How Did This Happen, Part 2--A People Set Apart

In the previous post, I framed question #2 of "how did this sex abuse crisis happen?" as "how did it come to pass that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church covered up the fact that some number of Roman Catholic priests had and were sexually abusing children, either actively or passively, thus facilitating the abuse?"  The answer to that question, in my view can be answered in a one sentence response--"because the culture of the Roman Catholic priesthood is sick and broken, and the sex abuse crisis is the most visible manifestation of that pathology."

It is extremely important here to emphasize the word "culture."  While people contribute to cultures in which they are a part, a culture is a conceptually distinct entity from any particular member of that culture.  There are deeply decent and honorable men who are Roman Catholic priests.  But the culture in which they swim is not decent and not honorable in the main.  And, in what is perhaps the greater tragedy, fundamentally decent and honorable men can become compromised by that culture to do things they would never otherwise do.

Let's talk about the big picture elements of that culture, and then drill down to the specifics.  If you look at the history of the Roman Catholic Church, probably the single most consistent thread post-Constantine is the absolute and uncompromising insistence by the Church that clerics are not, and should never be, subject to the authority of non-clerics.  Thomas Becket died, and was named a saint, for standing up for that principle--that he and his clerics could not be tried by the king's courts in the manner of every other person in England.  Gregory VII is acclaimed as a great pope for asserting the same privileges for clerics in the Holy Roman Empire.  These fights are often framed as being about protecting the Church from domination by power-hungry kings, and there is truth to that, but the core principle is clerics are to be judged by other clerics, and never by non-clerics.

No doubt, some of this push was a power grab on the part of the Church visa ve secular authorities.  But the origin of this idea, in my opinion, is the theology underlying the priesthood the developed in the West and lasted all the way through to Vatican II (and, in some quarters, to the present day).  Consider the way the Baltimore Catechism describes the priesthood:

Q. 996. How should Christians look upon the priests of the Church?

A. Christians should look upon the priests of the Church as the messengers of God and the dispensers of His mysteries. . . .

Q. 999. Why should we show great respect to the priests and bishops of the Church?

A. We should show great respect to the priests and bishops of the Church: 
   1. Because they are the representatives of Christ upon earth, and

   2. Because they administer the Sacraments without which we cannot be saved. Therefore, we should be most careful in what we do, say or think concerning God's ministers. To show our respect in proportion to their dignity, we address the priest as Reverend, the bishop as Right Reverend, the archbishop as Most Reverend, and the Pope as Holy Father.

If you start from the proposition that the clergy are, in a unique and irreplaceable way, "the messengers of God and the dispensers of His mysteries," "the representatives of Christ upon the earth," and the group with absolute control over "the Sacraments without which we cannot be saved," it naturally follows that priests are categorically different and above lay people.  Why should they have to justify themselves to folks who lack this unique gift?  The idea of a people set apart, and set above, the mass of lay folks is a logical extension of the "high" (perhaps, "extreme") vision of what the ordained priesthood is and how it operates.

It is true that Vatican II tries to tamp down some of this by emphasizing that all people, including lay people, participate in the singular priesthood of Christ.  But ideas have a tail that can remain long after the official wording of the doctrine has been changed.  Sixteen hundred years of self-understanding doesn't evaporate in a generation or two.  The self-understanding of priests in the Roman Catholic Church is still formed, in many ways and in many cases, by this cultic or caste model of priesthood.  Pope Francis is the first Pope to have been ordained a priest after the Council, and even he was formed primarily in the pre-Conciliar period.  Layer on top of that a vocal and organized segment of priests who soto voce reject any suggestion by Vatican II that the old model should be compromised in any way, and you have a clergy class that is still informed by the idea of themselves as a people set apart from any lay accountability and authority.

Moreover, while the official words may have changed, the institutional structures that buttressed this self-understanding were left essentially intact by the Council.  Roman Catholic priests are set apart in a very practical way, and that is by virtue of being unmarried and without families.  Most people, when they think about the priesthood, think about this rule as a rule of "celibacy," but from a cultural point of view what is really relevant is the fact that priests do not and cannot live in a pair-bonded or family-oriented relationship (I'll talk more about the distinction between "celibacy" and "unmarried" in the next post).  As a result, the primary, and in many respects only, social network for clergy is other clergy.  Here, the theology and the sociology are self-reinforcing--we understand ourselves as a people set apart in theory, but also we are set apart in practice, and the fact that our primary social outlet and peer group is other people set apart in the same way reinforces the idea that we are set apart in theory.

All of this is further reinforced by the seminary training model.  The Catholic seminary as we currently think of it is a product of the Counter-Reformation, designed to ensure a minimum (and maybe more importantly, standardized) level of education to clergy.  But, it also was designed to inculcate a set of values and attitudes among future priests, and one of the key ways it did that was to isolate candidates into a quasi-monastic set up.  In doing so, the idea of a people set apart is set into the candidate before he returns to "the world" and his ministry.  Indeed, that's a big part of the point of the exercise.

Finally, let's look at the practical operation of how the lives of priests work once they get to their ministry.  Who are they responsible to?  Not to the laity--as I have said on several occasions, a lay person has power in the Catholic Church only to the extent a clergy gives him or her that power, and that same cleric can take it away at any moment.  There are no review boards, no vestries, no lay organizations to which a cleric is required to take heed (unless, to be cynical, the cleric needs money for something).  If you are a priest, the only people who's opinions absolutely matter are your fellow priests--your bishop or religious superior, the administrative staff under that leader, and your peers.  If you are a bishop, it's the same deal--you need to keep your priests happy to some reasonable degree for prudential reasons, and you need to keep Rome happy.  Never in this equation are you subject to the opinions or judgment of lay people--which, according to the theology of priesthood, is how it should be.

The upshot of all of this is that the culture of Catholic priesthood, then certainly but also now in the main, is a closed, inward-focused culture that sees itself as not subject to the commands and dictates of the outside world.  It has a intellectual system which justifies its own set-apartness, a shared set of experiences (often wildly different from those in other contexts) formed in the seminary training program, a closed peer group that intentionally screens out voices from outside of the tribe, and a hierarchy and structure in which one is answerable only to members of the tribe.  Like all closed cultures, it is really easy for groupthink to take over, particularly where, as a practical matter, you are not meaningfully interacting with anyone other than those who are under the same umbrella.

As an aside, the groupthink issue is one of the points that my friend the married Russian Orthodox priest focuses on.  At the end of the day, he has to go home and justify his behavior to his wife, which acts as a check on getting too wrapped up in his own specialness or out too far on some strange limb.  In a real and practical way, he is accountable with his life to a person who is not part of the tribe.  Catholic priests have none of that.

Now, take all of that and imagine that you are the Vicar-General, or even the bishop, of some diocese.  You get approached by a set of parents who tell you that Father X has molested their son or daughter.  First off, your natural reaction might be not to believe this story--after all, Father X is one of the tribe, maybe someone who went to seminary with you and with whom you socialize, whereas these people are not part of the people set apart.  But, let's say you do believe them.  Your first instinct is to ensure that Father X's actions are judged and considered by the only people (in your mind) who should be judging Father X--you and your fellow priests.  That's what Thomas Becket did, that's what Gregory VII stood for, that's what the entire theology of the priesthood you have received tells you is the right thing to do--keep it, at all costs, in house.

The last thing you would think to do is tell these parents to go to police.  Bringing in lay people to judge clerics goes directly against almost two Millennia of struggle against precisely that outcome.  It is in the very foundations of the culture of the Roman Catholic priesthood, almost it's DNA, to close ranks and "handle the matter internally."  Which is exactly what they did.  Wrong, deeply wrong, though it may be, it is perfectly understandable, even predictable, if you begin from the set of premises that these folks were operating under.

Now, once the matter became "internal," other elements of the culture began to do their work to minimize or even remove entirely the significance placed on the actions of the abuser priests.  Here we have to address sexuality, and the distorted and toxic ways it is understood and lived out within the confines of this closed clerical caste.  That's our next topic.  

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