The Catholic Church both in Australia and America is facing perhaps its greatest crisis in centuries as it struggles to cope with revelations of abuse by its clergy.
Here in Australia, Broken Rights, the support group for people abused by clergy, estimates that at least 76 priests or brothers have been convicted in the courts for abuse. Many others may go through the courts undetected as religious. Is it really likely that these were all ‘bad’ people or are they in some sense victims too of the Church’s training and culture?
While not condoning the behaviour of those committing the abuse, I do not believe these clergy started out as ‘bad’ people per se. In a climate of repressed sexuality and belief in their own non-accountability, they developed abusive behaviours.
Surely though, the Church as an organisation bears some of the blame for the unravelling of public trust and confidence. It worries me now that the Church hierarchy in its rush to save its image, is determined to cast aside another set of victims —namely the perpetrators of these terrible crimes.
Recently the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas agreed to bar paedophile priests from acting as clerics. Isn’t this a bit like throwing the crew off a sinking ship because they alone are responsible for the sinking? Nobody appears to be asking what is causing the sinking in the first place? It cannot be denied that women and children have suffered most at the hands of abusing clergy. So to continue the analogy, the cry of ‘women and children first’, in this case, means into the sea, not into the lifeboats. The question remains, is the Church prepared to lay the blame only on individual priests and brothers and take no blame to itself as an institution?
Why is it that the Church seems prepared to judge and condemn individual members of clergy and not question its own structures and use of power? Does the Church believe it is above the courts of the world? Here is the opportunity for the Church as institution to let go some power and influence and join the real world. There used to be an old religious admonition, which said: ‘in the world but not of the world.’ The challenge for the Church may be to let itself be dragged kicking and screaming into a world where misuse of power, corruption and non-accountability is no longer acceptable. Other institutions are going through this purification process. Why not the Church?
I was nurtured in a Catholic family and educated by nuns and brothers, yet am now someone who feels detached from the Church as institution. I was a Catholic priest and taught what the church expected. Now I have come to the conclusion that the Church’s attitude to sex and sexuality has been deeply flawed and may be a contributing factor in the current crisis.
I was taught in the seminary to warn people about the dangers of ‘occasion of sin’ and of sexual desire. I tried to repress that desire in myself. It seems ironic now that a Church, which was so hung up on its attitude to sex and sexuality should be called to account for the sexual abuse of those for whom it was responsible.
Traditional Christianity has always been uncompromising in its separation of body and soul. The soul was something noble and pure and the body was somehow inferior, something that threatened to highjack the soul and drag it down. The body in this tradition has always been at the service of the soul, ministering to its needs and subjugating its desires to the higher spiritual good. Virginity was always regarded as the highest vocation in the church. Virgin martyrs always topped the list of saints. Celibacy was the prerequisite for holding official positions.
Even now, when our maturing society is learning to integrate sexual needs into life, most religions still seem uneasy with the body and its wants. Sexual desire, if not feared and repressed, must be ringed around with rules and strictures and even then only within a structured traditional family context.
Eroticism is not regarded by the Church as something to be celebrated. God and Eros remain uneasy bed-partners. Homosexuality is still seen as a perversion. Whereas, the real perversion lies in denying equal rights in the Church to gay believers. Be a gay cleric if you must but don’t express it, is the Church’s admonition. There is grudging acceptance of the homosexuality but not a celebration of it. Celibacy still remains a sine qua non for entrance into the clerical state. No discussion. End of the argument. The rigidity of the church’s centralised authority however puts it out of step with newer scientific and social understandings of the place of sexual health and maturity in our lives.
Shortly after I left the priesthood (and the Church), I came across the writings of Carl Jung. He too was searching for spiritual meaning and he called that search ‘the process of individuation.’ For Jung, this process meant integrating the ‘shadows’ or the repressed elements of our lives, not denying them. He believed this work was essential for sanity and by association spirituality.
In my experience, the denial of the sexual as a prerequisite for celibacy and office within the church led to depression and paranoia. Downright unhappiness. Advice given us in the seminary training of the 1960s was certainly bizarre. I remember a professor of Moral Theology warning: ‘If you are in a group of people and a woman falls over, don’t pick her up. Let someone else do that. Otherwise it may lead to an occasion of sin.’ How could this advice possibly develop healthy attitudes to women and sexuality? Many clerics grew up in this distorted world of sex and sexuality.
I wonder whether enforced celibacy —a condition for clerical service in the church— could at least be partially responsible for some of the tragic cases of sexual abuse by clergy. Of course it’s probably not that simple. Paedophiles can be married too. However, I can’t believe that the perpetrators of this terrible abuse are all bad people. Undeniably they entered into the Church with great dedication but underdeveloped sexually and psychologically. The system has failed them too as much as it failed those in their care.
Jung believed that a denial of the repressed elements—erotic desire, anger, and grief— gave them a power of their own, greater than they deserved. For me Jung was saying: ‘Face the repressed parts of yourself and embrace them as friends. Then just get on with your life.’ Jung believed that the ‘shadow’ or unconscious often revealed itself in dreams as a male person. This shadow was ‘merely somewhat inferior, primitive, unadapted and awkward, not wholly bad.’ I began taking more notice of my dreams.
So, it was all about integration not separation and denial. The hunt was on to track down the ‘shadows’ and embrace them as friends. This process took me a number of years. I kept a diary of my dreams. I learnt to identify shadow-people from my dreams as new companions. Anger. Desire. Lust. Sorrow. I learned to be more at ease with my sensual and erotic feelings.
I soon discovered too that not all religions had adopted the ‘noli me tangere’ (don’t touch) approach to the erotic. Some religions had even elevated the phallus to the status of a god. Strong traditions, which celebrated the phallus as a symbol of creative energy, are evident throughout Egypt, Greece, India and northern Europe. In Egypt as well as the Greco-Roman world, the phallus was considered to have attributes to dispel dark and demonic forces. Did these cultures have an understanding of the human condition, which we conveniently papered over?
Jung believed that the animal (or raw desire) was often the pre-stage to the god and that to repress animal desires totally could be dangerous for the health of the psyche.
‘I look into the face of the beast and know he is my brother—myself’ says Frances G. Wickes in The Inner World of Choice, a book, which introduced me to the implications of Jung’s psychology for the spiritual search.
For Jung, the search for a spiritual meaning rides the same track as the journey to mental health. They are one and the same pilgrimage. A healthy dose of the sensual and erotic, integrated into life, might still in fact be a way to god after all. It was for me.
Perhaps the Church as an institution still has time to undertake a similar pilgrimage. I believe it should certainly undertake a very serious examination of its structure, attitudes to power and the participation of lay people in decision-making. This is an opportunity for the Church to ask wider questions. How could well-intentioned, dedicated men trained for many years in philosophy and theology turn into devouring wolves instead of the shepherds of the flock they were meant to be?
Was it the structure of the system, which helped to make them so?