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From Scandal to Catholicism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 21, 2010

In one of his major statements of the year, the Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI was (as our Catholic World News Service put it) unsparing in his analysis of the sex abuse scandal. By this we mean that he put full blame on all the bishops and priests who played any role in fostering or protecting a culture of abuse, as well as on those who were actually directly guilty of abuse. The Holy Father also had the courage to point out the moral failure endemic to modern culture, which ultimately infected the Church herself.

Many commentators believe that we Catholics should not point out larger cultural problems, because it looks too much like special pleading. But in fact it goes without saying that clerical sexual abuse is an abomination, and it takes no moral courage at all to condemn it vehemently. The way of courage lies in pointing out what either is not obvious or is deliberately obscured, and in fact too many commentators still refuse—I use the word advisedly—to recognize the connection between priestly sexual abuse and the larger culture, just as they refuse to take their share of responsibility for the creation of a culture which is profoundly sexually abusive in general—a culture actually built to an astonishing degree on the quest for selfish sexual gratification.

Therefore, while it may be more important for cardinals, bishops and priests to read the parts of the Pope’s address which blame the Church, it is far more important for the rest of us, and especially all those in the media who so delight in the Church’s discomfort, to read the part in which he analyzes the very culture which fosters the problem in the first place. This is worth quoting at length:

But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times. From Bishops of developing countries I hear again and again how sexual tourism threatens an entire generation and damages its freedom and its human dignity. The Book of Revelation includes among the great sins of Babylon—the symbol of the world’s great irreligious cities—the fact that it trades with bodies and souls and treats them as commodities (cf. Rev 18:13).
In this context, the problem of drugs also rears its head, and with increasing force extends its octopus tentacles around the entire world—an eloquent expression of the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind. No pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart—and all this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it.
In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained—even within the realm of Catholic theology—that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today.

Indeed they are, and in two ways. First, from the use of contraception through the unfailing sexual titillation of today's video entertainment, including commercials, we see in our culture at every level a determination to package nearly all of reality in terms of private sexual pleasure, divorced from larger human purposes, divorced from nature, and above all divorced from God. Indeed, it hardly seems too much to say that even the pressing and progressive secularization of the modern West has been driven primarily by the desire for unlimited sexual gratification—sex without responsibility.

Second, it is clear that this Pope is keenly aware how much Church leaders over the past fifty years have forgotten the Church’s special identity as the Bride of Christ and opened themselves, and therefore the Church as a whole, to the patterns of the surrounding culture. This is implicit in the quotations and imagery used throughout his entire address, but especially so in these words: “We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal.”

This emphasis on truth and renewal is not just a matter of purging a few of the Church’s ministers of one particular sin. This is a matter of erosion of faith, contempt for sound doctrine, irreverence in the liturgy, perversion of moral theology, decline in the sense of personal sin, loss of devotion, and consistent trampling on the right of the faithful to full access to the goods of the Church. At the level of theory, this erosion afflicted Catholic academia starting at least in the middle third of the twentieth century, and Catholic practice was subsequently eroded throughout the West in the final third. The process was first slowed and then gradually reversed through the efforts of Pope John Paul II.

But note this well: The 1970’s and 80’s were not just the height of sexual abuse; they were the height—or perhaps the depth—of all these things. They marked the deepest influence of a very sick surrounding culture on the intellectual, moral and administrative leaders of the Catholic Church.

This is the lesson of the scandal. And when the Pope said to the Curia that “we must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen,” he is pointing precisely to this lesson. For it is the entire ecclesiastical culture that must change. Ministers and faithful alike must throw off their cultural sycophancy and learn once again what it means to be Catholic. Although the desired renewal is underway, we still have a long way to go.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 22, 2010 10:06 AM ET USA

    Sadly, the timing of the dramatic liturgical and doctrinal revolutions coincided with the sexual and cultural revolutions. Consequently, millions of Catholics were robbed of their spiritual, moral and intellectual ammunition when it was most needed. It appears that Pope Benedict himself is a different man than Fr Ratzinger, the peritus clad in secular suit and tie during Vatican II. He is guiding us back to the eternal Source of truth and grace as he steers a course away from the City of Man.