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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sexual Abuse In The Catholic Church– Is This The Beginning Of The End Of The Church Itself?

The Catholic Church is under increasing attack because of its decades-long tolerance of abusive priests and the cover up of sexual crimes.  Even the most devout Catholics have begun to question their allegiance to an institution which claims to be the holy representative of Christ on earth but which has turned a blind eye to the worst kind of predatory sexual behavior and in so doing lost any semblance of moral authority.

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Yet is it so easy to reject a 2000 year old institution founded on sound religious, moral, and philosophical principles; one based on a sophisticated theology, and one which asserts its unbroken line of authority to Peter and Jesus himself?  Why should the institution suffer from the corruption and venality of its bishops and prelates who, after all, are only human? 

Yet ordination is not simply a rite of initiation into a religious corporation; but a rite of apostolic succession and a sacrament.  A priest is not simply an employee but through a sacramental ordination a man of God.   Such an anointment should guarantee goodness; and should have as much spiritual authority as the other sacraments.  If Confession can forgive sins and make a sinner again holy in God’s eyes, then Ordination should have a similar protective or redemptive quality.  If Consecration, another sacrament, can invoke Christ on the altar, then Ordination should confer at least a measure of the same spiritual essence of Christ himself.

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Of course none of this is true.  Human nature, even in ordained priests, cannot be denied.  The mantel of spiritual authority conferred by the Vatican and associated with Christ himself is but a ceremonial cloak.  Priests, bishops, and popes have, ever since the founding of the Church, followed very human and venal ends.  The very growth of the church, although supposedly guided by the hand of God, was due to the canny organizational, management, and marketing talents of the Early Church fathers. 

Although the first churches were no more than gatherings in the homes of wealthy individuals facilitated by the first prelates, it quickly grew into a powerful and invincible institutions.  Of course priests could not go about preaching without the supervision and control of higher authorities.  Bishops, then archbishops, and then cardinals were considered necessary as the Church grew in size, geography, and political influence.  The vying for office, privilege, and authority common to secular organizations was found equally in the Church; and along with such competition necessarily came lobbying, corruption, and personal influence.

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The Vatican Empire, then, was in all but first principles, no different from any other secular, very human institution.  No priest or pope was ever immune to temptation, the allure of power, or the abuse of it.   If it weren’t for the historical assumption that the Church was indeed holy, the Pope the Vicar of Christ, and the institution a collection of divinely ordained priests, it would have lasted no longer than any other geopolitical empire. 

The Church showed its true secular colors during the reign of Henry VIII.  The Church insisted that prosecution of the clergy no matter what the offense – religious or secular – must be handled by the Church and the Church alone.  This was a definitive statement of primacy and supremacy.  The Church was more important than the King.

Henry refused, the break between the Palace and the Vatican was complete, and the Western religious world was changed forever.  Yet, the Church never changed and continued to defend its superior moral and political authority and does to this day.  If the Church has a problem with its priests, then the Church alone should investigate, adjudicate, prosecute and punish regardless of the secular laws the priests may have broken.

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Child abuse, however, is a crime and a sin that cannot be overlooked, ignored, or hidden.  Something is rotten in the Vatican even the most devout Catholics understand, and the rot must be removed. 
The current sex scandals have more far-reaching implications than just internal reform.  They are perhaps the final break between Catholics and the Church.  If ordained priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals can act in such antisocial, criminal, and abhorrent ways, then what does this say about ordination?  If the Pope remains hesitant and timorous about acknowledging the problem, facing its obvious causes, and dealing with it, then what does this say about the very nature of the Vicar of Christ? Or the Church itself?

Empires never last and the seeds of their own destruction are usually found within as well as without.  All institutions suffer from an arrogance of power, a sense of invincibility, an automatic closing of ranks, and a hostility towards their accusers.  The longer an institution exists and the longer it exists without major reform, the more resistant to change it becomes.  Corruption is overlooked because of an inerrant belief in the rightness of the institution itself.  In the case of the Catholic Church, it is almost impossible for the Vatican to assume that it as an institution can possibly be in the wrong. 

How can an institution that is divine or at least divinely inspired and divinely protected be in error?
At the same time external forces detrimental to the Church are at play.  Society itself, regardless of its piety, is becoming more secular, more logical, and more critical.  In America the prevailing social relativism insists on the equal value of any group claiming legitimacy.  No institution is beyond reproach – not the Supreme Court, not the Constitution, not capitalism, and certainly not the Church.  These institutions have always had relative value, and if circumstances and environments change, then so must they; and if not, they must disappear.

Since the social revolution of the Sixties, all institutions have been subject to criticism.  Individualism, always a fundamental principle of American democracy, was re-recognized as the most important feature of society; new social collectivities were to replace old, outdated ones, and neo-populism began.  In this new, recalibrated, and reorganized society, secular institutions reflecting new thinking on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, family, and religion were the new authorities.

Last but not least, Protestant fundamentalism has finally come fully into its own.  While no longer the influential political voice it was a few decades ago, it has fitted nicely with the new individualism.  The relationship between Jesus Christ and the faithful can be personal, intimate, and immediate; and far more than Martin Luther ever expected, essential.

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So, can the Catholic Church survive this latest wave of sex scandals?  Can it still stress its divine authority; and while acknowledging the failings of its clergy, insist that as an institution it still is the only way to the everlasting? Or are the secular and the religious now so conflated that separating them can never be possible; and the venal corruption of the clergy never forgiven or forgotten?
It is hard – almost unimaginable given its history - to even think that the Church will openly question its own institutional authority –  to admit that its problems are systemic; to admit that as an institution it may have lost meaning, relevance, legitimacy, and purpose; but only by facing deeper, more fundamental issues. Yet it must. 

Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov says this to his faithful, believing brother Alyosha:
And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. … I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. … And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.
Ivan cannot continue to believe in God or Jesus Christ because of Christ’s acceptance of children’s suffering.   Ivan admitted to Alyosha that he might even accept the idea of adult suffering as way of ritual, spiritual purification – a necessary, difficult way to approach God – but how could the Almighty possibly have created a world of suffering for innocent, sin-free children?

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The Catholic Church by condoning, ignoring, covering up the unconscionable act of child sexual abuse by its clergy has collectively committed the worst possible sin.  Christ asked that the children come to him and be blessed; yet his ordained have ignored that blessing of innocence, betrayed it, and committed evil.

This is not a venial sin, one that can be easily forgiven and atoned for.  Even after atonement the Church must determine how – if at all – it can regain the trust and faith of its followers.

It does not seem credible or possible; and this crisis might well signal the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church.

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