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1 May 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Catholicism in crisis
Even committed atheists should be concerned that the Church of Rome is under threat, not from the forces of rationality, but from a culture of victimhood.

by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

  • 'The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers…. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify….all that is holy is profaned.'
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1847 (1)

The Catholic Church and its priests have proved more resilient than Marx and Engels anticipated 150 years ago. Yet the shock of recent scandals involving the sexual abuse of minors by priests, following a decade in which globalised market forces and their attendant ideologies have subverted traditional values and relationships, now threatens the very survival of the church.

In the Catholic stronghold of Boston, USA, senior cleric Cardinal Bernard Law faces a concerted campaign for his resignation for failing to deal effectively with abusive priests. During the recent trial of former priest John Geoghan (who now faces 10 years in prison for molesting a 10-year-old boy) it emerged that, in response to earlier complaints, Cardinal Law had repeatedly reassigned Geoghan to different parishes.

As a result of new guidelines drawn up in response to this case, a further 87 priests now stand accused of incidents of sexual abuse going back 40 years. One former seminarian has launched a federal action against the entire American Catholic Church under legislation drafted for dealing with 'racketeer influenced and corrupt organisations' (the mafia) (2).

Convictions for - and even more allegations of - sexual abuse by clergy have emerged around the world: in Poland, Mexico, Canada, Australia. In Ireland in early April 2002, Bishop Brendan Comiskey finally resigned over his handling of the case of Sean Fortune, a paedophile priest who committed suicide in 1999 at the start of his trial on 29 charges of sexual assault against boys. A similar case led to the premature retirement of the archbishop of Cardiff last year, after former priest Joe Jordan was sentenced to eight years for sexual assaults on boys (two aged nine and 10).

Ronan Keating described the Irish church as 'a bloody shambles'
In a survey of the current state of the church published last year, the Catholic writer John Cornwell took the view that the crisis over abusive priests 'appeared to have reached a high point in the mid-1990s' (3). His hope that the bishops' strategies of immediate suspension and close collaboration with the police would contain the problem has already been dashed.

Though there is widespread discussion of the risk of bankruptcy now threatening the American church (as has already happened in one Canadian province), the bigger danger is one of moral collapse. It is a sign of the times that the respectable and devout Irish pop star Ronan Keating describes the church in Ireland as 'a bloody shambles', 'a joke' and 'an absolute disaster', and says he would like to 'boycott the church'. A firm believer in 'tradition and discipline', he admits to being 'in a quandary' over whether to expose his children to a Catholic education (4).

Enemies of the Catholic Church are delighted to see it taking a hammering. Some of its internal critics welcome this exposure of the hierarchy as an opportunity for renewal from below. But even committed atheists should harbour some concerns that the Church of Rome is under threat, not from the forces of rationality and progress, but from a culture of low expectations and victimhood that in every respect marks a regression from the traditions of Catholicism.

It is important to place the clerical abuse scandals in the context of the crisis of Catholicism that has been gathering momentum under the chronically ailing Pope John Paul II. As an institution formed in the pre-capitalist era, the Catholic Church has had to struggle for its survival against the corrosive effects of market relations and the hostile ideologies of bourgeois society. It faced the challenges of democracy and nationalism, socialism and communism, and emerged with its territories reduced to the Vatican city and its moral authority tarnished by its accommodations with fascism and other forms of reaction.

Yet, through social Catholicism in Europe and liberation theology in Latin America, and through the theological and liturgical (if not doctrinal) liberalisation of the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965), the Church sustained its congregations better than most of its Christian rivals. When John Paul became pope in 1978 he presided over a global congregation of hundreds of millions, providing a charismatic, globe-trotting, focus of unity. After his celebrated 1979 address to more than one million people in Poland, his followers acclaimed his personal contribution to the subsequent demise of the Soviet system and the ending of the divisions of the Cold War.

Many Catholics continue to receive Communion without confessing their sexual transgressions
Given the exhaustion of the old ideologies and institutions of both left and right, the unchallenged ascendancy of the capitalist market in the 1990s finally realised the subversive potential recognised by Marx and Engels in the 1840s. The individualistic outlook it encouraged in economic affairs inevitably also extended into personal life, a trend encouraged by the orientation of the market towards personal consumption and the cultivation of lifestyle. The consequences for the authority of the Catholic Church are most apparent in the sphere of sexual morality.

Given the widespread view that the Catholic Church shifted towards more liberal doctrines in sexual matters from the 1960s onwards, it is important to note that no such liberalisation took place. In successive encyclicals and other statements, culminating in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church has taken a consistently intransigent stand against all manifestations of permissiveness. Chastity is a requirement for all Catholics, whether married or single. The Church explicitly forbids, under pain of mortal sin, all forms of premarital or extramarital sex, masturbation, oral or anal sex, contraception and abortion, coitus interruptus and homosexual acts.

The problem that is familiar to all Catholics and has been confirmed by numerous surveys, is that the vast majority of Catholics around the world in practice reject the authority of the Church in these areas. Furthermore, given the collapse of the sacrament of confession, it is apparent that many Catholics continue to receive Communion without confessing their sexual transgressions, signalling a wider defiance of doctrinal authority.

Though the gulf between the Vatican and the masses in the sphere of sexual behaviour has been growing for several decades, it has accelerated in more recent years. This is reflected in the rising divorce rate among Catholics - now higher than among Protestants in the USA (as is the rate of extra-marital sex). The challenge to the hierarchy has been compounded by the emergence of a lesbian and gay movement within the church, together with the campaign for women and married priests.

These movements are in turn linked to demands for a greater voice for the laity in the life of the church, and for a more conciliatory approach towards other faiths. In response to these liberalising trends, conservatives have mounted a fierce defence of orthodoxy, denouncing reformers over their attempts to introduce a relativist theology, a pluralist approach to doctrine and a dumbed-down liturgy.

One third of priests have renounced holy orders to marry
As rival camps of progressives and traditionalists have become increasingly organised and polarised, disputes have become more systematic and more embittered. As Cornwell observes, 'the language of faction is getting ever more aggressive, contemptuous and threatening'.

Pope John Paul II has projected a warm and inclusive style and has made conciliatory gestures towards other faiths. Yet, in substance, his pontificate has proved resolutely conservative on all key matters of doctrine and strongly centralising and authoritarian in the administration of the church. Indeed, his personal promotion of the reactionary Opus Dei cult and a quasi-idolatrous devotion to the Virgin Mary has raised even conservative eyebrows. By packing the college of cardinals with conservatives (and ruthlessly purging liberal theologians and bishops) he has done much to guarantee a conservative successor. Whether any successor will be able to contain the tendencies toward fragmentation currently held in check by a pope in terminal decline is an open question.

The impact on the clergy of the turbulent changes of recent decades has been little short of catastrophic. Once revered, respected, and not a little feared, as spiritual, moral and temporal leaders of their communities, they are now regarded with pity or suspicion as potential perverts. In Western Europe and North America since the 1960s, around one third of priests have renounced holy orders to marry. Over the same period, new recruits have dwindled away. The traditional parish priest has become an ageing and isolated survivor, always overworked and often demoralised.

Orders of nuns and brothers dedicated to teaching and other good works have virtually disintegrated over the past two decades, many convents and monasteries surviving only as care homes for their ageing residents. (One of the few sources of new priests in Britain has been the defection of Anglican vicars following the 1994 decision of the Church of England to allow women priests; the fact that many of the defectors are married has further complicated internal conflicts within the Catholic Church.)

The departure of heterosexual priests has inevitably increased the proportion of priests with a homosexual orientation, as has the trend for seminaries to attract more gay applicants. This too has contributed to increasing tensions within a church which maintains a rigorous ban on homosexual activity (while accepting a non-active homosexual inclination).

The response to clerical abuse reflects the ascendancy of a determinist notion of sexuality
The sexual abuse scandals, which have been gathering momentum since the 1980s, have both exposed and exacerbated the crisis of the clergy. It is no surprise that the rival factions in the church have different explanations and different solutions to the sexual abuse crisis.

For the progressives, the problem is the insistence that priests should be celibate and chaste: they recommend allowing married (and female) priests as the way forward. For the conservatives, the crisis results from the general liberalisation of attitudes to forms of illicit sexual conduct within the church (if not within the Vatican). They propose taking a hard line against homosexual clergy and returning to a more austere and disciplined ministry (they staunchly oppose abandoning celibacy or allowing women into the priesthood).

In practice, there is more consensus between the two camps than might appear. Both factions agree on the broad strategy being pursued in Boston (which is similar to that proposed by Lord Nolan in his report to the Catholic Church in Britain last year). This involves handing over cases in which there is a suspicion of criminal offences to the civil authorities and public disclosure of the details of allegations at the earliest opportunity. It also requires church authorities to provide appropriate counselling and psychotherapeutic intervention for priests and seminarians who may be considered (or consider themselves) at risk of sexually abusive practices.

Guidelines that aim to prevent clerical abuse by providing detailed regulations covering the conduct of relationships between priests and minors have been widely promulgated. Under these rules, priests are allowed contact with young people only in circumstances where they are chaperoned.

The response to the issue of clerical abuse reflects the ascendancy of a determinist and anti-humanist notion of sexuality and, for the Catholic laity, replaces the rule of the clergy with that of the culture of therapy.

The most important thing to know about a priest today is - gay or straight?
In the debate about clerical abuse, it is generally assumed that an individual's sexual proclivity is the dominant motivation in their life. The most important thing anybody needs to know about a priest today is - gay or straight? The answer to this question is assumed to provide a direct explanation of their behaviour. From this perspective, chastity and celibacy are regarded as an undesirable denial or repudiation of sexuality - indeed, they increasingly considered to be impossible for any individual to maintain without causing psychological disorder.

This view amounts to a denial in principle of any notion of self-sacrifice in a higher cause. As Cornwell observes, it means repudiating the contribution of the monastic tradition to Catholicism: 'historically, the lives of celibate and chaste clergy…bear splendid testimony to a radical form of spirituality and commitment.'

But this outlook has a wider significance too: it implies that it is impossible for the individual to subordinate aspects of the self to the achievement of some higher goal devised by the human imagination. Yet some such self sacrifice is the condition for any individual or social advance.

Lay Catholics who celebrate the delivery of the laity from the tyranny of the hierarchy as a result of the clerical abuse scandals underestimate the danger of the new systems for regulating the conduct of both priests and their congregations. The authority of the clergy has certainly been gravely weakened, but the status of ordinary Catholics in the church has not been enhanced. Both priests and the faithful are now going to be policed by those drawing up and implementing the new guidelines - there will be an army of counsellors and therapists engaged in training and in supervising relationships within the church.

From the perspective of this new clergy, there is a danger of abuse in any intimate relationship, especially that between an adult and a child, but also in relations between men and women, and same-sex relationships. The presumption that nobody can be trusted - we cannot even trust ourselves - dictates the need for external regulation in the forms of guidelines and codes of conduct, and for counsellors and chaperones to enforce them. (The record of psychotherapeutic sexual abuse is scarcely better than that of the clergy.)

Priests and the faithful will be policed by counsellors and therapists
The new orthodoxy promotes a much bleaker view of humanity than the Christian notion of 'fallen' man, carrying the guilt of original sin. For the Christian, the belief in redemption sustains the hope of transcendence. But the culture of therapy assumes that every individual is gravely damaged by childhood experience - and that adolescent abuse invariably results in lifelong psychological harm. Here the only hope is that prolonged and intensive psychotherapeutic intervention may help an individual to survive through an inevitably impaired existence (a proposition little supported by clinical evidence).

John Paul II characterises the familiar features of decline and controversy in the Catholic Church as the 'culture of death'. This phrase may be more appropriately applied to the culture of prurience and intrusive regulation that is already taking shape in response to the scandal of clerical abuse.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Blind faith, by Brendan O'Neill

(1) Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

(2) The Tablet, 30 March

(3) Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People and the Fate of Catholicism, John Cornwell

(4) Guardian, 29 April

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