The Lessons of the Scandal: Hypocrisy and Discipline
There are two important lessons to be drawn from the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. The first is often considered but seldom mentioned due to fear: It involves the hypocrisy of the secular attack on the Church. The second is seldom mentioned and perhaps seldom considered, though I suspect it is finally starting to sink in: I refer to the lesson that discipline is essential across the board. Both of these lessons deserve careful consideration.
There is no need to reiterate the obvious points that sexual abuse is always a grave moral evil, that it is particularly deplorable in organizations claiming to offer moral leadership, and that it is most deplorable of all in the Catholic Church, which makes unique and unparalleled claims about truth and grace. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The prolonged and unremitting secular attack on the Catholic Church for a sexual abuse problem overwhelmingly in the past, the confiscation of the ecclesiastical wealth of the Catholic people (who, in general, have no guilt in this matter), the changing of statutes of limitations to permit vast financial settlements in cases where the perpetrators are long dead, and the effort to implicate the Pope despite the complete absence of evidence: All of this, even in those cases where justice is served, is a monumental hypocrisy. What we have here, in essence, is people who favor sexual licentiousness, and who hate the Catholic Church because of its very condemnation of sexual licentiousness, exploiting one of the last remaining sexual taboos to discredit and break the Church.
Hold your emails; spare me the lectures that we are all just getting what we deserve. I’ve been fighting the ecclesiastical culture that has permitted consistent abuse of the rights of the faithful, including sexual abuse, for over forty years. I take a back seat in this to no one. And so if you are an advocate of the “just deserts” viewpoint, I might be sympathetic if you could demonstrate any similar effort against other institutions, including public schools, where the rates of abuse are higher than in the Church. Or if guilty priests and bishops were being held personally responsible rather than the Church as a whole. Or if the same people who are attacking the Church were also calling for a return to sexual self-control and sexual restraint in order to address the problem at its root. Or if those of us who point out the large role homosexuality has played in this abuse were not excoriated for daring to suggest there is anything disordered about homosexuality. No, this is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, enjoying it, profiting from it, and getting away with it big time.
So the first lesson is that the extent to which the Church is under attack is determined in large part by the hatred many people feel for the Church’s stance against the prevailing sins of the surrounding culture, including sexual sins. Surely far more people have been discomfited by the Church’s insistence on traditional sexual morality than have suffered at the hands of those priests and bishops who have failed to live the Gospel in this particular way. But the secular world regards insistence on sexual morality as another form of abuse, doesn’t it? How delightful, then, to be able to exploit the chinks in the Church’s own armor!
At the same time, we have to admit that both sides of this issue were foreseen from the first. What was it Jesus said? “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:1-2). But He also warned:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. (Jn 15:18-21)
So we have the temptation, the sin, the cover-up, the scandal—all so very worthy of punishment. But at the same time we have the disproportionate and singular response on the part of people who normally care very little about sexual sin, who defend homosexuality, who hate the Church, and who wish to profit from her misery—all the people for whom the Church’s successes provide the primary motive for attack, while her failures provide particularly expedient means.
Among others, St. Peter saw this coming. “Keep your conscience clear,” he wrote in his first letter, “so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong” (1 Pt 3:16-17). This is profoundly true. But the implication is that, as a general rule, the sufferings will still come. Nonetheless, St. Peter’s observation on keeping our consciences clear brings me to the second lesson.
The Lesson of Discipline
Every bishop has finally learned that it would have been far better to come down hard on sexual abuse from the first—to exercise the proper canonical discipline—in order to minimize injury to others and to preserve the Church’s credibility as a witness to all that is true and good. It is astonishing that this lesson was forgotten or ignored for more than a generation following the humanist cultural implosion of the 1960’s, and it is exceedingly sad that it has taken the abuse crisis to drive the lesson home once again. But it is as yet unclear whether the lesson has been learned across the board. Is it to be only sexual abuse which demands prompt administrative action? What about other violations of the rights of the faithful?
What about liturgical abuse? The failure to teach sound Catholic doctrine? The abandonment of the call to holiness and the individual charisms in so many religious orders? The utter secularization of Catholic universities and social agencies? The twisting of Catholic moral theology to serve the sexual revolution and pave the way even for sexual abuse? Has the hierarchy learned an important lesson about the need for discipline with respect to the Church’s mission as a whole? Or will we continue to see discipline maintained only where a hostile surrounding culture demands it? Are we engaged in true renewal or yet another exercise in unenlightened self-interest?
In his letter to Titus, St. Paul wrote of the qualities of a bishop:
For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers…; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach.
This passage applies to so much in the Church. The bishops have gotten the message that there must be zero tolerance for sexual abuse, and that it would have been far better to deal forthrightly with the problem from the first. Indeed, tolerance of disordered sexuality in the Church’s ministers has predictably bred such widespread disaster that the lesson is inescapable. But we still don’t really know whether this lesson has been received as a moral lesson or merely as a strategic one.
The moral lesson is that there must be zero tolerance for other forms of abuse among the Church’s ministers as well, particularly the abuse of any of the rights of the faithful to the goods the Church offers for their salvation. The failure to discipline priests and bishops in their dispensation of the Church’s sacraments, her teachings, her grace and her inner life have all contributed to this disaster, and have wrought far too many other disasters besides, many of equal or greater magnitude. One of the great benefits to the Church of the sex abuse scandal is that the free pass has been withdrawn in this one area. But the greatest lesson of the crisis is the need for a proper and edifying discipline across the board. It is infinitely better to suffer for doing good than for doing, or even permitting, evil.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 20, 2010 11:30 AM ET USA
I maintain that there has been and continues to be "no reasonable degree of practical discipline" from the Vatican regarding Bishops. Photo-ops with abuse victims is a sorry excuse for practical action. And this continual reference to "mercy" is sickening, as those who want to see confrontation, repentance, reconciliation and reparation are "unmerciful." Those are almost as guilty (if not more so) than the perpetrators.
Posted by: koinonia -
Apr. 14, 2010 11:47 AM ET USA
The reform must be animated with God's grace, and it requires a spiritual renewal. Unfortunately, the majority of prelates have been preoccupied for decades with social issues while neglecting their primary mission. Thus, holiness and piety as traditionally understood have become objects of derision among many in the clergy. And personal holiness has become a scarce commodity, while the moral failures have astonished even the most intransigent of sinners. Kyrie eleison.
Posted by: koinonia -
Apr. 14, 2010 11:25 AM ET USA
The fact that lessons have to be learned is itself very disturbing. Very few "in favor of sexual licentiousness"- if any- would approve of what has occurred among the abusers. Many decent legal experts- AG Reilly of Mass. for example- have expressed dismay at the actions of priests and prelates. They had no vendetta. This is the classic "no-win scenario." Hypocrisy will always elicit a feeding frenzy; that's the way it's always been. History will be no different in its verdict.
Posted by: -
Apr. 14, 2010 11:09 AM ET USA
Is it discipline that is needed or true charity? I've often thought that a few excommunications and sacramental interdicts are called for just to wake people up to the severity of their deviations from the faith. This is "canonical discipline", to be sure, but it's also charity, and a charity that has been sorely lacking in the Church for decades.
Posted by: Katoman -
Apr. 13, 2010 11:09 PM ET USA
You are right on point. I have been discouraged of late by so many people joining the "bash the Catholic Church" bandwagon. But God is Mercy - and after mercy comes justice.
Posted by: robertcampbell_78332 -
Apr. 13, 2010 7:57 PM ET USA
I think you have pretty well said it all. I agree that other forms of abuse must also be addressed. The VERBAL abuse of the faithful and abuse of power and authority should NOT be tolerated any more than the sexual abuse of children. Indeed, these seemingly minor abuses could well be the onset of those more serious abuses