It is rare to read of someone calling for a total re-examination of Catholic faith and culture. When the person just happens to be a retired Catholic bishop, one cannot help but wonder if the guy has a death wish, or at the very least is not much interested in frequenting the Vatican’s social calendar. As rare as it is for anyone to suggest a total re-examination, it is just what the doctor ordered yet almost impossible to administer because the patient does not think he is sick, even in spite of the symptoms in the clerical sexual abuse of children.
According to the Huffington Post, “The roots of the decades-long clergy sex abuse scandal lie not in any set of rules or practices, but are found deep in the culture of the church itself, retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson said on [March 28, 2012] in a wide-ranging talk at the historic Newberry Library in downtown Chicago. Among the other aspects of Catholic culture Robinson said contributed to the abuse crisis are mandatory celibacy for priests, a ‘mystique’ some attach to the priests as being ‘above other human beings,’ and a ‘creeping infallibility’ of papal decrees, which is used to protect ‘all teachings … in which a significant amount of papal energy and prestige have been invested.’” Astonishingly, Robinson even mentioned the emphasis on an attribute of the Catholic conception of God as a contributory factor. In this sense, Robinson resonates with Nietzsche. Before tackling this likeness, I lay out Robinson’s remarks on what at least in theory is more subject to change, and thus fixable, within Catholocism.
The mandatory celibacy can be regarded as a manifestation of attaching too much significance to priests as somehow not subject to their own nature as human beings. To assume that dysfunction does not ensue from a young priest in particular denying hormonal instincts to the point of suffocation is to treat him as being above other human beings. This in turn reflects the traditionalist reaction against the greater lay participation of the laity in the Mass. With Pope John Paul II came the movement against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which took place in the early and mid-1960s. By the pope’s death, the movement come to dominate the hierarchy—Joe Ratzinger evincing its iron-clad grip on the Vatican and many dioceses around the world. Besides including conservative political stances on many issues, at least in the U.S., the reactionary movement has sought to re-establish the ecclesiastical distance between the clergy and the laity. For example, the change in the English translation in the Mass begun in 2011 intentionally uses language oriented to the assumption that only the priest shares in Christ’s sacrifice during the Mass. As an alternative assumption, the wafers brought to the altar as sacrifices represent the priesthood of the people in assembly, with the priest merely lifting up the sacrifice (rather than being part of that which is sacrificed). This alternative, wherein people actually put a wafer in the cup as they enter the church before Mass, had been eclipsed by the view of clerical exclusivity by 2011.
Implied in the distancing of priests above other human beings is not only the Judaic view that by honoring God’s priests, one have reverence for God, but also an arrogant supposition that priests are somehow above other human beings, at least relative to God. This can be refuted by an analogy. Any distance between people here on Earth is dwarfed by the distance between the Earth and the sun. In other words, relative to God, our differences with each other are paltry. That we all make so of our little hierarchies makes us all pretty much the same, relative to God.
In terms of the clerical sexual abuse of children, the traditionalists’ view of priests as being above other human beings involves not only expecting too much from the humans who hold the offices, but also enabling the clerics to evade any sort of lay or ecclesiastical accountability. “You can’t criticize a priest,” a traditionalist is apt to say in imposing his or her view as if truth itself. Adding insult to injury, clerics in the church hierarchy may presume that they cannot be wrong, even as they enable the child-rapists by refusing to hold them to account. Even though infallibility is limited to the papal office, I would not be surprised if many bishops and even priests have tacitly replicated the doctrine for themselves, if only in assuming that they cannot be wrong in their judgment.
According to Robinson, the application of the church’s teaching on infallibility is a “major force in preventing a pope from making admissions that there have been serious failures in the handling of abuse.” Pope John Paul II, “it must be said … responded poorly” to the sex abuse crisis. “With authority goes responsibility. Pope John Paul many times claimed the authority, and he must accept the responsibility. The most basic task of a pope is surely to be the ‘rock’ that holds the church together, and by his silence in the most serious moral crisis facing the church in our times, the pope failed in this basic task.” In other words, the traditionalist assumption of clerical supremacy over other human beings, added by the doctrine of papal theological infallibility, has enabled at least one pope to evade responsibility without being called on the carpet by the Priesthood of the People—the congregation itself. In other words, the real authority of the church has been taken in too much to proffer a check on sordid fellows in ecclesiastical offices.
Referencing the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of the “sense of the faithful” and its definition of the church as the “People of God,” Robinson said that “it is surely simple fact that the People of God as a whole would never have got us into the mess we are in, for their sensus fidei would have insisted on a far more rigorous and, dare I say it, Christian response. The pope and the bishops have lost credibility, and it is only the People of God who can restore it to them,” he said. “If the church is to move forward, these painful lessons must be learned, for this is an issue on which to leave out the People of God has been positively suicidal.” Indeed, the laity had been increasingly relegated by an increasingly traditionalist clergy who have conveniently viewed the People of God as having unjustifiably benefitted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It as if the traditionalist clerical reaction to Vatican II were a message to the laity: Know your place! Few would reply: Know yours! Servant leadership had become too convenient a placard to wrest the officials from their actual perches.
In his writings, Nietzsche characterizes the ascetic (or celibate) priests as people among the herd who are driven to dominate even while remaining weak. The domination from weakness is apt to involve abuse or cruelty to force what power can be mustered over the still-weaker herd. Meanwhile, the strong are free-spirits, only under the sway of the new birds of prey if beguiled by guilt for being strong. Nietzsche goes on to view problems in the priests’ conception of God—there being too much vengeance in what is taken as God.
Relatedly, the Huffington Post reports that “Robinson also focused on the issue of our perception of God as a being who is angry; saying Catholic sexual teachings have ‘fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God’ who ‘would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire.’” Rape being a crime of power rather than a sexually-motivated act, the moment can be said to be one of pleasure from dominating another person. Such power-aggrandizement goes along with lust and greed as elements of human nature. A person lusting is not a sin, but acting on the instinct just once sexually outside of marriage somehow condemns the soul to hell, and yet confession can restore that soul.
In his talk, Robinson expanded on the idea of God as being an angry god that reduces an element of human nature to a single act. Specifically, he said the idea “can lead to the unhealthy attitude of sexuality being seen as dark, secretive and troublesome.” For instance, Augustine suggested that a married couple having sex to reproduce should not enjoy the act, it being of the fallen world and thus not worthy of being enjoyed. In the priesthood, such a disavowal of human nature could give the illusion that celibacy is somehow laudatory rather than artificial and thus dysfunctional.
According to Robinson, in the sexual abuse crisis, viewing sex as a sin rather than as natural helped to “place the emphasis on the sexual sin against God rather than the offense against the abused minor. Paedophilia was, therefore, to be dealt with in exactly the same manner as any other sexual sin: confession, total forgiveness and restoration to one’s former state, and this was a significant part of the motivation for the practice of moving priests around from one parish to another,” he said. Beyond the dysfunction in denying a major part of what an organism is by nature, the category mistake that renders a biological act as a theological act enable that act to be repeated because of the way the church handles sin.
Robinson deserves a lot of intellectual credit for relating an element in the Catholic conception of the Godhead to the way in which clerical pedophilia has been “dealt with” by the Church officials. Subtle assumptions can indeed affect conduct. He deserves moral and even theological credit as well, standing up for what he believes at the risk of being crucified by his colleagues. Vengeance is not limited to God, even in Catholocism. Robinson affords Catholics and the world a rare glimpse into how deep the problems may go. In terms of the pandemic of priest child-rapists, the self-serving self-elevation of traditionalist clerics a few decades after Vatican II, the presumptuousness of ignorance that it cannot be wrong (backed up by what authority it thinks it has) within the church hierarchy, the pathological view of sex, and the category mistake wherein the theological over-reaches into biology, criminal law, and even morality can explain the plight of modern Catholocism. As to whether any fundamental re-examination of Catholocism is apt to ensue, a betting person would do better putting the money behind the existence of tooth fairies. At least they don’t rape children.
Joshua McElwee, “Bishop Geoffrey Robinson: Total Re-examination of Catholic Faith, Culture Needed,” The Huffington Post, April 1, 2012.