In his Christmas message to the curia, Pope Benedict lamented sexual abuse and said the church must reflect on what went wrong. He, as a theologian, thought that distorted moral theology in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the abuse.
In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia 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.
John Allen tends to poo-poo this and finds experts who are dubious.
Among specialists, however, there are serious reservations as to whether proportionalism really is to blame.
First, moral theologians say that proportionalism reached its high-water mark in the 1970s and has been in retreat ever since. Focusing on it now, they say, risks fighting yesterday’s battles.
Second, Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Brian Johnstone of the Catholic University of America said in the wake of the pope’s 2008 remarks that he’s not aware of any serious Catholic moralist who ever invoked the theory to justify the sexual exploitation of minors.
Johnstone, an Australian who over the years has been critical of proportionalism, said he’s “totally unconvinced” of any connection between proportionalism and the abuse crisis.
Third, statistical studies of the crisis may not support a link to a defective moral theory.
Margaret Smith, data analyst for a John Jay study of the “causes and context” of the sexual abuse crisis commissioned by the U.S. bishops, likewise said in 2008 that research found incidents of sexual abuse as far back as 1950, the very beginning of the time frame the bishops asked them to consider (1950-2000). Those earlier acts of abuse probably cannot be explained by proportionalism.
Smith added that changing attitudes towards authority in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a growing individualism in the broader culture, may well have played a role in the crisis – and that, she said, was perhaps the point Benedict “was reaching for” in 2008. Nonetheless, Smith said, her hunch is that when all the data is in, proportionalism will not loom large.
“This is behavior much more deeply embedded in the personality of individuals than a particular theory of moral action,” Smith said. “I think the analysis of causes will have more to do with things like preparation for living a life of celibate chastity, and how to understand and deal with intimacy.”
While the specific theory of proportionalism may not have been the main culprit, there were plenty of influential theologians around who contributed the climate of sexual laxity, especially about homosexual behavior.
The reports of true pedophilia (small children, under 10 or so) were a small portion of the abuse committed by priests and in fact declined slowly after 1950.
Terrible abuse has long occurred in the Church, but at least in the US there is a big spike in the reports of abuse of boys 12-18, abuse that occurred in the 1960s and 1970. Abusers showed older boys books by theologians who said that homosexual sex could be ok.
The Rev Anthony Kosnick in the Catholic Theological Society of America book, Human Sexuality: New Direction in American Catholic Thought (1977) concluded that
“at this time the behavioral sciences have not identified any sexual expression that can be empirically demonstrated to be of itself, in a culture-free way, detrimental to full human existence.”
Any sexual expression – any.
Of course society is not as enlightened as Catholic theologians, and it criminalizes certain behaviors, so Kosnick advised that until society realizes that there is no sexual expression that is in itself harmful,
“enlightened and well-integrated individuals might well free themselves of conflict by simply reflecting on the relativity of their society’s sexual ethic and proceed discreetly with their sexual project.”
And so several thousand Catholic priests proceeded with their sexual project.
Of course unenlightened parents would sometimes object.
Rev. Andre Guindon, who is still held up as a progressive theologian, had taught in The Sexual Language, a book that the abuser Rudy Kos used in his seminary, that
“the most recent studies tend to disprove that lasting hurt comes from pedophiliac contact itself. Rather, the trauma comes from the familial panic which is the usual response to the incident.”
The children are hurt not by sexual contacts with priests, but by parents who make a fuss about it – so taught a leading theologian, and such seemed to be the attitude of the bishops.
Perhaps some of Benedict’s suspicions are justified
There are Catholic apologists who like to say that the church takes the long view. It sees history in terms of centuries, not decades. It’s not swayed by temporary fancies and intellectual fads.
If the Pope said ” In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children”…it wasn’t so theorized in my parish, diocese, state or country…
He can only blame his Church’s own theologians if they unleashed this horror. Rank and file secular Catholicism did not invent this concept.
yet his message seems to blame broader secular influences which “corrupted” his Church. BS
Steve, you raise a good point about the chasm between the academy and the man in the pew. But didn’t JPII believe that by issuing lectures for the academy it would eventually trickle down to the culture?
Benedict seems to be completely out of touch with reality. He’s speaking like an abstract theologian about something that really isn’t all that abstract. Humanity has a sinful nature, period, and part of that nature involves exploiting the innocent (and not just sexually, I might add). Besides, sexual abuse was a severe problem in the Church *centuries* before proportionalism came into vogue.
Seeing a respected theologian like Benedict essentially go into spin mode is tragic.
If Benedict wants to find a reason, he can start by looking around him…by looking at a Church that has corrupted itself by embracing monarchistic pretentions that encourage institutional arrogance and a pervasive sense of entitlement.
Crowhill, if JPII actually believed that “issuing lectures from the academy” would “eventually trickle down to the culture,” then he was more naive than we were led to believe. Unfortunately, I think Catholicism lends itself to a kind of naivete, especially among its leaders. I think that has to do with the fact that Catholicism as an institution held such a sway over the faithful that they were discouraged to think for themselves. What say you, Crowhill?
Will something please trickle down to the Third World countries? HELP!
JDH — Catholicism does seem more liable to the confusions of the ivory tower than other groups. I think part of the problem is the somewhat sharp distinction between the average parish priest, who knows what it’s like “on the ground,” and the guys who go the academic / power route.
Here in Latin America I’ve been a missionary for over 30 years, I see absolutely NOTHING being done about the pedophile problem. Any suggestions?
Great post and very valuable quotations. Obviously bad theology is not the only culprit, but it was certainly one powerful factor in opening the floodgates to abuse.
Bad theology is used for rationalization, but in no way makes anyone do anything evil. In any case, Many of the worst abusers were formed under the old system.
What is really alarming is that the Pope asks, “What should we do?” and then says “Truth is the answer.” Truth is not the answer. Doing the truth is. You can believe the right stuff all you want, and you can be orthodox out the wazoo, and still sin. The devil is orthodox. S
The word “reactionary” usually is perceived as “far right.” I would like to use the word in its strict sense, which refers to those who “react” to public demands for change. Who is not aware that the Church hierarchy only started cleaning up the mess after the media and the lawyers got involved. Here in Latin America, the pedophile problem is worse than it ever was in the States. No one has answered my question yet: What are we supposed to do down here?
Father Michael Koening
Truth lover, is there any way the media in Latin America could be persuaded to investigate this? As you wrote, it was only after the attention given by media in this part of the world that bishops responded.
Media investigations alone are unlikely to get the job done. First you have to find a journalist with the courage to work up a story about the claims of some “alleged victim” (as it is usually phrased), and then a publisher who can be persuaded to publish the story despite the inevitable blowback from powerful institutions who want the whole thing buried. And even if the story eventually does see the light of day, those who don’t want to believe it can easily dismiss it as nothing more than unsubstantiated slander and money-grubbing scandal-mongering; and the perpetrators can easily counterattack with lawsuits, propaganda campaigns, and accusations of “persecution” and “anti-Catholic bigotry”.
What gave the story “legs” in the U.S. and elsewhere was *court cases*, both civil and criminal, especially when these resulted in the conviction of the perpetrators and awards of damages to the victims. If media just report a victim’s claims, they are perceived as taking sides and risk becoming part of the controversy themselves. But if they objectively report what is happening in a public courtroom, they can say that they are simply “reporting the news”; and at least in some jurisdictions this may also give them some protection from legal retaliation.
So if the American experience is any guide, I think the thing to do is to find competent attorneys who are willing to take such cases, arrange for them to meet with the victims, and get them to file civil and/or criminal charges against the perpetrators and those who protect them. But you must also warn them that if they do this, they can expect the perpetrators and their institutional allies to go into full combat mode and attack both the attorneys and their clients with everything they can think of, and that the attempt to obtain justice will be both expensive (monetarily and spiritually) and prolonged–and if past experience is any guide, it may fail completely.
Going up against the devil is a risky business, as many a whistleblower has discovered the hard way. People who are capable of committing or covering up these kinds of crimes are usually capable of committing other crimes to protect themselves and/or the institutions they are a part of. They are likely to fight back with everything they have, and may well stoop to things you would never have thought “honorable” men to be capable of. Everyone involved has to be absolutely sure they want to go through with it and that they are willing to pay the price for it, because the price will almost certainly be high.
Father Michael Koening
Maybe a Latin American equivalent to Jason Berry or even a Father Thomas Doyle will take the risk.
Tony de New York
“Here in Latin America, the pedophile problem is worse than it ever was in the States”
THATS A LIE!
Most of the priest there have WOMEN as a lover very few go for the boys.
It’s not a lie. Distinguish between consential and non-consential sex. We’re not going to take a woman to court as though she were a victim. Womanizing exists, but normally a woman is not living in the priest in a stable relationship. We’re talking about crime against minors, not about sin. I’ve lived here for 33 years. I’ve met victims, I’ve worked hard to get rid of pedophile priests. In my own diocese it has to be over 10%. I still maintain that the pedophile problem is far worse than it ever was in the States.
Tony de New York
Show me the proof! I repeat, most of the priest have WOMEN not boys (11 to 17) as lovers.
Do i believe that there is a problem with abusing young boys in Latinoamerica?
Yes i do, but not like in the U.S.A.
Father Michael Koening
Truth lover, I can’t doubt what you say regarding your won diocese of 33 years. However, do you have good evidence that this is as equally great a problem throughout Latin-America as a whole? I have had a lot of contact with Latin immigrants here in Canada and have visited the Spanish Carrlbean several times. That hardly makes me an expert but I’ve never heard this. Like Tony, I thought most Latin priets who break celibacy do so with a woman in a more or less committed relationship. I had no inkling of a widespread pedophile/pederast problem. More than 10%?! Has Rome said or done anything?!?! Through your mission contacts do you know if this is also a problem in Africa, South Asia, the Phillipines, etc? Cuando pienso en esas cosas me siento muy mal. Dios, salvanos!
Color me a cynic but when people make bold dramatic claims using statistics I ask simply: how do you know that 10% of priests are abusers?
A little science and reason please even when taking a shot at the hated and backward Catholic church.