Sexual abuse of children seems to be endemic in almost all organisations which have children in their care. Some in the Catholic Church have pointed to this fact in mitigation of the epidemic of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. “We are not the only ones,” they seem to be saying, which of course does not make it any better. But incidents in other institutions notwithstanding, there does seem to be something inherent in the Catholic Church which lends itself to these most terrible crimes.
It is heartening to see that it is no longer only non-Catholics who are recognising this. After years of denial and obfuscation, the entrenched nature of sexual abuse in the structures and hierarchies of the Catholic Church is now being recognised by some senior Catholic clergy. Three Australian Catholic bishops Geoffrey Robinson, Bill Morris and Pat Power - have launched an Internet based petition to Pope Francis calling on him to take some decisive actions to put an end to clerical sexual abuse. The main thrust of the petition, which is hosted by Change.org, is that it is time for the Church to listen to its people. This can be understood to mean that it is time that the clerics of the Vatican listened to the millions of lay people who normally have no voice in Church affairs.
The petition begins:
We, the undersigned members of the Catholic Church, have been sickened by the continuing stories of sexual abuse within our Church, and we are appalled by the accounts of an unchristian response to those who have suffered.
When so many people either offend or respond poorly, we cannot limit ourselves to blaming individuals, but must also look at systemic causes. The situation is so grave that we call for an Ecumenical Council to respond to the one question of doing everything possible to uproot such abuse from the Church and produce a better response to victims. An essential part of this call is that the laity of the whole world should have a major voice in the Council (for it is our children who have been abused or put at risk).
The petition then goes on to enumerate thirteen specific points that the Pope and Ecumenical Council should address.
1. The continuing influence of the idea of an angry God
2. The immaturity that arises from passive obedience in adults
3. The teaching of the Church on sexual morality
4. The part played in abuse by celibacy, especially obligatory celibacy
5. The lack of a strong feminine influence in every aspect of the Church
6. The idea that through ordination the priest is taken above other people (clericalism)
7. The lack of professionalism in the life of priests and religious
8. The unhealthy situations in which many priests and religious are required to live
9. The constant placing of right beliefs before right actions
10. The passion for secrecy and the hiding of faults within the Church, especially in the Vatican
11. The ways in which the protection of papal authority has been put before the eradication of sexual abuse
12. The provision of structures to make a reality of the ‘sense of faith’ (sensus fidei) of all Catholic people
Over the course of my next few postings I want to explore the points raised by the Australian bishops in a systematic way although this will not be as straightforward as it sounds. As soon as one sees a list there is a temptation to assume that the items are discrete but in this particular list that is not the case. Each of the items points to a subtle and intricate web of ideas, beliefs and behaviours which lie at the very heart of the Catholic Church. There will, therefore, be themes which recur.
This interwoven web notwithstanding, it is fitting that “The continuing influence of the idea of an angry God” heads the list.
Put very simply Christians believe that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, was buried and was resurrected from the dead in order to effect a reconciliation between God and humankind. In other words God was very angry with human beings for the sins they had committed and that the only way God's anger could be appeased was if a blood sacrifice were to be made to him. According to Christian theology Jesus became that sacrifice. The nature of the sacrifice and the mechanisms of reconciliation and forgiveness are matters of theological dispute and although these disputes provide fascinating insights into the ways human beings think, they are not important here. What is important is that the whole story of Christianity revolves around appeasing an angry God.
Upon the triune bedrock of erring human beings, divine anger and selfless sacrifice the entire edifice of Catholicism is built. If God had not been angry there would have been no need for Jesus to selflessly sacrifice his life. There would have been no story around which to build the institutions of the church – no need for Jesus to have representatives on Earth after his death – no need to have daily, weekly re enactments of the blood sacrifice. Most certainly, the idea of sacrifice would not have become such an entrenched idea in the minds of Catholics. If sacrifice had not become such a potent idea Catholic priests would not be revered for the apparent sacrifices they make in order to be priests and the aberrant ones among them would not be able to use this concept of sacrifice to frighten, threaten, cajole or even just persuade innocent children to “sacrifice” themselves to their priest’s demands.
The Australian bishops are right to put the continuing influence of the idea of an angry God at the forefront of matters which must be addressed if the sexual abuse of children is to be brought to an end in the Catholic Church.
It is just possible, however, that eliminating the idea of an angry God would deprive the church of its theological raison d'etre. There are many outside the church who would rejoice at this. There are many inside the church who would rejoice as well, seeing in it an opportunity for purging corruption and for renewal.