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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Child Abuse–When The Church Loses Its Moral Authority Can Individual Faith Remain?

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?

Ordination, however, 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.

The moral failure of priests is reprehensible not only because of this divine ordination and dereliction of religious duty and responsibility, but because of the commission of sins of the very worst order – the preying on innocent children. 

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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 institutionally committed the most heinous of sins.  Not only have individual priests been guilty of sexual predation, but the Church itself in its craven and indefensible attempts to dismiss the allegations to protect itself has committed a worse crime.   Christ asked that the children come to him and be blessed; yet his ordained and their superiors 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.

Yet the Church, as divinely inspired as it might be, is made up of men who can only act like men; and in their corruption are no different from anyone else.  Ordination, in turns out, does not confer any higher moral authority or, because of its foundation in Jesus Christ himself, assure right behavior.  It is no more that an institutional marker, a signifier of a priestly class, endowing moral authority and the right to speak for the Church itself on behalf of the Pope and the Vatican on matters of faith.

The crimes of Catholic priests and their superiors – the crimes of men – not only cast doubt on the Sacrament of Ordination; but on all the sacraments.  How can one take seriously the Sacrament of Confession administered by priests whose moral judgment and authority is necessarily impaired by the human nature they share with everyone.  How can parents send their children to Confession when the priest on the other side of the confessional screen may be enticing, influencing, and corrupting them?  How can any couple feel right and just in a marriage performed by a gay priest who considers it a nuisance and for whom the very union of a man and a woman is too exclusive and irrelevant? While the other sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Extreme Unction – may be excluded from lay condemnation because they are religious rites, affairs of covenant and compliance between priest and God; the others which are intimately associated with human behavior cannot be.

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In other words, the crisis of sexual abuse within the Church cannot be resolved either by expunging all sexual offenders, by refusing ordination to homosexuals, or even reforming the Church to be more open, intolerant of aberrant behavior, and cooperative with civil authorities.  Its very nature has been challenged.  There is no one who can look at the Church with the same respect and obedience.  Its very lineage and spiritual authority have been shown to be suspect.

If the Church is made up of men, it is also the living legacy of Jesus and the Apostles who told the simple, compelling story of divine birth, death, and resurrection; and the theologians who built a complex religion on the basis of these teachings.  it was up to Tertullian, Clement, Augustine, and Aquinas among many others to fashion a theology – a religious doctrine which spelled out in logical detail the principles espoused and promoted by Christ and his early followers.  The concept of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-existing as one God – was never easily confirmed and adopted; and questions of the dual human-divine nature of Christ, the essence and role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of God the Father are debated even today.

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The other principle articles of Christian faith – the Cross and the Resurrection – have been no less difficult to conclude.  The world before Jesus was one of universal, perennial, ineradicable sin, an evil world which despite individual repentance and right living could only fall farther away from the principles of God’s Creation without divine intervention.  Christ’s death on the cross was the one, single act of universal forgiveness; and his resurrection was the offer of universal salvation.

Whether myth of divine revelation, the story is compelling and the principles which underlie it powerful and engaging.   Christianity, like Ancient Greek philosophy, was a cogent and influential explanation of meaning, purpose, and existence.  Yet Christianity offered a means to an end, and did not simply rest on explanation.  The myth/revelation was a dynamic one involving the participation of both God and Man – a joint resolution to re-create a better world.

Not only is the religion intellectually and theologically complex, but understanding its origins, derived from Greek philosophy, Mesopotamian and Assyrian myth, Jewish Law, tradition, and practice; and appreciating the brilliance of the Roman institutional organization which underlay Paul’s evangelism and the rapid growth of the Church are key to retaining respect for the Church.

In other words, acknowledge the corruption and venality of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Vatican itself; insist on institutional reform, justice, and even retribution; but do not reject the Church itself.  The principles of Christ’s teaching, the highly-evolved logical philosophy of Church theologians, and its universal mythical culture should form the basis of a new Catholic confession.

Even granting the Church’s complete moral indiscipline and failure and the exposure of the very political (i.e. self-serving, expansionist, treasury-based, bureaucratic) reasons for its institutional structure, organization, and legislation, is there any reason to abandon the faith?  Cannot faith exist without the institutional framework of the Church?

Dostoevsky was perhaps the most eloquent when in The Brothers Karamazov he challenged Christ whom he condemned for selling false promises to the masses which only want ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’. The sophisticated religious principles enunciated by Christ in response to the Devil’s temptations were, in the hands of the manipulative Church, became the raison d’etre for its existence.  We, the Church, are the only ones who can help you to realize Christ’s promises; but as importantly give you the structure, the simplicity, and the marvels that you so desperately need.   Faith cannot exist without the Church.

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Perhaps now, however, it can.  Not the faith of immediacy offered by Protestant evangelical ceremony and belief; but one based on the principles of the Gospels, the Epistles, and the reasoning of early theologians.  Given Dostoevsky’s skepticism, perhaps we cannot do without spiritual intermediaries.  Our minds will wander.  Yet for at least some, this freedom from institutional authority might be not only a way to retain faith but to increase it.  A return to first principles, the origins of faith.

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.  The rest of us know better.

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