Sexual abuse, liturgical abuse: connected?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Apr 19, 2008

After a week of interviews with radio, TV, and newspaper reporters, most of them concentrating on the sex-abuse crisis, I'm more convinced than ever that most American-- even most Catholics-- are missing a vitally important point.

Most people see the sex-abuse crisis as an isolated problem, like a malignant tumor that appeared on an otherwise healthy body. Now the tumor has been removed (or so the line goes), and we can get back to normalcy. But you know what? Malignant tumors generally don't appear on healthy bodies. When the tumor appears, the doctor looks for an underlying cause.

There are some people who think that the real disease is the Catholic faith itself. They've been having a field day, because they claim the ability to explain something that most Catholics aren't explaining. If we expect to counteract their anti-Catholic rhetoric, we'd better come up with an explanation of our own. That's what I tried to do in The Faithful Departed.

So: Is/was the sex-abuse crisis isolated? Now that priests who prey on children are being removed from ministry, can we feel confident that the same failures of leadership won't crop up in other areas?

Let me put the question in more concrete form. Suppose you encountered a pattern of clerical abuse in a completely different field: gross liturgical abuse, let's say. There wouldn't be any civil crime involved, so the courts wouldn't enter the picture, as they eventually did with sexual abuse. The newspapers wouldn't help; they wouldn't really care. So we'd have to rely on Church leaders-- our bishops-- to resolve the problem.

Now let's say that there are gross liturgical abuses occurring in your parish. (Perhaps this is really the case; abuses are not rare.) You dutifully bring the problem(s) to the attention of your pastor, who ignores them. So you report them to the bishop.

What kind of response can you reasonably expect?

  1. The bishop immediately intervenes to stop the abuse and/or discipline the priest(s) responsible;
  2. The bishop gently assures you that the abuses didn't really occur, you were probably mistaken, and maybe you should stop being so critical and support your priests; or
  3. The bishop completely ignores your complaint.

Option 1 is the proper one, obviously. But Options 2 and 3 are more common. They're also the options which, when applied to reports of sexual abuse, allowed the tumor to swell to such frightening size.

If the sex-abuse crisis was "sometimes very badly handled"-- not much debate on that-- and if liturgical abuse is now being handled the same way, it's time to recognize that there is an underlying disease.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 17 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Apr. 21, 2008 5:34 PM ET USA

    Re. the Mass at Nationals Stadium, while much of the multicultural music was/is not my (or Pope Benedict's) cup of tea, it did/does not constitute liturgical abuse. I love Gregorian chant and the classical composers, but they are not the only legitimate forms of liturgical music. The Mass planners went overboard with multiculturalism and theatricality, but that's poor judgment, not abuse. The only abusive music was the Psalm. It was the ugliest piece of music of any kind I've ever heard.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 21, 2008 5:19 PM ET USA

    I consistently maintain that the clergy sex abuse scandal is integrally connected to liturgical abuse. In fact, it is a tripod: BAD theology + BAD liturgy = BAD morality. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi. Ever since Humanae Vitae was publicly repudiated by dissident theologians, we have seen dissenters and abusers (liturgical, theological and sexual) treated with velvet gloves (until law suits arose). Yet, often the whistleblower gets suspended, censured & punished, not the culprits.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 21, 2008 11:12 AM ET USA

    Of course it is all linked. A self-agrandizing sun-worshiper is where we find malignant skin cancers; the smoker, lung cancer, etc. The slippery slope does not appear only on one side of a relativist, but it is a cascade on all sides as the foundation of truth is allowed to erode away. Rightfully so, the faithful sons are all that remain on the landscape able to be seen in witness, not as pinnacles (of) themselves but as the resplendent growth of the forest without the decaying trees (thieves).

  • Posted by: - Apr. 21, 2008 9:34 AM ET USA

    I was surprised that the pope did not meet privately with United Conference of Catholic Bishops on the religious and theological abuses that continue in the progressive, liberation vain. Generally speaking, these are abuses that have been perpetuated, in part, by the bishops. These bishops must be addressed so as to explain what the problem is and from where it springs, in a forum that allows for frank discussion. Lets get back on track.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2008 7:06 AM ET USA

    In Homiletics and Pastoral Review this last December (07), Dr. G.C. Dilsaver, a Catholic clinical psychologist, wrote a groundbreaking article on the Thomistic psychological and moral link between "Liturgical and Sexual Abuse." This article can be retrieved at his clinic's website under articles.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2008 6:25 AM ET USA

    "...we'd better come up with an explanation of our own...." It's not enough, Phil... An explanation is not going to cut it. Your car is broken down on the freeway..., someone drives up, hands you a small pamphlet that "explains" the problem then speeds away... Cars are made to work.. if they don't, you are DOING something wrong.. You need someoone to DO something... Behold the "paradox..." Benedict is here...everyone is happy and impressed yet the Church remains dysfunctional

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 8:33 PM ET USA

    PB XVI is a teacher. We don't know when and how he will express his displeasure at the Washington Mass? That Mass (performance)was an indicator of the real problem. The problem comes in 2 parts: 1.) failure to obey and, 2.) it's all about me and how I am perceived. That is a typical new age American perspective. It explains sexual and liturgical abuse by clergy, "Catholic" colleges teaching things contrary to the Faith, etc. PB XVI has a "game plan", inspired by God-let's see what he does.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 7:13 PM ET USA

    I wrote a respectful letter to our Cardinal about a gross liturgical abuse. I was shuffled from dept to dept, lied to, ignored, and called names. I was not accusing his Rogerness of anything I was asking for his help. The treatment I received was EXACTLY like those who reported sexual abuse. They were acting like I was the IRS and they were tax frauds. My complaint was very specific about 1 priest at one Mass. The coverup goes on and on..... and you are right that has not changed.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 6:55 PM ET USA

    Tawser, there is no way thet any Pope would do anything about the type of thing that happened at that Mass - none of them would invalidate the Mass. To disrupt the Mass to put a stop to a particular hymn or something like that would be a much greater abuse. While the hymns may have been in poor taste, there was nothing that warranted the Pope doing as you would wish. He is a sheppard not a policeman. Too many Catholics expect the Pope to behave like a CEO. He is not one.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 3:44 PM ET USA

    Your book was very good: enlightening, frightening and sad. We must not give up or be afraid. There are some wonderful bishops out there who are real shepherds for us and their diocese are bringing forth good seminarians. They are the wheat among the weeds the enemy has planted. Pray for the others.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 12:21 PM ET USA

    Phil, You are right on. The sexual abuse crisis is just one symptom of deeper problems. Liturgical abuse is at least another symptom, but may well be at least a catalyst in nourishing or bringing about other difficulties: Lex orandi, lex credendi.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 11:59 AM ET USA

    Catholicity, why do conservative Catholics, while professing the greatest respect for the Holy Father, in practice treat him like an idiot child, incapable of coming to his own defense? How do you think St. Pius V, or even Pius XII, would have responded to the travesty in Washington? The Mass was a travesty of everything the pope stands for and he sat through it without protest. Why are this pope's words so strong and his actions so spineless?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 11:55 AM ET USA

    You are right. The sex scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. The submerged portion includes, not only liturgical abuses, but also the fuzzy and often heretical ideas about fundamental truths of the faith. There is a need for catechesis, not only in RCIA programs, but generally in the Church. The Pope rightly told religious to conduct schools and teach correct doctrine there.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 11:16 AM ET USA

    "But Options 2 and 3 are more common. They're also the options which, when applied to reports of sexual abuse, allowed the tumor to swell to such frightening size. " Amen, Amen!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 10:23 AM ET USA

    The Mass at National's Stadium was a case in point. Did anyone else feel profound embarassment for the Holy Father as the tasteless musical selections rolled on and on? Was I the only one who though he saw BXVI roll his eyes a couple of times as the banalities collided like cars in a freeway pile-up? It was like they were purposefully trying to torture him, aware as they were that he himself is a world class musician.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 10:22 AM ET USA

    Agreed. While some of the abuses are sufficiently clear to most Catholics, I am not certain that many of us would be able to identify many of the abuses as abuses. It would be worthwhile if Phil provide a list of the most common type of liturgical abuses.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2008 9:15 AM ET USA

    Here, we complain to the Archbishop and we get sent to the Vicar of Clergy who talks to Father about the liturgical abuses. Father then does even worse things than he did before. We then complain to the Archbishop who is silent (unless we are major contributors to his capital campaign) and when he does answer he complains that those of us who complain are so "mean" that he cannot bring himself to continue reading our letters. And the liturgical abuse and promotion of heresy continues unopposed