” Massimo Faggioli argued in Commonweal. Maybe if more prelates were willing to damage their reputation, we wouldn’t be living in such evil days.

Read Part 2: Theologizing the Crisis

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