In August of 2018, a grand-jury in Pennsylvania published a report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen in six dioceses in the state. (The other two PA dioceses had been covered by earlier reports.)
The report scandalized the world, as most of us remember.
Mr. Andrew Seidel, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote an essay about the grand-jury report. A clerical sex-abuse-survivor friend of mine recently shared that essay with me. I think we can gain some insight by considering some of Mr. Seidel’s points.
Seidel titled his essay, “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.” He writes:
If you stand by the Catholic Church, if you donate time and money to this organization, you are complicit. There is no way around it. You are complicit in the rape of children and its cover-up. If you think that is too harsh, start thinking about the victims instead.
Thinking about the victims: that definitely counts as WWJD. Conscientious Catholics agree on that, anyway. So we need to pay attention here.
Seidel goes on to write:
The consistent theme underlying the PA Grand Jury’s analysis is authority. Unquestionable, unassailable authority. Divine authority.
The victims are taught that their tormentors are divine. They are representatives of god on earth. they are not to be questioned and certainly not disobeyed. Under Catholic canon law, adherents are required to give a ‘religious submission of the intellect and will’ to their church.
The abuse is so bad because it is a church. The evil is boundless because of the power of religion. Men who claim absolute, unquestionable power over others will abuse the power and the innocents under their sway.
The sheer brazenness of many of the assaults, as detailed in the report, is likewise probably attributable to the religious power structure.
Seidel offers us a helpful psychological insight here. I think we all have experienced the truth of his point, one way or another. Unbounded authority over other human beings produces moral monsters.
But the question is: What precisely is the religious submission required of a Catholic? Has Seidel correctly identified it?
Seidel goes on to write:
The Church’s power structure and theology are also critical to the Church’s ability to cover up the vast abuse. Adherents are already primed to accept absurdities such as wine becoming blood or crackers becoming human flesh if a few choice words are recited, or that three is really one and one is really three.
The popular paraphrase of Voltaire is spot on: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ Atrocities such as succumbing to the idea that harming the public image of the Church is worse than destroying the innocence of a child.
Seidel makes important points here, points that will help us. But he misidentifies the “absurdities” that have caused the complicity that he rightly attacks.
As we know, we students of Book IV of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles: Our faith in the divine tri-unity and in the Real Presence is neither blind nor absurd.
Rather, we start with Jesus Christ, and we take it from there.
Only a gift from heaven can help a human being believe that Jesus is true God, as well as being true man; no one can prove that He is God. But if you start with the premise that it’s true–that He is true God and true man, God incarnate–then the divine tri-unity and the mystery of the Holy Mass follow, with no inherent contradiction of any known facts.
Seidel writes as an avowed atheist. But there is certainly nothing more reasonable in atheism than there is in our basic human experience of our relationship with our Creator. This human experience of religion leads to our desire to know God, to love Him, and to live in friendship with Him. This requires submitting. To Him.
The always-greater mystery of the loving heavenly Father revealed by Jesus Christ: We submit to Him. In doing so, we find our true selves; we find true love; we find a path to lasting happiness.
Our complicity with sex abuse–for which Seidel rightly chastises us Catholics–it actually involves a failure of religion, rather than our Christian religion itself.
Every human society has to have an authority structure of some kind. The Church has a fundamental structure that Jesus Himself established.
But no true source of our religion teaches us that any given deacon, priest, bishop, or even pope will get everything right. No true teaching tells us that an ordained man simply cannot commit crimes for which he deserves jail time, or that successors of the Apostles cannot conspire in a criminal enterprise.
The “absurdity” is to think that the divinely-instituted structure of the Church means that the clerical hierarchy deserves to have unchecked authority over our human community. That does not, in fact, follow.
In Germany, some church officials responded to the clerical sex-abuse crisis by agreeing to examine this point. Unfortunately, that enterprise (the so-called ‘synodal path’) has largely been hijacked by agendas that have nothing to do with responding to victim-survivors of sexual abuse.
As one prominent priest-participant in the ‘synodal path’ put it:
Structures that encourage sexual abuse of children and young people must be eliminated, otherwise the church cannot have a future. However, one must question whether the themes on which the participants’ exchange is fixed [eg. women’s ordination or questions of sexual morality] are really causally and genuinely related to abuse.
One can get the impression that the abuse scandal is being instrumentalized by many actors in order to take up the well-known inner-church controversial topics anew.
Leave it to complicit Catholics to eclipse the victim survivors with self-serving nonsense yet again! It happens over and over–this endless, pointless feud among ‘professional Catholics’–with the mitered mafia gleefully looking on, secure in their abuses of power.
Let’s try to start from here. Every Christian participates in the communal life of the Church from this point-of-view: I owe God a death. Let me go to that death with a clear conscience, with the help of Christ’s grace.
We do not belong to the Catholic Church because She has brave and big-hearted officials at this point in history. She pretty clearly does not. Our human community has been run like a criminal enterprise for at least a couple generations, if not much longer. There is no need to deny that rather-evident fact.
Rather, we belong to our Church because we love God and believe in Jesus Christ.
And–because we love God and believe in Jesus Christ–we stand with the survivors of clerical sexual abuse in our Church. We thank them. They have suffered with Christ, and they have proclaimed the Gospel to us by living to tell the tale.