Examining the Deep Roots of the Abuse Crisis

The ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church has left many good Catholics shaken, and like many I have tried to understand how this has happened. Obviously, homosexuality in the clergy plays a role, and the all-male nature of the priesthood provides opportunities for such abuse. But here I want to explore the larger historical forces that allowed abuse to flourish in the Church, which at least for me makes it somewhat more explicable in human terms, the supernatural nature of evil notwithstanding. 

Perhaps the most insightful explanation I have encountered comes from the Canadian philosopher John Lamont, whose article “Tyranny and Sexual Abuse in the Church: a Jesuit Tragedy, identifies a warped idea of obedience which has influenced priestly formation since the 16th century. According to Lamont, a voluntarist conception of obedience, which made the will of a superior the necessary criteria for obedience, made its way into Jesuit training manuals and spread through post-Tridentine seminaries. This conception of obedience, he writes, departed from St. Thomas Aquinas’ of obedience according to law, whose source is in the nature of the good.

According to Lamont, this new tyrannical idea of obedience inculcates a crippling dependence on those who internalize it, such that they can no longer critically assess the actions of those in authority. He cites statements from popular training manuals for priests which defined obedience as surrender of one’s entire faculty of willing to their superior. Lamont argues that once clergy internalized this idea, it made appeals to any other authority null and void. This explains why canon law was no bar to sexual abuse, even though it provided remedies for it.

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Clare McGrath-Merkle, in “Fallen Failsafes and a Revolutionary Modern Priesthood,” identifies an exalted, quasi-idolatrous ideal of priesthood spread by French authors in early modern France. Focusing on the writings of Pierre de Bérulle, a 17th-century spiritual writer (and opponent of Cardinal Richelieu), she argues that in responding to critiques of clerical corruption, Bérulle promoted the idea that a priest loses their whole identity and becomes one with the person of Christ upon ordination. Thus, he took the “step from affirming the perfection to which a priest is called, to affirming a perfection of his state of life, making the priest the source of all sanctity in the Church.”

By encouraging the priest to see himself as a “nullity” and identify himself wholly with Christ, she thinks Bérulle promoted the idea that it was the person of the priest rather than their office which mediates God’s grace and holiness. Like Lamont, she thinks this idea would be spread in seminaries and teaching orders such as the Sulpicians, replacing older theologies of the priesthood found in the writings of St. Gregory the Great and others.

In a very different vein, Bronwen McShea, in “Bishops Unbound: the History Behind Today’s Crisis of Church Leadership,” claims that prior to the 19th century, European monarchs and nobility exercised influence over the Church, so that bishops didn’t have as much power over clergy; lay leaders in Christendom were expected to play an active role in defending the Church from physical attacks and providing for its material needs. As a result, they would have had greater ability to intervene in cases of clerical abuse in the early modern period.

But in the second half of the 19th century, in response to the revolutions of that period, the Church began asserting the authority of both pope and bishops to govern “immediately” the clergy and laity. While Vatican I established the immediate universal jurisdiction of the pope, Vatican II raised the episcopate to the status of a “College,” elevating its importance above that of mere priests. Changes in canon law, its codification in 1917, and the growth of bishops’ conferences after Vatican II, all gave greater freedom for bishops to remove pastors. These made it harder for lay men and women to seek answers if they thought their children were being abused, and it allowed bishops to move around priests accused of such crimes to avoid just such inquiries. 

Changes in canon law seem to have been crucial, and nearly all the essays here mention the 1917 codification of canon law. According to canonist Edward Peters, this amounted to a “revolution” that gave bishops much more direct control over canon law, and as Lamont notes, it nullified laws contained in the old Corpus Iuris Canonici, whose provisions against sexual crimes were much stricter.

This is partly the subject of Kieran Tapsell’s essay, “Canon Law on Child Abuse Through the Ages.” Tapsell argues that from the time of Gregory XVI in 1842, popes increasingly made the handling of sexual crimes committed by clergy more secretive. The 1917 code dispensed with the requirement to notify and hand over the accused to secular authorities, and Pius XI’s instruction Crimen Sollicitationis (1922) made the entire process a secret one from start to finish. Gone were public “degradations” of offenders, in which clerics were stripped of their status and handed over to the state for punishment.

Tapsell identifies fear of scandal in the face of rising anti-clericalism during the 19th and 20th centuries as the main reason for such changes, noting the fear of handing over priests to civic authorities in dictatorial regimes. Tapsell says the same idolization of priests noted by McGrath-Merkle played into the Church’s fears, lest scandals harm the esteem of the priesthood (he cites the beatification and canonization of St. John Vianney between 1905 and 1925, who said “the priest is everything!” as evidence of this).

What these essays suggest is that long-term causes of the abuse crisis originated in the Church’s response to the two great cataclysms of the last half-millennium: the Reformation and the French Revolution. The Church certainly needed to re-emphasize the sacrality of the priesthood in response to the Reformation, but in doing so she enshrined theological doctrines that made severe abuse possible. After the Reformation, nominalist ideas of obedience combined with a distorted view of priestly sanctity created psychological habits of dependence among the clergy and passed them on to the laity.

In the case of the French Revolution, lay Catholics, becoming increasingly independent of clerical influence (due to growing literacy, industrialization, and other social changes), revolted against these notions of obedience and priestly superiority, which many clergy could only interpret as a rejection of their authority as a whole, given the type of obedience they were trained to expect. In turn, the Church responded to the liberal, anti-clerical revolutions of that era by enacting legal reforms that shielded clergy from any attempt to undermine that authority. 

Over the long term, these changes fostered an environment where sexual abuse could occur. As these authors indicate, canon law and other safeguards limited opportunities for abuse for several centuries. But by the mid-20th century, when the crisis began, these had been whittled away or otherwise undermined, so that they no longer acted as fail-safes against abuse.

This does not mean that every priest was or is some kind of monster. But where such an idea of authority and obedience went unchecked, it must have created an atmosphere that drew abusive men to the priesthood. Moreover, if this narrative is correct—that the Church instilled an unhealthy idea of obedience in its clergy while later erecting barriers against exposing them to scandals that would undermine the belief that priests were “godlike father figures who can do no wrong,” in Lamont’s phrase,—it would explain much about the contemporary Church. 

That many Catholics view the pope as “an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law” as Benedict XVI put it, and a papal adviser can publicly proclaim that in theology “sometimes 2+2=5,” becomes explicable if the authors I have cited are correct. The rebellion against Church teaching on sexuality (and many other topics) in the 1960s must be related to the arbitrary exercise of authority experienced by priests who came of age in that era. It is not surprising that clergy and laity conflated the truth of doctrines they were taught with the corrupt use of authority they endured, and so they rejected both.

Conservative as well as traditional Catholics are apt to blame progressive ideas about sexuality for the abuse crisis, and while they certainly contributed, it seems likely that “clericalism,” at least as defined by these authors, did so as well, even if progressive Catholics may distort this notion. Successfully addressing the causes of this calamity will require clergy and laity alike to foster a more healthy, mature notion of obedience, one which does not idolize the person of the priest, as well as provide legal mechanisms to protect the vulnerable in their care. If we do not, I fear the Church will wind up repeating this same history all over again.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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