Sunday, April 4, 2010
Suffer the little children to come unto me; the Pedophilia Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church
Over the last months the Catholic Church has been suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Not a fortnight passes before some scandal involving priests sexually abusing children does not bubble up to the news cycle, and cause the Prada Pope more sleepless nights. The former chief enforcer of the faith is like a repairman dealing with a poorly set up wallpaper; every time he smoothes over one bubble on the surface, another one pops up somewhere else. The Church and its supporters have been in full damage control mode. Unfortunately for the Pontiff and his supporters, they have been very much like firefighters trying to put out an oil refinery blaze, with nothing more than super-soakers.
The part of the story that everyone seems to be missing is how this flare-up was inevitable. The story was inevitable because of the structure of the Roman Catholic organization. It was inevitable because of the dogma and teachings of the Roman Catholic faith. It was inevitable because of large historical trends that the Church has little to no control over.
Let us deal with the items in the order they were presented, beginning with a structural analysis. The Roman Catholic Church's major structural deficiency is that it is the last absolute monarchy on the planet. This is an institution that still takes seriously the idea of the divine right of kings. It helps to believe in such notions when your leader is seen as an actual divine. By Catholic dogma the Bishop of Rome is the representative of Saint Peter, the holder of the keys of heaven on earth. Through him, and his acolytes, is the only path of salvation. Of course, the reality of the situation is in stark contrast to the stated ideal. There is no way one man can rule over even the spiritual lives of one billion people. Pope Benedict XVI is the head of a vast and sprawling bureaucracy that is both hidebound and hard to direct. As the world's oldest and one of the largest transnational bureaucracies, the Roman Catholic Church is a huge and ponderous vessel to steer. The various cardinals and bishops of the Church are very much like the old aristocratic princes of Europe in the Middle Ages; quite often they are more than willing to go off in their own directions.
It is an organizational structure that does not communicate well. The top-down decision making and the unwillingness for the lower levels to pass up bad news to the top, make for dysfunctional communication. The tendency to ignore or hide issues, especially issues with priests, is amplified by a system with no real structure of accountability. Thus, bad-actors were passed from parish to parish with zero consequence. Far too often, it was the secular authority, law enforcement or common law civil suits, which finally imposed a righting of wrongs. By that time the damage was truly appalling.
Structurally speaking, the Church is finally coming to grips with what Western European nation-states found out all the way back in the days of the French Revolution: Absolute Monarchies fail when they have anything less than the most stellar leadership. The divine right of kings shattered against the rocks of Murphy's Law. This particular hard and fast rule is that, sooner or later, a dynasty is going to produce a dud. The consequences of producing a dud in the modern era are rather stark for the aristocrats who would be absolute rulers: death and dismemberment. While Benedict XVI will not suffer the fate of Louis XVI or Nicholas II, he may, at the end of this, beg his Maker for such a quick and final resolution of his problems.
If the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church were not enough for the Pope to overindulge in the sacramental wine, the problems of Dogma are even thornier. From the very beginning, from Peter and Paul the founders of the church, the faith has had some real issues with sex. Paul especially was very clear about this: celibacy was preferred; marriage was tolerated, but just barely. The disconnect between the Dogma of the church on human sexuality, and the reality on the ground has always made the church vibrate with tension. Not even the priesthood could stay faithful to celibacy, and as for the Popes; the less said about their deviance from dogma, the better. To an outside observer, the Church's teachings about sex made it inevitable for perversion to occur. The Church's inability to deal with human sexuality in general, and with human female sexuality specifically, sets it up for all sorts of Sub Rosa nastiness.
One does not have to be a radical atheist or a dyed-in-the-wool secularist to notice that strains of misogyny, repression, dominance, submission, authoritarianism and patriarchy are shot through Roman Catholic attitudes about sex. By making all sex sinful, the church flattens the gradations and bright lines separating sexual practices. When the default is heterosexual sex, in the missionary position, only for procreation, natural sex drives are going to find other outlets. When all sex is considered dirty, nasty and vile, it is very easy to conflate all sexual acts as being equally vile. The raping and molesting of children becomes much more likely when all human sexuality is considered beyond the pale.
The Church's inability to deal such a primal human motivation in any type of realistic fashion does it major harm. In the past, especially in the Renaissance, it gleefully observed the idea of celibacy mainly in breach. It was not uncommon for one pope to be the father of another pope and for prelates' sons to follow their biological fathers' positions by becoming clerical fathers themselves. Back in those cynical times everyone knew the deal when a bishop of the church introduced some "cousin" into the folds of Holy Mother Church. It was only after the eruptions of Martin Luther that the Roman Catholic Church got serious about the need for clerical celibacy. This reform of the Church has probably done more harm than any other move in the Counterreformation. It turned the priests loose on the Congregation like wolves among a flock of sheep.
It is, however, the last great issue mentioned that has caused the most problems for the Church of Rome. That issue is known by the short hand of modernity. Unlike many shifts in history, the turn toward modernity has a very exact date, that of the execution of Louis XVI. After the French monarch lost his head to the French Republic, all bets were off. The divine right of kings was put on notice and one of the great historical movements was born: nationalism.
The French Revolution and the following Napoleonic Wars totally reoriented the loyalties of the ordinary peoples of Western Europe. Governmental legitimacy shifted from the person of the Monarch or from the possession of great landed estates, from one's pedigree, to an idea of a people and an ethnic coherence. One was a no longer a subject of the King or Emperor of X or Y but a member of a great nation and a great people: the British, the French, the Dutch, the fill in the blank.
More importantly, nationalism replaced the loyalties and passions that were once the exclusive province of the church. Much of this was just history playing out. After the wars of religion that were part and parcel of the Reformation, Western Europeans were just not willing to slaughter people over hair-splitting theological notions. The outward expressions of religious zeal had transmogrified into inward dread and uncertainty. Protestants spent their last dying embers of passion chasing and burning their own congregants as witches. The Roman Catholic Church wound down the Inquisition until modernity, in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte, finally ended it with a whimper.
In that one act, and in others by the Corsican, you can see the markers of modernity being laid down by one of the very first truly modern men. The Roman Catholic Church was slowly, gradually and inexorably being pushed to the periphery. Modernity was presenting a triple threat to the Church, a threat that it never found answer to. That threat was best described by the overarching idea of materialism and the troika that underlay it. While one horseman short of the four of the apocalypse, the three horsemen of materialism: science, technology and capitalism were more than sufficient to lay the Church of Rome low.
To this assault, the faith had no real answer. It did not have a philosophical rejoinder. It only had a slow, loosing, rear guard action. The Roman Catholic Church could not respond to modernity because it did not have the cultural or mental architecture to cope. The Church was not modern, it was the last great medieval institution left standing.
To understand this statement one must understand that the word "medieval" is not at all being used as a pejorative, but as a specific term that has a meaning beyond school yard taunts. The medieval mind, the medieval outlook, the medieval ecosystem is description of how people lived and believed. It describes an inward looking and spiritual understanding of the world. Its goals and suppositions are not our goals and suppositions; its base notions are not our base notions.
Before we get too romantic about the great spirituality of that long gone age, one must point out that much of this spirituality was observed in breach. While some cloistered monks were actually living the pure and saintly life, the great majority were carrying on in ways that would make even the most jaded of moderns blush. The grubby realities of peasant life guaranteed that everyone, included small children, knew the how's, why's, where's and when's of all sorts of embarrassing biological functions, especially sex. Most of the priesthood where right in there with the mass of the peasants; working, shacking up, breeding and dying. Most priests had wives of one sort of another. Still the ideal was that of a holy contemplative. It was of a man or woman who, via a great spirituality, and great devotion, escaped this world of pain and suffering and found God. For medieval man and medieval woman, truth lay within. God, in His glory and wisdom, had revealed all in His holy book, and in the teachings of Most Holy Mother Church. Happy and fortunate were those few cloistered in the monastery that had the time and the vocation to contemplate these things. It was via their prayers and holy offices that everyone else could do the dirty jobs that needed doing.
Against this notion of contemplation, of an inner directed life, came materialism. Materialism looked outward, to the physical world itself for answers. Materialism was not concerned with great truths handed down by higher authority; it was not concerned with revealed truth. It looked outward, to the physical world for answers. It was the very beginning of the reality-based community. Materialism had always lurked with the great merchant princes of the Middle Ages. It had rested, like a sleeping mastiff, at the feet of great dynastic power. Born of the great medieval conflict and cross pollination of Europe's struggle with Islam, materialism bided its time. It waited for Europe to recover from the collapse of Rome and then the collapse of the Black Death. It grew out of the Renaissance and took off during the age of discovery. The outward looking aspect of materialism brought results, material results, results that were self evident. Self denial was easy in the Middle Ages; spirituality was simple, because the material lives of just about everyone were hideous. Death, disease and disfigurement were routine events. Lives were perilously short, especially the lives of children. Life could be seen as a veil of tears because, for most, it was. Materialism changed all that. It shifted the realities of life. Life, even for the masses, became more comfortable.
By shifting people's focus to this world, to the rewards available in the mortal life, materialism ate away at the underpinnings of the Catholic Faith. Individualism replaced communitarianism. Inquiry trumped faith. Change overcame tradition. At least Protestantism shared the view with the Roman Catholics that faith and the questions of religion were paramount; materialism via science, technology and capitalism offered no such quarter. Materialism's hand-maid, modernity, just kept pushing all faiths to the periphery. It offered new institutions and ideas for peoples loyalties; it offered new solutions to old conundrums. It offered new understandings of the human condition. One can see the very beginnings of this in the age of discovery; the paradigm was to go out into the world to find out what was out there. No more sitting in cells or scriptoriums and musing over philosophical reality or Platonic ideals; no, one made discoveries by going outwards, by exploring the material world. In this mind set, faith and obedience no longer had primacy. Eventually, in the post World War One world, they would have no relevancy.
And this is the central problem for the Roman Catholic Church, the rock of Peter, the faith and obedience of the parishioners, is dissolving in the acid of modernity. The sustenance and support the church once provided has been either taken over by the state, or are no longer of such great import to the broad swaths of people. In the Middle Ages, to be excommunicated from Holy Mother Church was to be placed in grave peril. Today, it barely rates as a minor inconvenience. The teachings of the prelates no longer have the impact that they once had. The church's medieval world view has less and less grounding in the modern realities it inhabits. Telling the faithful to do as the Church says, not as it does, is less and less persuasive.
The Church is in its current pedophilia predicament because it cannot admit that its central teaching on sex is flawed. It cannot admit the very teachings of the first auto-declaimed, Infallible Pope were and are suspect. It has been forced to double down on those teachings and condemn birth control. This absolutely insured that the laity would greet those same teachings with the one-fingered salute. Nothing has harmed the discipline of the church more than the encyclical humanae vitae. With this pronouncement, Pope Paul VI added millions to the Congregation of The Cafeteria Catholic. The parishioners chose to ignore the teachings of the Holy Father the way customers at a cafeteria usually ignore the jello mold. Millions of Catholics took the church and its teachings a lot less seriously after Paul VI's pronouncement on birth control. It was the loss of prestige to the Church that eventually would further damage it when the crisis of the Pedophiliac Priest finally reared its ugly head.
The Pauline instructions set up that inevitable disaster when the Vatican, in bunker mentality, insisted on absolute loyalty to the teachings of the Pope. Obedience became the watchword; obedience of the parishioners, obedience of the priests, obedience of the bishops, obedience of the cardinals. The drift to authoritarianism, absolutism, and autocracy became more marked. Infallibility crippled one of the Church's greatest strengths; its very Catholic nature, its dynamism and flexibility, its adaptability to local realities. It made the Roman Catholic Church unable to really respond to the sea change in attitudes to sex. The pill, and later the crisis of AIDS, left the Church flat-footed and unable to offer anything practical to these large, looming facts on the ground. The sanctimonious lectures on chastity were less than helpful and became objects of ridicule once the dirty secrets of what priests were doing in their spare time came out.
The drift toward absolutism and irrelevance became manifest with the election of Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger to the Papacy. Ratzinger had been the theological muscle to John Paul II papacy. As the head of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was his job to stamp out heresy, and all other forms of disobedience in the Church. The former Hitler Youth took to this job the way a duck takes to water. The forces of reaction and Orthodoxy had no better advocate. Thus, when John Paul II's infirmities finally separated his soul from his suffering body, Ratzinger made a bold move for the top slot. Offering up a prayer to his fellow electors, he opened up his campaign for the Papacy with a benediction that was catnip for the retrograde forces in the Roman Catholic Church. The Cardinals swooned and voted for the dream date that would finally bring order and orthodoxy back to the church. Little did the reactionaries remember the ageless Chinese warning of being careful what you wish for. The reactionaries got Ratzinger alright, every last stinking bit of him.
They forgot that this consummate Church bureaucrat would be neck deep in the scandal that has caused the Church so many sleepless nights during John Paul II Papacy. It is the scandal that just will not go away; that of the raping priests. In their obsession for rigid top-down leadership they missed the obvious signs that Ratzinger was nothing but a huge stink bomb waiting to go off. They were blind-sided because Ratzinger was everything they thought they wanted in a Pope; micromanaging, top-down, orthodox, fiercely opposed to modernity, fiercely opposed to any and all change, fiercely wedded to tradition, fiercely Marian with all the vicious misogyny that lies beneath the mother-whore complex of Marian devotion. This was a Patriarchal authoritarian after their own hearts, with the bonus of a manic homophobia that make outside observers wonder if the Pope may have some sexual self-loathing issues of his own. Here was a man that was definitely tightly wound around the obsessions of pain, suffering, sensual denial, rigid conformity and twisted sexual obsession that inform the more reactionary strains of the Roman Catholic faith like Opus Dei. Most importantly, here was a man that was obsessed with absolutism, with hierarchy and control. Here was a man that has absolutely bought into the medieval idea that the Church is the only proper higher authority that all men and women should bend a knee to. Here, unfortunately for the retrograde orthodox prelates, was a man who would become the sine qua non of everything that was wrong with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Here was moral turpitude, written in letters of fire 20 meters across in a clear blue sky.
The crisis of the Roman Catholic Church begins at its head. The Faith is being battered because it chose, as its head, a man singularly unable to deal with the three prong attack that is assaulting the See of Peter. He does not have the intellectual requirements to deal with the deficiencies of Catholic Dogma in the modern era. The man does not even admit to any deficiencies. He is unable to deal with the structural and organizational problems caused by excess centralization. He wants even more centralized control, even more absolute despotism from the center. He most certainly does not have any real response for the challenges of modernity. He is a fierce and uncompromising opponent of modernity. Through his rigid leadership the Church has become even more brittle.
The results of this failure of leadership are easy to spot. You can see the shards of the brittle Catholic edifice being knocked off with every wrecking-ball blow of the Pedophilia Crisis. It is a hideous sight: one of the great sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the confessional, has been converted into a possible criminal act. The physical violation of the most vulnerable, children, only pours more salt in the wound. The violations of one priest, raping two hundred deaf children, were an exclamation point on this whole sorry page in the Church's history. It certainly made the Sisyphean task of the usual suspects, like Bill Donovan, of defending the actions of the Roman Catholic Church that much harder. The usual response of blaming and shaming the victims is seen as particularly sleazy and despicable when contrasted with the harsh reality of a monster in a Roman collar. This was a monster who raped children, who on top of everything else (the shame, the guilt, their powerlessness against authority), were physically unable to communicate the offense to others. That this man was allowed to rape and rape again, in different parishes, these self-same disadvantaged and vulnerable children, only adds to the horror. The contrast between the Church's claims of moral rectitude, and the reality of a criminal conspiracy of silence that would make Mafiosi blush, is gravely damaging the church's spiritual authority. It is hard to be a shining light of moral superiority when you look more like a candidate for United States RICO laws.
And that, gentle reader, is the rub. The church is approaching an accountability moment. It is running up against a hard wall of parishioner disgust and abandonment. The very pinnacle of the church, the Holy Father, is a gravely damaged man at best, and is most likely a dead prelate walking. The Church is finding exactly the same position it found itself in the waning years of John Paul II: it is waiting for the Holy Father to shuffle off his mortal coil so it can move forward into a new reality. Until that time, until Benedict XVI lies in Prada-clad repose, the Church cannot deal with the rot that, fish-like, begins at the head.