Irreligion, Sexual Abuse and Sacrilege
Putting justice first: A response to Cathleen Kaveny
Over at Commonweal, Boston College theology and law professor Cathleen Kaveny tries to obfuscate the meaning of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent letter on the sexual abuse crisis… and perhaps score some points for the revisionist agenda of blaming that crisis on “clericalism” rather than the sexual immorality that—rightly—Benedict identifies as where the Church and modern culture began going off the rails in the late 1960s.
Kaveny claims that Benedict misidentifies the moral wrong behind the sexual abuse crisis: she thinks he is equating it with sacrilege (although she admits that “[h]e does not use the term”). She claims that this shift lets the Church off the hook, protecting the institution by identifying it as the victim rather than defending children victims. “Benedict’s letter seems to put clergy sex abuse in the category of sacrilege, not injustice.”
She wants to see the sacrilege versus justice question as an either/or proposition (not unusual for defenders of revisionist moral theology). It isn’t. It’s both.
I have always been very pleased by the fact that the 2011 retranslation of the Novus Ordo Missae restored the typical text, not ICEL’s “equivalent” translations. One of the important places where that translation recovered the real meaning of the text was in the introductory dialogue to the Preface. We used to say, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.” We now respond, in keeping with the venerable ancient text, “It is right and just” (dignum et justum est).
For all today’s chatter and virtue signaling about “justice” (especially “social justice”), we forget that religion is a part of the virtue of justice. When St. Thomas Aquinas arranged the treatment of morality in his Summa Theologiae, he did so around the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) and included particular virtues—such as “religion”—under the cardinal virtue of justice.
If justice is about giving someone his due, then the first and fundamental due human beings owe anyone is their debt to God. All that we have comes from Him. Our very existence was not only given by but is constantly sustained by him.
That means that religion is not an option—piety floats my boat, but if you find worship/prayer/Sunday Mass “boring” or “not your thing,” so well, that’s okay. No, it’s not. Religion, like every act that has a moral consequence, must be free, or else our responsibility is affected. But the fact that I must choose to do the good does not mean that the good and the bad are of equal moral standing or that choosing somehow establishes the good. Religion and irreligion are choices, but they are not equally right choices. God commands us to love our fellow man, but that does not mean the Greatest Commandment is optional. The same applies to our love of God.
Kaveny pretends that Benedict “refuses to call [sex abuse] by [its] most basic moral name: child rape.” It is not a matter of choosing between rape or sacrilege.
Child rape, as vicious and corrupt as it is, is even more vicious and corrupt when perpetrated by clergy. It is vicious and corrupt because it injures the child physically. It is also vicious and corrupt because it injures the child spiritually. It is also vicious and corrupt because it injures the Church, the Body of Christ, impairing its salvific mission. While these are mentally separable crimes, they are in fact a unified whole perpetrated against a concrete real human victim and against the real Church.
I suspect Kaveny would not disagree with me up to this point, except when I include the Church as victim. But it is.
While she might deny it, Kaveny’s vision of “Church” is primary institutional, and one can understand why she might view the problem through that reductionist lens. It is, after all, the same reductionist lens through which many bishops have dealt with clergy sexual abuse, far more attentive to “protecting the institution” and limiting institutional fallout from priestly perverts who could be shuffled off to Buffalo or Gallup. A cynic would say that the episcopal “solution” to sex abuse was, for the longest time, institutional security.
But even if many bishops were “institutional men” whose reactions were to circle the wagons, that does not deny the fact that the Church is first and foremost a sign and means of salvation, a light to the nations, instituted by Christ to make Him present in the world. And when “solutions” impair or prevent the Church from exercising that fundamental vocation, render her message and her Savior incomprehensible, and makes her a sign of sin rather than salvation: that is sacrilege. And when that is done by those whose vocation it is to enable the Church to proclaim her Bridegroom’s message: that is sacrilege.
Kaveny seems to pooh-pooh Benedict’s concern that clergy sexual abuse impairs victims’ readiness to join at the Eucharistic altar, presided over by the priest: “What bothers him most about one of the human victims he encountered is that she can no longer hear the words of consecration without distress, because her priest-attacker used them in the course of the abuse. He says nothing about how the abuse would have affected the entire course of her life. He does not issue a forceful call to protect children, but rather implores us to ‘do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.’”
It is disingenuous, if not dishonest, to imply that the Pope Emeritus is unconcerned about children compared to the Eucharist: pace Kaveny’s implication, one can be concerned about both. But the moral filth of child abuse does not subsume the whole reality of the wrong done here. The integrity of the child matters. But so does the holiness of the Eucharist.
Perhaps our sensitivity regarding the latter has grown less acute, given tendencies in our Eucharistic praxis for half a century, ranging from the broad loosening of the nexus between confession and Communion to our fudging of public worthiness to receive the Eucharist, be it by divorced-and-remarried Catholics or by Catholic politicians who endorse and work for what Vatican II called the “unspeakable crimes” of abortion and infanticide (Gaudium et spes, no. 51). It should be noted that the latter was promoted by the now laicized Cardinal McCarrick who bowdlerized then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on the subject. And lest we diminish the question of sacrilege connecting the Eucharist to the sexual abuse scandal, consider that Cardinal McCarrick’s career was cashiered over a “credible allegation” of abusing an altar boy serving Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1971.
Do I think that “clericalism” has a role in the clergy sexual abuse scandal? Of course! Bishops whose first instinct, as “institutional men,” was to protect the Church by sweeping problem priests under the rug encouraged that clericalism.
But the first problem of clergy sexual abuse was not “I am a priest, so I can do what I want and I want to be a sexual abuser,” but “I don’t believe the Sixth Commandment (especially as taught by the stodgy institution of the “Church”) doesn’t apply to me.” The latter variant is not an exclusively clerical preserve, as the simplest post-1968 survey indicates.
But revisionist theologians like Kaveny want to obscure that fact because they are quite comfortable with much of the dissident sexual ethic that calls itself “Catholic” born of 1968. I am absolutely convinced that, for many attributing the etiology of clergy sexual abuse to “clericalism,” there is another agenda at work behind that diagnosis. The interest in focusing on “clericalism” because it’s not the Catholic sexual ethics—which has been in crisis for half a century—that is their problem, but the institutional priesthood as it exists. Despite levelling efforts to create “presiders” and “ministries,” to further secularize seminary formation, and to “reimagine” the presbyterate for the “contemporary Church,” the Holy See—especially under Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – had not gone along.
If priests (and their bishops/superiors) had taken more seriously the dignity and demands of the priesthood, the holiness of the Church as “radiant without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Ephesians 5:27) and dealt decisively with those who sacrilege that responsibility, I believe we would not be in the same depths of the situation we now find ourselves in. Had clerics (as well as others in positions of leadership) taken seriously the moral demands of noblesse oblige, we wouldn’t perhaps be talking about the scope and range of child rape and sacrilege we now are.
Also, like much of the pretense on the part of bishops who exempted themselves from norms they imposed on priests and laity, Kaveny keeps talking about “children,” without mentioning others – particularly seminarians – befouled by the sex abuse scandal. Clerics abusing other clerics or those about to become clerics cannot be called—as revisionist moralist Kaveny lectures us—“by their most basic name [of] child rape.” But they certainly do qualify as committing sacrilege (as well as other sins).
Kaveny suggests Benedict “gets it wrong” by not “putting justice first.” But putting justice first, precisely the justice due God and his Church as well as his little ones, forces us to grapple not just with the moral stench of rape but with the despicable filth of sacrilege as well.
All views expressed in this essay are exclusively those of the author.