My mother-in-law had a good friend – a decent Protestant – who began reading about all the scandals rocking the Catholic church throughout the centuries, particularly focusing on the period of the wicked popes. (Alexander VI, Roderigo Borgia, who was poisoned in 1503, lived a famously profligate and licentious life, fathering children and favouring his catamites, not to mention torturing Savonarola. Though he had wonderful taste in art.)
Having read the entire canon of wickedness, the lady joined the Catholic Church, persuaded that only “the true faith” could survive the evil doings of some of the men who led it.
Will the Catholic church survive its present period of crisis and odium? Of course it will. The pews were not empty at Easter. Nobody I know, personally, has stormed out of the church, or left the faith. Quite the contrary. Those who are committed to the faith feel that now, more than ever, is when the church needs support. Now we are down to the hard core of believers who are genuinely committed. If those who went to Mass for the sake of appearances, or to get their child into a faith school, or out of habit, or to be “part of a community”, are now falling away, so much the better.
And if the clerical abuse scandals are “the most serious event since the Reformation” – well, the Reformation was an excellent thing. The Catholic church was seriously in need of reform, and the Counter-Reformation subsequently revived the old faith with renewed energy.
Certainly, committed Catholics are furious and ashamed of the way the ecclesiastical authorities conducted the clerical abuse scandals. They not only failed the victims and excused a terrible sin; they were naïve; they were credulous adherents of the “therapy culture” which they came to favour over a sterner, and far more appropriate tradition of penalty and atonement.
In a way, the bishops and archbishops – and maybe the popes – were too liberal in their interpretation of “forgiveness”. I read through the devotional literature of the Irish Catholic hierarchy throughout the 1970s and 1980s and I found that the most insistent theme was “forgiveness”, and that no sin was too terrible to pardon or forgive. This is scripturally exact, but the theological literature of the 1970s and 80s seemed to overlook the coda: that pardon is conditional on doing penance for the offence, and not repeating it.
This softer approach to forgiveness was implicit in the material of the shrinks to whom incorrigible paedophiles were being sent for therapy. Professor Patricia Casey, psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, examined the psychiatric journals and papers therapists between the 1950s and the 1980s and was astonished to find how little paedophilia was mentioned as a concern. It was not at all central to the psychiatrists’ and psycho-analysts’ preoccupations. Indeed, Professor Casey has suggested that some shrinks may have accepted Alfred Kinsey’s view that “sexual relations between children and adults were not necessarily harmful and it was society’s attitude that harmed them.”
Indeed, during the 1970s, the Paedophile Information Exchange sought to affiliate itself to the National Council for Civil Liberties, and there was a lobby for paedophilia to be accepted as an acceptable sexual orientation.
Paedophile priests – instead of being charged, and if found guilty, punished – were repeatedly sent for therapeutic treatment, which so often proved totally ineffective. The Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical authorities failed hopelessly to register that these men showed scant signs of being “cured”, and now they are reaping the whirlwind.
But the faith is not the bishops, archbishops or even the pope. The faith is the people. Reform and change will come from the believers who are the church. It’s a cliché to say that lessons must be learned, but this lesson, above all, must be learned: crime cannot be treated by the soft emollient of forgiveness alone, or recourse to the therapy culture. The penalty must be paid.
The church falters, but the faith will go on. ENDS
The Guardian Comment is Free/Belief. April 2010