Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gerald Warner on the sex-abuse scandal

Gerald Warner has generated a lot of comment with his rumbustious post suggesting that clerical sex abuse was fed by the more general crisis following Vatican II.

Much of what he says is true, and well expressed. Putting the current scandal into a wider context is exactly what is needed, in order to understand it.

But let me take that a little further. Fr Ray Blake points out that some of the sex abuse cases date from the 1950s, and this seems to stop Warner's analysis in its tracks. But the wider point is, to put it paradoxically, the post-Vatican II crisis did not start with Vatican II. If it had, then the things which happened after the Council, and indeed many of the things which happened during the Council, could not have happened.

This is true even in terms of the liturgy: permissions were being handed out by the Holy See all over the world for practices we think of as post-conciliar. It is true doctrinally: although the Holy Office, under Cardinal Ottaviani, was keeping a lid on things much more effectively in the 1950s than was the case later, dissent among theologians was rife, and when the world's most interesting theologians were gathered in Rome for the Council, the Acts of the Council record the continuous effort of emmendation necessary to keep the more crazy ideas out of the final documents.

And it is true in terms of clerical discipline. Freud's influence was enormous in the 1950s. The idea that all problems are the result of sexual repression was widespread among the intelligencia; it simply hadn't spread to popular culture. The apogee of vocations in the middle of the century itself suggests a certain reckless expansionism among religious orders and dioceses, and a failure of quality control.

The same battle was being fought then as is being fought now: between the traditional teaching and spirituality of the Church, and a set of ideas derived from 'progressive' secular thinking on sex, self-control, the reality of the supernatural, and how to 'sell' the faith the 'young'. The sex abuse may not have started in 1965, but it remains bound up with the progressive thinking which was latent before the Council, and triumphed after it.

And here is something else. Warner tells us that the only functioning aspect of clerical discipline exercicesd by bishops in the Council's aftermath was the unjust repression of the Traditional . Latin Mass. This is a simplification. In actual fact, a huge number of changes wrought by priests and bishops following the Council were rammed through in a breathtaking display of clerical power. The imposition of the 1969 Missal, as has often been pointed out, was the most extreme exercise of Papal authority in the history of the Church. It would have been simply inconceivable to Innocent III, the most powerful Pope of the Middle Ages. After the Council power was used recklessly: think of the destruction of church buildings, changes to devotional practices, reforms of the Rules of religious orders. It was of course sincerely believed to be for the good of the Church, but it was used without consultation or constraint to make irreverable changes which broke the hearts of millions of faithful Catholics, and did great damage to the Church. This is a characteristic of the 20th Century Church, not only of the post- or pre-Conciliar period.

The sex abuse scandal is not just about the lack of discipline imposed by bishops over their priests. It is about the abuse of clerical power. Sex abuse is itself about the abuse of power: the power of a teacher or a parent, or the power of a priest, over a child. The bishops whose response to the situation has caused the Holy Father such grief went on to abuse their power in other ways: to protect their priests, they imposed silence on the victims and their families, they disciplined whistle-blowers, and they moved abusive clergy to new positions. James Preece has written about this phenonemon here, calling it a 'culture favourable to abuse'.

Bishops and religious superiors were doing this before the Council, and they did it more and more as the situation deteriorated after it. This is not the traditional situation in the Church, it is a 20th Century abberation. Thankfully, it is crumbling today, because bishops and superiors no longer command the deference, legal privilege or resources to behave in this way.

The abuse of power may not seem like a 'progressive' phenonomenon, and of course power can be used for different purposes. But 'progressive' ideas by their nature do not come from the bottom up; they are dreamt up by an intellectual elite, which then seeks power to impose them from the top down. The concentration of clerical power in the 20th Century made the destruction of traditional liturgy and spirituality possible, while at the same time incubating of the sex abuse crisis.


  1. Rubricarius3:13 pm

    A reappraisal of the liturgical changes of the 1950s is both long overdue and apposite.  The poignancy of those changes certainly is felt by me at least at this time of the Liturgical Year.

  2. James Preece9:29 am

    Thanks for the link, but I actually called it "a culture favourable to abuse"... e.g abuse of all kinds. The sex abuse thing is one instance of a more general problem and the Bishop's solution is not to fix the problem but to say "hey, let's continue to cover up abuse of clerical power just as long as it isn't the kind that costs us money in compensation to the victims"

  3. Kevin5:22 pm

    I agree.  The post Vatican II crisis didn't start with Vatican II.  It started with the Church's refusal to obey Our Lady of Fatima's requests, frm 1917 onwards. www.fatima.org

  4. Joseph Shaw12:52 pm

    Sorry, James, I've corrected it now.

    That was exactly my point - the abuse has not been exclusively sexual.