Change We Can Believe In

by Edwin Faust
September 13, 2010

If one were to indulge in the pastime of naming epochs for their most notable characteristics, our time might aptly be termed “The Age of Crisis.”

All of our institutions — ecclesial, political, financial, familial — are mired in habitual crises of one sort or another. A crisis is said to exist when opposing forces are poised for a final conflict that will lead us in one of two radically different directions.

The widespread sexual abuse of adolescents and children by some of the clergy and the subsequent cover-ups are now routinely labeled by the media as a crisis for the Catholic Church. If the designation is accurate, what opposing forces are in conflict? Between what radically divergent courses must the Church decide?

Although the Catholic hierarchy has, in many cases, appeared shamefully complacent about aberrant behavior that has shocked the laity and general public, the need for a remedy to clerical sexual abuse is universally recognized. What that remedy should be, however, constitutes what might be termed the crisis.

One of President Barack Obama’s advisors has achieved a bit of infamy for his Machiavellian aphorism, “Never waste a crisis.” The admonition is that every conflict should be exploited to further one’s political agenda. It matters little whether the course adopted offers a genuine solution to the perceived crisis so long as it can be presented as doing so.

The Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis has attracted its share of opportunists, with each faction ready to exploit the situation to its own advantage. The target of opportunity is priestly celibacy.

The argument, around for some time now, is being made with renewed vigor that at the root of the pedophilia that now appears pandemic among the Catholic clergy is the Church’s requirement that those in Holy Orders be celibate. The self-evident remedy, so it is claimed, is to allow priests to marry.

The argument contains some presuppositions that should be examined, but seldom are. The first is that sexual sin is easily accounted for by a naturalistic psychology, in the manner of Freud. Human sexuality is conceived metaphorically as something like steam pressure that, denied its usual means of release, will explode in some harmful manner. But out it will come, one way or another.

Sin, sexual and otherwise, resides in the will, more than in the psyche, according to the Church. It cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Even civil and criminal statutes recognize “malice aforethought,” which means that an individual is a free agent, not an automaton ruled by psychological determinism.

Priests who engage in sexual acts cannot be regarded as the innocent victims of enforced repression. They freely chose a life of celibacy and service. They also freely chose to violate their vows. Whether such men were initially fit to be trained as priests is another matter, and one that can be dealt with by improving the screening process for candidates, not by altering the very structure of the priesthood.

But structural change is the easy, if false, solution proffered for so many problems, both within and without the Church. It has the attraction of absolving individuals of responsibility and transferring blame onto an external condition. Change that condition, so the reasoning goes, and the undesirable behavior will disappear.

Pope Benedict, with admirable insight, will have none of this. In his general audience on Sept. 8, the Pope spoke of a medieval abbess, St. Hildegard of Bingen. She lived in the 12th Century, at a time when corruption among the clergy was giving rise to radical reform movements, such as the Cathars. This sect was not only censorious of clerical corruption; it wanted wholesale doctrinal and organizational changes that altered the very fabric of the Faith.

St. Hildegard was adamant that what was needed in the Church was not a basic change in its teaching or structure, but a greater commitment to the Christian life among its vowed members.

“She (St. Hildegard) criticized them (the Cathars) strongly for wanting to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community isn’t obtained so much with change in structures, but a sincere spirit of penance and a difficult path of conversion. This,” the Pope said, “is a message that we must never forget.”

Without overtly referring to the clerical sexual-abuse crisis, the Pope has deftly turned away those who would use it to force a fundamental change in the structure of the priesthood. The only solution, the Holy Father is saying, is the difficult one: personal holiness.

This is the same Pope who said in May, on his way to Fatima, that the clerical sexual-abuse crisis was foretold in the Third Secret and that it is a punishment of the Church for the sins of its members. The Pope’s message in his Sept. 8 general audience echoes what he said on his way to Fatima: the only way to oppose sin is through holiness, and that requires the grace that can only come from the Mediatrix of All Graces.

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