On Benedict, Francis, and Sin
To read the news, you would think there are two popes battling it out. The New York Times coverage of Pope Benedict’s recent letter in Klerusblattin, a German magazine, said it “realized the fears of many [unnamed] church experts that having two pontiffs living at the same time was a recipe for pastoral, theological and political disaster,” and went on to say the letter “amounted to the most significant undercutting” of the authority of Pope Francis.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has every right to write about his perspective on Church events as you or I do. He isn’t in solitary confinement and can provide insights on anything he wants. Nor was he undercutting Pope Francis. He was stating his opinion of the emergence of sex abuse by the clergy (not to be confused with clergy sex abuse, which was certainly going on at the same time). In fact, I agree with Pope Emeritus Benedict on the reasons for the damning sex abuse by the clergy…and I agree with Pope Francis’ assessment. Both perspectives hold truth and together reveal a mindset on the part of some in the Church that has proven to be a spiritually lethal combination.
In his letter, Pope Emeritus Benedict provides a historical background of the “signs of the times,” so to speak, 50-plus years ago, that fed our sex-saturated society and, sadly, infected seminaries as well. Pope Francis has blamed abuse of power and authority in the Church for the rise and proliferation of sexual abuse by the clergy. And he is correct because, plain and simple, priests and hierarchy hold power over the people they lead. Look at the Chicago archdiocese and its handling of Fr. Frank Phillips and St. John Cantius, if you need an example. Some used their power wrongly, whether individually as over a single child or over parishioners forcing them to accept changes alleged to be ordered by Vatican II or over priests in the seminary; thus evil blossomed like a corpse flower. Power corrupts; power corrupted many. And people in diocesan offices and even Vatican offices had power to shuffle paper out of sight as reports crossed desks, reports that never made it to the bishop as one Vicar General boasted, telling his fawning “Ministry Day” supporters about how they (the bishop’s assistants) didn’t tell the bishop everything, they took care of things themselves. While some bishops maintained distance, officially keeping their vestments clean, others moved priests who were unclean from parish to parish leaving ruined souls in their wake as well as a trail of silence.
Who in those days would challenge any of these authority figures? And who would have thought to disobey a priest even if what he wanted you to do seemed wrong?
The sins of pride (keep it quiet so there is no scandal), omission (maybe Fr. X will try to do better in another parish, so I will give him yet another chance), and commission resulted in the sexual violation that has scarred the holy Catholic Church and destroyed her moral credibility in our day.
Keep in mind, these are not the sins of the Church. These are the sins of INDIVIDUALS within the Church. There is no such thing as collective sin, it is a single choice each and every time. The judgment of God rests not on the organization – not even on Planned Parenthood or the Third Reich – but on the individuals within these organizations who chose and still choose to use their power over people in debased ways. Such sin occurs when God is no longer a part of a person’s life.
The reports showed that there was abuse by priests long ago, by priests long dead, you argue. To which I say, there have always been sexual perverts in society. In fact, I recall 60 years ago my grandma sending my cousin and me to the corner store, but cautioning us to stay only on her side of the street. In the blue house across, she said, the mother kept her son locked up because he was a sex fiend. I didn’t even know what that was, but I share this to show perversion existed and some with this defect probably entered the seminary and continued their evil, with or without the knowledge of their superiors we have no way of knowing.
And then came the sixties, of which Benedict wrote, the revolt against authority, the sexual revolution and great societal upheaval. If anything, Benedict merely scratched the surface of the times. He did not go into specifics by country, but the overwhelming sexual saturation of the world and the relegation of God to the back room (and tabernacles too!) stand out as the iceberg that tore a hole in the Titanic.
Benedict rightly blamed the erosion of morality for the rise of sex abuse by the clergy. Here in the United States, I would say outright attacks on the Faith and morality, not mere erosion, opened the door to evil. First came the denigrating of tradition and prayer followed by diocesan education bureaucrats imposing texts with little or no doctrine, but plenty of rationalizations about how what used to be sinful was no longer a problem.
How God was Relegated to the Back of the Room
These rationalizations pushed God to the back of the room:
- Eliminating Marian Devotions: “Why do you want to say the Hail Mary over and over [in the Rosary]. Make up your own prayers.”
- Eliminating Confession. No need for confession unless you commit a mortal sin. In fact, confession times were reduced, still are reduced, and the numbers are sparse.
- Eliminating the Crucifix. “The crucifix scares children, it shouldn’t be in classrooms” (Apparently it wasn’t scary enough to the adults making that claim to change their minds). (see the controversial sign of redemption is the heart of our logo)
- Eliminating Doctrine and Catechism. Memorizing catechism questions and answers were trashed in favor of discussions in which all opinions were equal.
- Eliminating Reason. Feelings about things were more important than objective facts.
- Eliminating Sin. Situation ethics made a sliding scale of evil with no defined right or wrong. You cannot commit a mortal sin with a single act, it occurs over time, people were told.
- Eliminating Guilt. If you act with loving concern, there is no sin (especially in fornication).
Added to this were liturgical changes, Jesus was our Brother, Friend, Pal, not the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God to judge the living and the dead. The Mass bore no resemblance to sacred action, with rock bands, hand shakes, Communion in the hand, no kneeling, and referred to a mere “bread” at the “meal.” We were even told not to kneel on two knees when attending Adoration, when a parish even had such a thing with the abandonment of the 40 Hours Devotion started by St. John Neumann. (Adoration was frowned on as a personal act, not community-oriented, I was told).
Then, of course, priests went off to study in Europe and came back to be seminary professors with the latest ideas. One told me he never contradicted the Church in his classroom, but the discussions with students afterwards were another story. What do you think the students remembered? Nuns, sans habits, attended conferences on this theory or that. Everyone wrote books to help “explain” or tear down aspects of the Faith.
With Devotions and Doctrine out of the way, Sex talk filled the void
With God out of the way, this was fertile ground for sin. Instead of cloaking themselves in the armor of Faith and Truth and Virtue, the leaders and teachers began following this secular guru or that. And then came classroom sex education, also imposed, sometimes as a condition for receiving Confirmation. No parent oversight, no parental permission sought, books not available for preview, teachers actually lying to parents about the nature of the classes. Some programs began in kindergarten. The most controversial, of course, were the fifth grade sessions on sexual intercourse. Better for the kids to learn about sex in a Catholic setting than on the street. (Never mind that the public schools were forced to move such discussions to later grades.) Sorry, my kids were more interested in their softball/baseball teams than copulation. And I, a parent of 4 at the time, was grossed out by the descriptions of sexual intercourse in Becoming a Person. (I had worked with our pastor to adapt the program to a minimally offensive form before it was used. Why he had to do it at all I don’t know, unless there was a command by diocesan higher ups.) Ten years later, with 6 kids now, same program, different school. The book had been revised to mention chastity and prayer, but the description of intercourse was even more crudely written and I removed my son from the clutches of that teacher for the term. The program was written by Fr. Walter Imbrioski, who eventually abandoned his collar and married to his co-author. A sign of the times.
Recipe for Disaster: Sex Talk Turned to Sex Acts and Abuse of Power in Religious Life
As the chapter on the priesthood in the Bellarmine Forum book, Slaying the “Spirit” of Vatican II With the Light of Truth, recounted, a priest-pedophile told of being molested at the local seminary. He said he figured that was how Father X handled his sexuality, so that was how he would handle his. Yet another priest told me he had been molested his first day at the seminary. He had nothing, absolutely nothing good to say about any leader or person of authority in our archdiocese. His violation was not reported, he kept quiet as did so many others. A certain culture must have existed within those walls that encouraged blindness and mute tongues. (see another account of this “culture” in this book review). These are accounts from the years which produced the most sex abusers in the diocese. Some seminarians left their studies because of it, others hung on in the schizophrenic atmosphere that openly taught against the teachings of the Church. The scenario was repeated across the country. If you harbor doubts, check the chapter, “The Church in the Modern World As I Lived It,” by Fr. Timothy Sauppé in Slaying the “Spirit.” (preview the chapter here)
Small wonder, then, that the Archdiocese of Boston imploded in 2002 under the weight of its clergy sins, as did the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis ten years later. Small wonder many more dioceses bowed under the weight of evil within in intervening years, even to today. As the cops on TV say: means, opportunity, motivation. A priest had a wide field of operation; many opportunities within schools, sacristies, confessionals; and motivation, perhaps engulfed in the cycle of thinking “I’ll quit after just one more” incident of touching, exposing, kissing. Or not.
The Remedy: Bring the Living God back to the forefront
Where was God in all of this dirt? Certainly not in the forefront of many clerical minds. Nothing was sacred any more. The companion piece to this article, “Humanism and the Sacred,” was written in 1969 by Msgr. Richard Schuler, a true follower of the decrees of Vatican II, offering Latin Masses and music by the great composers in his church. [ed. note. this companion article will be posted on Easter Monday, come back to read it!] Msgr. Schuler clearly shows how Faith was undermined, how man replaced God as the center of worship then, and as we sadly look back, for decades.
Lies, Sex, Abuse of Power, Loss of Faith, Evil. And the gravest of these is loss of Faith as Benedict wrote. The false “spirit” of Vatican II and the Council of the Media ran with new thoughts about updating, conforming to the world, and, above all, changing the Faith. But that “spirit” was only an abscess coming to a head. The infection was brewing a long time before. Imagine my surprise to find the following description in The Left Hand of God, published in 1951. The man, a fallen-away Catholic pretending to be the priest, was hearing the confessions of the villagers, with all their base sins and wickedness:
Their faith cried out as loudly as did their sins, but Carmody did not hear the cry of faith for a long time. He was overwhelmed by the reality of what he had come to consider an abstraction. The “tolerance” of the intellectual world that he had discovered outside of college, before the war and after, had found amusement in the idea of sin. One had drives and compulsions, urges and frustrations, inferiorities, a wide range of complexes conditioned in youthful environments, but one did not sin. That was a medieval concept that was slowly dying in a liberal age – an age that accepted, through the filter of their disciples, both Kant and Schopenhauer, that bowed down to Freud, that marched under a wide variety of bright, smug banners to the great red throne of Karl Marx. Carmody, who had fallen into step with the parade, scarcely knowing that he had done so, could see the marching now.
The intellectuals and the liberals who scorned the idea of sin had never sat in a confessional….– The Left Hand of God, William E. Barrett, Doubleday and Co., New York, 1951
“Ultimately,” Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “the reason [for all of this hideous evil] is the absence of God.”
And how to change this scenario, to reclaim the sacred and man’s dignity? The New York Times piece suggested Pope Francis is stymied by this question. A closer look at Msgr. Schuler’s “Humanism and the Sacred,” suggests a reversal of the steps that destroyed Faith in the first place. Place God at the center of worship and life.
Can God reach out and touch the couch potato Catholics? The ones whose grandparents are my age, those who overthrew belief for the birth control pill and followed their consciences; whose children came up in the black hole of doctrine-less catechetics and did their own thing; and their children who are now those whose eyes never leave the cellphones – one asked the confirmation teacher what Stations were, what the crucifixion was.
This will be no easy task. The formality of the liturgy has slipped, choked by the strumming guitars and clap of the drums. The sacredness of the space has slipped – my daughter is still talking about the people running across the front of the church to demonstrate “welcoming” (see my post, “I Am Done”). We have slipped into a comfort zone.
At a National Wanderer Forum, Fr. Joseph Wilson once commented that people found it easier to relate to Christ as the dead man on the cross than to Him as a living Being. You don’t have to interact with a dead man, but those who are alive make demands on us.
Msgr. Schuler, writing in Sacred Music (Spring, 1979) had an idea about this:
As a pastor I have often wondered what keeps so many people from truly coming to an experience of God and His love for mankind. What makes Him so remote from their lives, and why is it that they often do not find Him, especially at the times when they need Him most, the moments of suffering, pain, trial, stress and sorrow? Why is it that so few Catholics today know contemplation as a form of prayer? More and more I find that the answer lies in the ugliness which surrounds us and veils God from our lives. The barrage of the secular, the banal and the ugly that the mass media spew over the whole country every hour of the day and night pollutes the Christian community, and that smog keeps us from God.Msgr. Schuler Sacred Music (Spring, 1979).
Indeed, restoring God in society appears to be the only way out of this mess. We need to tear down the veils that shield us from God and embrace Christ our Savior, not as a dead man, but alive and well and holding us accountable. Martha told Jesus when He arrived in Bethany, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yes, if Jesus had been here ,… ah!, but He was, ignored, hidden, and many souls were lost. The answer to our current problem is the same as at Bethany. Jesus called out to Lazarus, “Come forth.” And Lazarus came, a creature blessed with new life. Christ is calling out to us to come forth, to rise from the dead of our woeful culture and take up new life in Him.
Who among us will take that first step?
This is Part I of a series!
Part II is here: Humanism and the Sacred
Part III is here: Banishment of Religion from the Public View: Dark Victory of the Enlighment
This article, On Benedict, Francis, and Sin is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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