Was abuse one consequence of a Church already pagan?

Pope Francis greets retired Pope Benedict XVI in a 2015 file photo. Source: CNS

Future historians and moral theologians will need to determine, with greater historical distance than currently possible, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the latter half of the last century, examined in an Australian context by a Royal Commission.

They may point to an atmosphere of clericalism and ecclesiastical privilege then apparently pervading Church and society.

Very often, it seems, people were loath to believe priests capable of abusing vulnerable people. Seemingly, it was more imperative to protect the reputation of the Church than victims. Of course, these are observations made in hindsight, impressions that will not capture the entire complexity of the reality.

Ultimately, thinkers will need broad historical and even supernatural perspective to understand the cancer of sexual abuse in the Church.

Unfashionable as it is to speak of a perennial war between good and evil on a trans-historical plane, they will have to confront the mysterium iniquitatis itself, present even within the Church.

As early as 1959, in a lecture entitled The New Pagans and the Church, the future Pope Benedict XVI warned of the “desolating sacrifice set up where it ought not to be”, that is, in the Church (Mt 24:15; Mk 13:14). He observed changing perceptions of the meaning of membership in the Church, from firm faith in the revelation of God’s grace in Christ in the early days, to the idea that membership contained a “political-cultural dimension” in later times.

Under this paradigm, membership of the Church depended not necessarily on personal conviction joined to ecclesial conviction (there were of course saints in these and every age), but on the identification of the Church with the ‘world’.

People were Catholic (or Protestant) because that is what people were. Yet, by the 1950s in the West, while most might nominally be Christian, a new kind of paganism came to inhabit the Church such that any given individual “must presume as the normal state of affairs the lack of faith of his neighbour”. People were Christian in name only.

Controversial at the time, events have borne Benedict out. Now, Western societies including our own can barely claim the label “nominal Christian”, as recent Census statistics outlining the fall in professing Christians and the rise of the “nones” demonstrate.

Alas, this “paganism” has continued apace, even perhaps within the Church (recall Bl Paul VI’s famous lament regarding the smoke of Satan entering the Church).

While Benedict was not specifically connecting child sexual abuse to any such modern paganism, a connection suggests itself. One wonders if the faithlessness he identifies was a contributing factor to the evil present in the abuse crisis in the Church in the decades following.

Benedict considers that the crisis of the Church and the modern world is a crisis of faith. Perhaps a lack of faith in God’s justice and goodness incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ reduced a healthy fear of God in the perpetrators and those with authority over them.

There will always be weakness and depravity, but the wickedness may have occurred because there was an insufficient sense in the Church of the living, holy presence of God, a God demanding, yet merciful, saviour of the innocent and humble (cf. Lk 1:46-55), precisely those victims of abuse.

Needing to be considered alongside any such weakness of faith are the theological currents that sit behind and filter into the life of the Church. Absent from much of the discussion surrounding the Royal Commission so far, it seems, is a lack of engagement on the level of theology, particularly regarding the bearing that theology might have had on understandings of the Church and human dignity, and how theology might help avoid in the future any repeat of this behaviour.

While quasi-legal norms and bureaucratic guidelines have their place (to be sure, a Royal Commission has not the competence to delve into theology), more fundamental than these perhaps is a growth in wisdom and virtue.

And wisdom and virtue are inextricably linked to the theological ideas that pervade the Church’s life, even if these are only implicit and unstated. Theological ideas have consequences. Misconceptions regarding the nature of God and His Revelation, and how He relates to the human race will inevitably have a bearing upon the way individuals and the Church are conceived and therefore treated.

To see how theology bears on the life of the Church today, we need to cast our eyes back. According to a particular genealogy of modernity current among contemporary scholars such as Servais Pinckaers OP, John Milbank and Bishop Robert Barron, some of the secularist pathologies present in our society, and even the Church, actually date back to the high medieval period.

On this reading, errors crept into Scholastic theology through the work of Bl Duns Scotus (A.D. 1266-1308). In contrast to the great Dominican theologian, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Scotus proposed a univocal conception of being.

What this means is that when we speak of God, and being in general, we understand that God and the creature possesses existence in exactly the same way. We understand God’s manner of existence according to our own conceptions. In this way, God simply becomes “a being” as opposed to the act of being and source of all that is.

Thomas, on the other hand, taught that when we speak of God, which necessarily uses human concepts drawn from earthly life, we must do so by analogy.

Although we can say some things confidently about God using our own limited human language (such as that He exists, He is good, etc), we must always remember that we cannot grasp everything with our finite minds of the infinite God, who is sheer being.

There is similarity, but greater dissimilarity. As creatures, we participate in God’s existence, even as our mode or manner of being is almost entirely different from God’s own manner of existence.

Benedict XVI, in his justly celebrated Regensburg Lecture, argued that Scotus’ work marked a rupture in the Western tradition, which had achieved a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian Revelation.

Paradoxically, just as Scotus was bringing God down to our level in a univocal conception of being, he, and later philosophical currents such as William of Ockham’s (1287-1347) nominalism, were “[pushing] him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism”.

Voluntarism privileges God’s freedom; God’s will is supreme and all that connects us to him is our will aligning with his. All we can know of him are his “actual decisions”.

Truth and goodness do not then correlate to what we can know about God; more fundamentally, we do not participate in God’s perfections but rather are joined solely through a submission of will (such as may be the case in Islam). God is conceived primarily as a legislator rather than the source of being and his law becomes the dominant issue in morality.

Understanding God in this way will inevitably affect the way members conceive the Church. If morality is apprehended solely in voluntaristic terms as the subordinating of the human will to the divine, then the Church might well be seen to be the ecclesiastical enforcer of this law, the sole instrument by which God’s law is known and the means by which it is communicated.

It seems not too great a leap from this to suggest that the Church and her clerics should then occupy a place of privilege and power, the kind of coincidence of Church and polity that may lead to merely nominal membership of the Church and, perhaps, the existence of conditions in which abuse insufficiently checked may occur.

It may be that when Benedict was writing on the new pagans in the Church, the pervading conception of the Church was precisely this. But in the wrong hands, such a conception might positively become dangerous if it means the Church’s reputation becomes the paramount consideration, and justice and goodness do not.

Whether this was in the fact the case, it is suggested that, as Catholics grapple with the evil of the past in order the address her future, an analogical conception of being and creation needs nevertheless to be brought into the theological foreground.

An analogical conception of being will lead to a healthier understanding of the human person as ineluctably linked to the Divine Creator in the context of the gift of creation.

On this view, the human person is seen as participant in God’s own perfections and not connected exclusively by will and law. Each person is a child of God, bearing inalienable dignity and worthy of great respect, oriented in freedom to become what he or she is meant to be, united with God for all eternity.

The Church, if she ever was, cannot be conceived as an enforcer of Divine Will but rather the humble, sacramental medium through which Christ communicates his holiness, righteousness and the fruits of his Paschal Mystery to the faithful.

She must be seen as the receptacle and mediator of grace, teacher and guide of humanity. Her clerics are sacramental purveyors of this life, humbly standing in the place of Christ the head, serving those whom God in Christ serves.

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