Thursday, September 27, 2018

Enough Already! Reflections on the Need to Reject Emotion Based Response

As the abuse scandal goes on, we’re constantly bombarded with blogs, editorials, and commentaries that amount to saying “I’m angry and I’m going to tell everyone about everything I dislike about the Church and why I think it failed me!” I am not talking about actual victims here. They’re right to be angry over the pain suffered. I’m certainly not qualified to judge when they’re healed and would not dare to presume to tell them they should “get over it.” 

Instead, I’m talking about Catholics, not personally affected, who are letting their emotions drive their understanding of the situation. I get it that shock and anger are natural reactions to becoming aware of this wrongdoing. But if our response is led by emotion, we will not achieve any meaningful reform. Instead, we will only respond in a way that satisfies the emotion. We see this in the rush to judgment. Yes, certain bishops did conceal wrongdoing. Yes, we had a predator work his way up to the rank of cardinal. These things should not have happened and we need a reform.

The problem is, a meaningful reform requires us to be rational. We can’t just accuse our usual suspects, demand they be gotten rid of, and expect things to fall into place. But if you read the endless articles out there, you usually learn about the writer’s politics by the “reforms” they propose. We’re constantly bombarded by calls for women priests and the ending of celibacy on one hand, accusations against Vatican II and the “lavender mafia” on the other.

But when you think about these arguments, they don’t really make sense. Women priests won’t eliminate sexual abuse. It seems like every other week there’s a story in the news about a female teacher who sexually abused a student. Ending celibacy won’t end it. Protestant denominations have similar rates of sexual abuse, and schools—an institution that emphatically does not require celibacy—have higher rates of sexual abuse. Vatican II didn’t cause it. A high percentage of cases preceded Vatican II or involved priests ordained before Vatican II. As for the “lavender mafia,” that’s an ill-defined term that basically amounts to saying that some corrupt people in the Church with same sex attraction have received positions of authority and work together in some manner.

Arguing that these things be “changed” is not a blueprint for reform. It’s just assuming that everything would be fine if we just got rid of what we dislike. True reform requires an investigation into how these things could have happened and what could be reasonably done to prevent it from happening again.

Unfortunately, when we let emotions get in the way, we demand instantaneous fixes and think “reasonably” is a code word for “token reform.” But to avoid a “feel good” bandaid that achieves nothing or possibly to assume guilt until proven innocent, we need to evaluate the situation with the willingness to understand both what has happened and what the Church can do in response.

A reasonable reform (by which I mean a reform established by reason, not “the minimum reform we can get away with”) involves looking at the facts of the matter, determining what worked, what failed, who did their job, and who failed to do so. It means we think about the long term fix and don’t settle for scapegoats.

For example, consider the Pope’s words during the September 25 press conference, (ZENIT translation) for which critics accused him of being “tone deaf”:

I take Pennsylvania’s Report, for example, and we see that up to the first years of the 70’s there were so many priests who fell into this corruption. Then, in more recent times, they diminished because the Church realized that it had to fight another way.  In past times, these things were covered up. They were covered up also at home when an uncle violated a niece when the father violated the children. They were covered up because it was a very great shame. It was the way of thinking in past centuries, and of the past century. There is a principle in this that helps me very much to interpret history: a historical event is interpreted with the hermeneutics of the time in which the event happened, not with today’s hermeneutics. 

He’s right. To understand the behavior—and to understand is not to condone—we must understand the mindset that made it possible. In the past, things were hidden out of shame. That doesn’t justify the silence. But it does help us understand why things were tolerated in the past. If we understand them, we can try to change them. But if we don’t try to understand them—if we think being angry is enough—we will never overcome the evil.

I think we have a tendency to “fill in the blanks” when we have partial information. We insert the motives we think explain an evil and treat it as truth, demanding we be refuted even though the onus of proof falls on us to prove our angry assumptions true. Moreover, when proof is given to the contrary, we claim it is part of a coverup—because we “know” it must be false. Why do we “know” it’s false? Because it contradicts our preconceived notions about what happened. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “presumption of guilt that can never be disproved.”

This kind of emotional response will not reform the Church. It will instead lead people to assume that any solution that doesn’t immediately satisfy their need for vengeance is a coverup or attempt at stonewalling. That kind of mistrust eventually leads to schism while the problem goes on... and probably continues to exist in the rebellious group that thinks they eliminated the problem by rejecting the Pope.

If we want to truly reform the Church, we need to recognize when our emotions are interfering with seeking out truth. As St. Paul warns (Ephesians 4:26-27), “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.”

I think at this point, we’re leaving plenty of room for the devil and he’ll take advantage of it as long as we let emotion take first place.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

They Ended in Schism

(Preliminary note: it’s not my intention to accuse anyone involved in this latest dispute of fomenting schism. Rather, I hope to remind everyone that certain attitudes can lead to that danger if not kept in check)

The thing that troubles me about the reaction to the scandals is the open contempt that some are showing to the clergy, treating them as an enemy that the Church needs to be liberated from. They rightly want reform but think that the cause of the corruption are not just some corrupt bishops and priests, but the bishops and priests. The problem is, this is not the first time that this happened. There were other movements in the history of the Church who began with a desire to reform the Church and ended in schism.

We’ve had groups like the Donatists, the Fratricelli, the Lollards, the Protestants, etc. They gradually started viewing the clergy as enemies and rejected them. When the Church told them they were wrong, they retorted that the Church was wrong. Eventually they wound up leaving the Church in the name of reform.

In this current crisis, I’m not accusing those concerned over scandals as fomenting schism. But I do wonder if we’re seeing fault lines that may turn into schism if left unchecked. The mistrust can lead to rejection of rightful authority. That rejection can turn into separation from the rightful authority. But, as Catholics, we cannot reject that rightful authority—even if some misuse it or personally sin grievously—because this authority is given to the Church by God.

This doesn’t mean “business as usual” when it comes to scandals. But it does mean recognizing the authority to teach and govern is not set aside for the bad behavior. John XII was a notoriously bad Pope. The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia describes him as “a coarse, immoral man, whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium.”  Yet, if he had ever taught as Pope [§], the obligation to obey would bind and the faithful would have to trust God would protect him from teaching error. People tried to depose him, but the attempt had no authority.

The situation we have in the Church today is nothing like the scandals of past centuries. I’m not arguing the fallacy of Relative Privation here. The fact that a past scandal was worse doesn’t mean we don’t suffer in a current one. But what it does mean is if the Church survived that, it will survive this and we are not excused from obedience.

What we have is a reaction of revulsion against the evils committed by one bishop and a small number of clergy combined with the revelation of some bishops knew but preferred to keep it hidden instead of stopping it. Yes, we do have evil in the Church. Yes, it does have to be rooted out. Wanting these things corrected is not wrong. But reckless accusations, assuming without proof the Pope must be guilty and demand for him to resign, assuming the clergy are an enemy of reform—these are wrong.

I would urge the faithful who are (quite legitimately) struggling with feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal to remember this and not allow themselves to fall into these attitudes.


[§] He never did. God protecting His Church sometimes means that an evil Pope doesn’t get around to teaching at all.