The Catholic church’s scandal: modern crisis, ancient roots

The sexual violation of young people within the Catholic church is the poisonous legacy of a long tradition of contempt for human sexuality in an institution which has privileged secrecy and unaccountable power over transparency and participation. But the silence and darkness revealed by the scandal must not be allowed to define the majority of Catholics who are the living church, says Tina Beattie.

The scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic church as a result of the exposure of widespread and long-lasting sexual abuse of children and young people by priests in a number of countries created a global media and political firestorm around the institution. Many analysts and commentators have reached for images such as “tsunami” to describe what is happening. Two eminent church historians not given to hyperbole – Diarmaid MacCulloch and Michael Walsh – have described it as the worst crisis facing the Catholic church since the 16th-century reformation (see Michael Walsh, “The Vatican’s fix: abuse and renewal”, 22 March 2010).  

However, I am not convinced that the Vatican is yet aware of what a challenge this scandal poses to its authority and moral credibility. Rome’s smooth-talking representatives are capable of astounding feats of verbal dexterity when it comes to refusing to fully acknowledge the culpability of those responsible for decades of evasion and concealment. Moreover, some attempts to target the media show the Vatican hierarchy to be profoundly out of touch with the perceptions and values of everyday people.

The failure of leadership

Undoubtedly the sex-abuse scandal has provided a smokescreen for the expression of anti-Catholic sentiments, but in this case there really is no smoke without fire. There was widespread public outrage when Pope Benedict XVI’s preacher, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the treatment of the Catholic hierarchy to the persecution of the Jews, and the pope sought to distance himself from these remarks. But for one of the most influential men in the Vatican to liken the church’s elite to innocent victims of a pogrom or a campaign of persecution shows an ongoing failure of moral judgment, and a refusal to accept that it is in fact being held to account for a catastrophic failure in the exercise of leadership.

If they are to respond effectively to this crisis then they need to do much more than simply create more effective systems of reporting and control, for the current scandal has its roots deep in the church’s attitudes towards the related issues of sexuality and power, and it will take a leader of quite remarkable courage, wisdom and vision to address that fundamental problem. Unfortunately, having been part of the problem for so long, it is questionable whether the church’s current leadership can now become part of the solution. 

Whatever Pope Benedict XVI did or did not know about cases of sexual abuse when (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it is known that he was a zealous authoritarian when it came to defending the doctrinal absolutism of the church’s teaching on issues such as contraception and abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. The institutional paralysis which gripped the Catholic hierarchy when dealing with sexually abusing priests does not seem to have affected its ability to respond with ruthless efficiency when it came to disciplining priests and theologians who brought informed intellectual criticism to bear on these most neuralgic aspects of Catholic doctrine. The censuring by the Ratzinger-led CDF of respected theologians such as Charles Curran, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx and Leonardo Boff might be compared with the far more lenient and covert treatment of priests who were found guilty of abusing children.  

The problem of power

If the current crisis is to usher in a genuine process of change, then there needs to be far greater collaboration by the Vatican, not just with local bishops’ conferences (although that might be a start), but with academic theologians, lay Catholic communities, and most especially with women. Part of the reason why this scandal continued for so long with such little public exposure and accountability can be attributed to the fact that the leadership of the Catholic church has become concentrated in the hands of a secretive and isolated Magisterium which is less and less able to listen to and learn from those outside its own closed ranks of celibate men.  

This is not to suggest that celibacy per se is the cause of sexual abuse. If it were, then there would be few cases of child sexual abuse in modern secular societies, which afford ample opportunities for the expression of adult sexuality. The problem is any situation in which sexually immature or dysfunctional individuals are in positions which allow them to exercise power over the vulnerable and the powerless within closed and unaccountable communities, and this is the kind of culture which prevails in too many Catholic institutions.  

It is not just that the Catholic priesthood in its present formation and structure risks attracting men lacking sexual maturity, it is that the Catholic spiritual tradition is in itself potentially damaging to our understanding of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. Catholicism is heir to a long tradition in which sexual desire has been portrayed as the enemy of those who seek spiritual union with God. In a religion in which the main focus has been the development of men’s spirituality through the suppression of their sexuality, this has meant that male priests and monks have regarded the sexual female body as the greatest threat to their spiritual well-being, and the control of female sexuality has been and continues to be a major preoccupation. This in turn leads to the accumulation of power over other people’s bodies, it allows men to believe that their primary spiritual responsibility lies in the area of sexual discipline, and the use of power becomes a means to inhibit and punish sexual desire.

It is not difficult to see how this might create a dark spiral of temptation, guilt and punishment focused on the “sin” of sexual arousal and the bodies which cause it - whether those are the bodies of women, children or men, or indeed one’s own (which becomes subject to extravagant masochistic practices of chastisement). Nor is it hard to see why one consequence of this tradition is a few dozen celibate men in Rome believing they have God-given moral authority over the sexual and reproductive bodies of all the women in the world. 

In other words, the current crisis is the poisonous legacy of a long tradition of contempt for human sexuality in an institution which has privileged secrecy, self-interest and unaccountable power over transparency, dialogue and democratic participation.

It is disingenuous to suggest that the crisis is a consequence of secularisation and modernity, or of the liberalisation which followed the Second Vatican Council – both suggestions made by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter of 19 March 2010 to the Irish church. If we want to understand what is happening today, we need to recognise that for much of its history Catholic spirituality has been in bondage to a pathologically dysfunctional attitude to sex.  In the past this has been targeted primarily at women but today homosexuals are also included, perhaps because dramatic transformations in western society mean that homosexual bodies have also become highly visible sources of temptation for a religious hierarchy which includes many homosexuals among its ranks. So the “problem” of homosexuality has now been added to the age-old “problem” of female sexuality with which the men of the church must do battle. It is hardly surprising that the most radical Catholic theologians today are feminists and gays.  

The cost of repression

It is worth noting by way of a relevant aside that, while the current scandal includes cases of abuse of young children, Catholic priests are statistically less likely to be guilty of paedophilia than the male population at large. Most cases have involved pederasty, which is the sexual abuse of adolescent males. In every culture young pubescent boys can become sources of sexual attraction for men, and Catholic institutional life provides the ideal conditions within which such attraction might flourish. To say this is not to say that homosexuality is the root of the problem any more than celibacy is, and the latest attempt by the senior Vatican official Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to shift the blame onto homosexuality is yet another example of curial dissimulation. However, the combination of an increasingly liberal secular culture and an increasingly repressive Catholic hierarchy is likely to increase the problems associated with homosexual priests in particular.

In his letter to the Irish church, Pope Benedict acknowledges the need for better methods of recruiting and training priests, and it is clear from some of his earlier statements that this means a more vigorous vetting of homosexual candidates for the priesthood. But the church’s refusal to accept same-sex relationships means that devout homosexual men sometimes seek refuge from their own repressed sexuality by becoming priests, for if they have to be celibate they might as well be priests. The current generation of seminarians and newly ordained priests includes a depressing number of austerely repressed and repressive young men, while some Catholic seminaries have become home to gay subcultures.

Mark Dowd, himself a gay Catholic and former seminarian, made a documentary in 2001 entitled Queer and Catholic (shown on Britain’s Channel 4 station) in which a few brave and honest priests described some of their own experiences and the practices they had witnessed in seminaries. Perhaps most shocking of all was the revelation that some seminarians regard cruising and promiscuity as acceptable, so long as they don’t fall in love. It is hard to imagine a more perverse distortion of the Gospel or a more effective way of perpetuating sexual abuse than the idea that using another person for sex is fine so long as love is not involved.

I am not of course making the absurd suggestion that such attitudes are intentionally inculcated in the training of seminarians. I am however suggesting that they may be the unfortunate consequence of a religious regime that has yet to find a way of dealing with human sexuality in a mature and informed way rooted in the realities of people’s experiences of sexual love in all its complexity – women as well as men, homosexual as well as heterosexual. 

The refusal to listen

My fear in all this is that the sex-abuse scandal will be dealt with but the root problem will be ignored, and this has particular implications for women and girls in the church. The sexual exploitation of women and girls by priests has barely featured in coverage of the current scandal, even although it is an endemic problem.

In 2001, senior leaders of women’s religious orders presented evidence to Rome of the widespread rape and abuse of nuns by priests, with a particular problem in Africa which has no cultural tradition of celibacy and where the threat of HIV and Aids means that priests are more likely to have sex with nuns than prostitutes. The Vatican acknowledged the problem and there was a brief flurry of media interest, but this is a scandal which has disappeared without trace. What mechanisms of repression and denial allowed the men in Rome to ignore these complaints and suppress the voices of those who spoke out on behalf of the victims? It seems as if rape, abuse and sexual exploitation are tolerable so long as they are only targeted at women and girls. 

The church has all the resources it needs to deal with the roots of this problem in a way that would ensure long-term effective transformation of its practices and institutions. Catholicism is home to many women and men who have learned how to live and love as sexual beings in spite of rather than thanks to the church’s teachings, and who have a wealth of experience and insight to offer.

There are more women theologians and biblical scholars today than at any time in history, and yet not a single one of these has ever been quoted or cited in any papal document, nor are they consulted in the formulation of the church’s doctrines and teachings. There are thousands of women’s religious communities around the world led by strong, educated women which have yet to gain any effective representation in the Vatican - indeed, in the midst of the sex-abuse scandal the men in Rome have still found time to launch an investigation into women’s religious communities in the United States, in order to weed out those guilty of what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls a “feminist spirit” and a “secularist mentality”.

There are many homosexual men and women who could lead the church from a climate of suspicion, fear and denial to one of acceptance, wisdom and integrity, based on their experience of coming to terms with and accepting their sexuality as a gift from God. And there are many women and married men who could bring new visions and opportunities to the Catholic understanding of priesthood, if only they were invited to participate. The problem is not a lack of available wisdom, but a refusal to listen and to learn by those who think they already know it all. 

Out of the darkness

I know from many private conversations that there are priests and nuns, bishops and teachers in the Catholic church who would agree with much of what I’ve written here, but they cannot say so publicly for they do not enjoy the kind of protection which has been offered to abusers and rapists. When a priest or nun dares to question or speak out publicly against the church’s teachings on questions such as contraception, the use of condoms in the prevention of HIV and Aids, or the plight of women living in countries in which contraception is unavailable and abortion is illegal (often as a result of pressure from the Catholic church), if they seek to express the belief that homosexual love is holy and given by God, or if they express support for women’s ordination, they are likely to suffer swift and draconian retribution. I hope that I speak with as well as for that silenced and often frustrated majority of Catholic men and women, priests, religious and laity alike. We are all the church. We must not let ourselves be defined by the powers of silence, fear and darkness.





About the author

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Read On

Tina Beattie, New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005)

Tina Beattie

The Tablet

Kayzam Farzaneh, "The Catholic Church's Latest Abuse Scandals" (Foreign Policy, 16 March 2010)

Catholic News Service

Ladislas Orsy, Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates (Liturgical Press, 2009)

John W O'Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Leon J Podles, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Crossland, 2007)

More On

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words” (17 September 2006)

Veiling the issues: a distractive debate” (24 October 2006)

Religion in Britain in the Blair era” (10 January 2007)

Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa” (14 February 2007)

The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists’ and democracy” (20 December 2007)

Rowan Williams and sharia law” (12 February 2008)

The dark (k)night of a postmodern world” (21 August 2008)

Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London” (6 November 2008)

Banksy in Bristol” (24 June 2009)

"Antichrist: the visual theology of Lars von Trier" (13 August 2009)