— Sin, crime, and sickness
So enmeshed is the Catholic Church in a culture of denial that no public discussion can even be contemplated on this issue
By Father Myron J. Pereira
There are at least three ways in which Catholics look at wrongdoing, and each of these corresponds to the dominant attitude in society.
In this article, I will explore briefly these three different ways, and ask readers which way corresponds to their present mindset.
I will use the pedophile crisis as a common example.
To commit a sin
In traditional, medieval societies where religion is the determining factor, to do wrong is to break God’s law, to offend God, or more simply, to commit a sin.
Catholic moral theology of yesteryear went into contortions trying to define when sin was ‘mortal’, ‘venial,’ or just an occasional failing.
A mortal sin shattered the state of grace in one’s soul, kept one from validly receiving the sacraments, and could only be absolved by a priest in the sacrament of confession.
A penitent who died with an unforgiven mortal sin on his soul deserved eternal hellfire.
Generations of Catholics have been brought up thus, and even though they may live in a modern, secular world, their attitudes have been so thoroughly ‘sacramentalized’ — that is, they’ve been indoctrinated with piety based on repetition, anxiety and intercession — that the thought of an unforgiven mortal sin on their consciences is the cause of great unease and depression.
This is especially so with regard to sexual sin. Less so with regard to sins of theft or against justice.
To commit a crime
But as society grows more secularized, it is the public courts of law, and not the Church which decides on wrongful behavior, for wrongdoing is seen not so much as a sin against God, but as an offense against society — that is, as a crime.
The greater the crime, the more severe the sanctions, or punishment — capital punishment, often with torture, was at one end; simple imprisonment was at the other.
One major issue which has arisen in legal jurisprudence, however, is the culpability of the wrongdoer.
Is wrongdoing a sickness?
Ever since Freud, men and women have wondered about the validity of their ‘free choices.’ In this, the modern sciences have played their role, particularly sociology and psychology.
As the culpability (and so, moral responsibility) of the criminal is called into question, wrongdoing today is being seen more as an illness (of mind, of emotions, of temperament) than as a conscious and deliberate choice to do wrong.
The wrongdoer is therefore given rehabilitative treatment, and failing this, is sometimes sequestered for life.
Let’s apply the above grid to cases of pedophilia among the Catholic clergy.
Cases of sexual exploitation
For a very long time in the Catholic Church, sexual offenses were primarily seen as offenses against God (for example, the breaking of one’s sacred vows, etc.) and so requiring contrition, confession and repentance.
They were not seen as offenses against young people, and as such, as crimes to be reported to and acted upon by a secular authority (the police, for example). In this, the whole social dimension was absent. One reason why the Church has been so neglectful of the victims.
In fact, it was considered below one’s dignity for a “consecrated person” such as a priest, to submit himself to the police, or to the laws of the state. A priest was “above” all that.
This is why so many pedophile priests used to make several rounds of confession to various priest confessors in rotation, all the while protected by the seal of anonymity. Not only did they not recognize their wrongdoing as a crime, but only as a sin against God — many didn’t even see it as a sickness that required professional help.
So enmeshed is the Catholic Church in a culture of denial where sex is concerned, that no public discussion can even be contemplated on this issue. It is simply forbidden by the church government.
After all, open discussion on sexuality and celibacy would utterly destroy the image of ‘angelic purity’ and the ‘consecrated life’ that generations of churchmen and women have created for themselves, a veritable “structure of deceit” in the words of church historian Garry Wills.
What we’ve written about pedophilia among the clergy will also apply, conditions being present, to the sexual exploitation of women — young women, married women, religious sisters — by the clergy in the Church.
We are slowly recovering from the tragic cases of Jean Vanier, Franco Mulackal and Marko Rupnik — all men who wielded great spiritual power and political influence, which they are accused of misusing in their dealings with women.
This is a vast subterranean cesspool that has never been acknowledged by the church government, much less handled with transparency, competence and justice.
Will the recent upsurge of public opinion in favor of the sexual protection of women impinge upon the mindsets of Catholics too? It remains to be seen.
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