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Catholic World News News Feature

Church scandal reflects ascetical breakdown, authors argue April 13, 2007

The sex-abuse crisis within the Catholic Church was brought on in large part by a collapse in the traditions of ascetical discipline, especially among the clergy. That is the argument of an important book about the crisis, and after years of research on the topic, I find that argument persuasive.

Just over one year ago, the Linacre Institute released After Ascetism: Sex, Prayer, and Deviant Priests. Regrettably, the book has received little public attention-- certainly nowhere near the attention it deserves.

Perhaps this is understandable. The secular media, which have done so much to expose the failings of the Catholic clergy, have little interest in promoting traditional Catholic spirituality. So we couldn't expect the media to recognize the value of After Asceticism.

Church leaders should have snapped up the Linacre Institute's argument. Bishops, religious superiors, and seminar rectors should have recognized an important argument on the proper formation of priests. They did not, and that fact should tell us that something was amiss. But then, we already had plenty of evidence on that score!

The Linacre Institue, which was founded within the Catholic Medical Association to develop position papers on various bioethical issues, has taken a special interest in the role that the sciences and professions have in shaping judgment and opinion on sexual ethics and the treatment of disturbed priests, and has supported efforts to advance Catholic social teaching in these areas. With After Asceticism the Institute has made an important contribution to a discussion-- long overdue-- about the collapse of clerical discipline that allowed the sex-abuse crisis to develop.

With the permission of the authors, CWN here reproduces the Introduction to After Asceticism, to give our readers a sense of the overall argument. Interested readers may wish to purchase After Asceticism directly through the publisher's web site or at Amazon.com


After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests

by The Linacre Institute

When the scandalous sex abuse cases involving clergymen of the Roman Catholic Church were made public, many, if not all, wondered how men consecrated to the service of Christ and his Church could have committed these crimes. Four years have passed since the full extent of the crisis became public and the settled opinion is that two leading factors resulted in the eruption of sexual misconduct among the clergy. First, most surmise that a group of psychologically disturbed men wormed their way into the seminaries, and, as priests, were given ready access to an unsuspecting group of victims. Second, when the problem was brought to their attention, the bishops in charge failed to manage appropriately these sexually errant clergymen. Some critics further explain that the power structures in the Church that maintained secrecy at all costs concealed the inherent weakness of the Church’s disciplinary requirements of celibacy, fueling serial abuses and cover-ups.

In what follows, we will show that the crisis is only secondarily related to the personality disorders of individual priests and to the faulty personnel management by the chanceries. More importantly, we will demonstrate that the discipline of celibacy is most definitely not a cause of the sexual abuse crisis. The truth is that the deficiencies that caused the scandal were not merely rooted in a few disturbed individuals, but rather, were common deficiencies and aberrations in the religious purpose and intellectual formation of priests dating back to at least the 1950s. The following chapters contain an in-depth analysis of the sexual problems that go well beyond pedophilia or pederasty. What is more important, this book outlines key elements in the solution to the problem.

We recognize both the need for policy changes by the US bishops on sexual misconduct and the further instruction by the Vatican on the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood, but observe that these do not address the scandal’s first cause. A spiritual malaise and the concurrent collapse in ascetical discipline in the middle of the twentieth century created psychologically untenable conditions for many priests and bishops. This malaise, which remains with us, was the prime effect of the failure of religious purpose and discipline and its most visible signs were a defiance of religious authority, the precipitous decline in seminary enrollments, and the uniquely sexual features of the scandal. Ascetical discipline was practiced better in the first half of the twentieth century when the purpose of religion was embraced and misconduct by priests was rare. What changed between the first and second halves of the twentieth century were not the management policies on sex abuse and secrecy at all costs-- these remained a constant throughout—nor do we have evidence to show that the personality features of seminarians or priests changed in any fundamental way that would account for the nature and the magnitude of the crisis-- in its early stages at least. Rather, the core change over the course of the twentieth century was one of purpose or allegiance-- leaving behind ascetical discipline, having disdain for religious tradition, and adopting the therapeutic mentality, a popular belief that fulfillment of the human person springs from emotional desire in a quest for self-definition, or self-actualization, without regard to an objective philosophical, religious or moral truth. Further, the therapeutic mentality views sin as a social concern and discourages loyalty to religious authority; it is profoundly anti-ascetical.


The truth is that the deficiencies that caused the scandal were not merely rooted in a few disturbed individuals, but rather, were common deficiencies and aberrations in the religious purpose and intellectual formation of priests dating back to at least the 1950s.


For centuries the ascetical life of Catholic priests and religious brothers and sisters included a strict discipline that by today’s standards would appear as nothing less than self-abusive. Prayer at hours through the night, a severely restricted diet, sleeping in unheated cells on wooden planks covered with a thin layer of straw, donning course woolen clothing in all seasons of the year, not to mention the practice of strapping one’s self with small knotted chords, were seen by many as necessary steps for a life dedicated to the service of God. The belief in ascetical discipline endured throughout Christendom, in the East and in the West, because the Church understood that self-denial and periods of bodily deprivation were necessary to encourage a spirit of poverty and the spirit of repentance, and to check human passions, including the strong sexual appetite, all for the ultimate purpose of giving glory to God and to depend upon Him in all things. There were abuses, of course, and the reforms over the centuries in the Church give recognition to the fact that the ascetical life was not always lived well. Nevertheless, driving the development of the ascetical tradition was a religious culture of hope and love-- hope that one can genuinely train his or her spiritually destructive passions, and the expectation that the meek and merciful would achieve a love of Jesus Christ. It was the ascetical discipline that in no small measure protected the early Church from the onslaughts of pagan sexuality, and indeed, contributed mightily to the development of Christian culture.

Because the purpose of religion has changed, this ancient understanding of the ascetical tradition has faded in the Catholic Church. Fasting and abstinence-- until recently, core features of ascetical discipline-- are not specifically mentioned in the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) or in the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967); these are the most important statements on the formation of Roman Catholic seminarians and priests since Vatican Council II. References to ascetical discipline in popular books on priestly formation and religious life are rare and mention of fasting as a way of life is virtually non-existent. The lifestyles of many diocesan and religious priests—not to mention whatever dietary discipline remains-- appear indistinguishable from the laity that they serve.

In its purpose, theory, and practice, the therapeutic mentality stands in stark opposition to religious devotion and personal repentance for sin. Allegiance to the therapeutic mentality has dislodged ascetical habits and manners, and it now holds sway over the attitudes of clergy, just as it strengthened its materialist grip on western societies for nearly a century. Mental health experts and educators, as the main purveyors of the therapeutic mentality, know little of the spiritual life and are ignorant of ascetical discipline. Nevertheless, in the name of science, and as the prime representatives of the educated elite, they advocated a liberalization of sexual standards before the sexual scandal in the Church, and then attempted to advise the bishops and to treat problem priests as the crisis took form. Bishops, who have oversight of the parish priests and seminaries, and who have been at the center of the crisis management, do not speak much, if at all, about ascetical discipline. Priests give few indications that they know or care about ascetical discipline. But most clergy seemed well versed in language of the therapeutic mentality. Predictably, when the storm surge in pagan sexuality began to overwhelm the natural defenses of the clergy in the 1950s and 1960s, those without the spiritual anchor of ascetical discipline were set adrift-- perpetrators as well as their managers. As the initial storm surge receded, a spawn of the therapeutic mentality remained in the tidal pools.

Estimates vary widely on the sexual activity of all priests. In particular, there is uncertainty about the number and proportion of homosexual priests, but there is no debate over their presence, and that their presence is significant, both in number and in effect. Here we argue that the homosexual problem is a major factor in the current scandal, but we emphasize that it would be a mistake to focus on the problem of homosexuality as a primary cause. Indeed, the scandal and its homosexual roots are symptoms of an ever deepening crisis of religion in the clergy.


Further, the therapeutic mentality views sin as a social concern and discourages loyalty to religious authority; it is profoundly anti-ascetical.


The crisis can be understood by viewing ascetical discipline as a religious exercise that provides a potent psychological resource for chastity. The psychological status of the practiced ascetic is also a core feature of his pastoral effectiveness. The priest’s effectiveness in his pastoral mission to the laity and to his fellow priests, in addition to his belief or confidence in his vocation, are rooted in prayer. The following ideas outline the common notions in the psychology of asceticism:

Any Christian having a familiarity with the spiritual classics widely available only forty years ago (a time when many bishops today were in their training) would have immediately recognized each of these assertions as obvious. Yet, these ideas are no longer serious topics of discussion, by priest, prelate, or commentator, even in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

A sexual apology has wormed its way into the Church over the last half century and it will continue to grow even after all abusive clerics have been sent packing. As evidence of the continuing crisis, we hear declarations by priests and prelates that dismiss the seriousness of consensual sexual behavior in clergy and trivialize the spiritual and psychological significance of sexual temptation. The sexual apology is that part of the therapeutic mentality that has at once protected abusive priests, and provided a moral cover for other sexually active priests while dismissing the traditional and time-tested principles on religious devotion, chastity, and asceticism. The following points buttress the sexual apology:

In spite of the currency these ideas carry in the sexually progressive circles, they can be shown to be spurious by a study of the philosophical treatment of asceticism, and also by the careful reading of scientific evidence from the perspective of natural philosophy.


Predictably, when the storm surge in pagan sexuality began to overwhelm the natural defenses of the clergy in the 1950s and 1960s, those without the spiritual anchor of ascetical discipline were set adrift-- perpetrators as well as their managers. As the initial storm surge receded, a spawn of the therapeutic mentality remained in the tidal pools.


So, why do these ideas persist among professionals, even in the wake of the disaster that they helped to cause? There are two overarching explanations for their persistence; one having to do with the ideas on the philosophy of the human person, the other having to do with the ideas on the status of scientific knowledge. Each of these ideas has become deeply ingrained in contemporary thought. As to the first set of ideas, there are the beliefs concerning human suffering and motivation, adopted from Enlightenment and Marxist philosophers, and subsequently fostered by therapeutic psychology. One core idea is that human suffering is not the result of original sin and personal choice, but is rather the result of the evils inflicted by social institutions. The other core idea is that human motivation is energized at its deepest levels by sexual desire. The fusion of these ideas on the origins of suffering and motivation has been the rule since Freud, whose prejudice still retains enormous leverage on the thinking of therapeutic professionals, as well as on the thoughts of some priests and bishops. Many believe that chaste celibacy is at best an improbable state, and most likely an impossible state for the majority of men who aspire to it (which we concede to be true, without the support of ascetical discipline); they view the impossible as an unworthy topic of serious scientific study.


Here we argue that the homosexual problem is a major factor in the current scandal, but we emphasize that it would be a mistake to focus on the problem of homosexuality as a primary cause. Indeed, the scandal and its homosexual roots are symptoms of an ever deepening crisis of religion in the clergy.


Second, these ideas persist because of a deeply held assumption about the role of science in probing the foundational truths about living things. Since Descartes, science has claimed the privileged status as the arbiter of all objective truth. Philosophy, traditionally understood in the writings, for example, of Plato, and especially the natural philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, can no longer lay claim to the truth (it is supposed) since this ancient and dated discipline does not have the specialized knowledge of the sciences, which give them their unique and privileged status. Rather than begin with the study of the intellect, the life of virtue, and that of the spiritual life in religion, in the empirical sciences, and many in the therapeutic disciplines, rest comfortably with the idea that man’s conscious behaviors about the good, and about the significance of sex, can only be understood by investigating the bodily appetites-- most importantly sexual desire-- and social forces. Many believe that only the scientist is uniquely qualified for this task and both the cleric’s and the commoner’s judgment on such matters must defer to this expertise. In sum, little quarter is given to religion or philosophy for guiding sexual behavior or teaching the student of its nature. This is especially true for therapeutic psychology, the branch of behavioral science that treats persons with emotional concerns.

On the contrary, Plato observed, for example, that in the act of healing, the body of man cannot be cured without a knowledge of the soul-- the psyche. This principle implies a hierarchical understanding. That is, the lower part, the body (and here we include the emotions) cannot be completely understood without understanding of the higher part, the soul, because the body is by nature meant to serve and be governed by the soul. Hence, when the physician treats the patient, he must consider the soul as well as the body. This top-down approach should apply in therapeutic psychology because of its concern with human happiness and the purpose of life, but it does not; the few modern therapeutic classics on the problem of purpose, such as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, are not on most therapists’ required reading list.


Virtually nothing can be found in therapeutic science on the subjects of asceticism, chastity or virginity, and prayer is addressed only superficially.


A deep-seated assumption is that the psychology of the Christian layman and priest is best explained by therapeutic psychology without guidance from the religious and ascetical tradition. This prejudice remains largely uncontested. Yet, even from the perspective of the sciences that are supposed to rely upon empirical evidence, there is little data to support this prejudice, and compelling evidence that contradicts it. Indeed, there is a body of research in biology and in experimental psychology that both points to the connection between religious man, his mental health and his sexual behavior, as well as providing support for the ideas on chastity advanced by Church Doctors on the importance of voluntary poverty, fasting, self-denial, and obedience to religious authority.

As a result of the decline of asceticism, the currents of pagan sexuality have seriously harmed the Church. Without a return to asceticism and the ancient purpose of religion which gave birth to it, the Church remains unprepared to withstand the inevitable waves of sexual corruption. The recent crisis demonstrates that the mental health professions imbued with the therapeutic mentality provided no safe harbor. They have no theory of Christian asceticism for use with laymen, the formation of seminarians, or in the rehabilitation of deviant priests. Virtually nothing can be found in therapeutic science on the subjects of asceticism, chastity or virginity, and prayer is addressed only superficially. Without this understanding, therapeutic psychology cannot proceed from a rational basis to assist in the psychological treatment of the fallen Christian in the return to authentic devotion, the priest in his return to ascetical practice, and the seminarian in the formation of an ascetical chastity.

It is time that we move beyond the idea that the psychology of the Christian be left in the hands of specialists who have no interest or understanding of religious devotion, chastity, prayer, and ascetical discipline. We take the first small steps in outlining a psychological theory of Christian asceticism and draw upon experimental science in both psychology and biology to illustrate the points that we set forth from St. Thomas Aquinas. However, we must define the nature and the scope of the problem as it currently exists, how the sexual apology grew out of therapeutic science and infiltrated the Church, the obstacles in the path of reform, and finally, how ascetical tradition can be framed to address the problems we face today.

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