Friday, July 27, 2018

Traditional spirituality is part of the solution to the abuse crisis, not part of the problem

Fr Richard Bailey of the Manchester Oratory celebrates Mass for the St Catherine's Trust
Summer School in St Winifride's, Holywell, in Wales
As regular readers know, I have from time to time addressed the claim that 'traditional' spirituality and attitudes are part of the cause of clerical abuse. This idea, more often assumed than stated clearly, is part of the reason why the liberal mainstream media has been more comfortable reporting abuse, and failures to deal with abuse, by bishops and indeed Popes regarded as conservative. To make a fuss over Archbishop Rembert Weakland, whose homosexual affairs were as notorious as his dissent from the teaching of the Church and his wreckovation of his Cathedral, ran against the narrative. It seems to have left editors scratching their heads and wondering how to play the story. They are still doing so today with stories about Cardinal McCarrick.

The power of the 'media narrative' is extraordinary, and needs explaining. Here's an article which says the American media is so inward-looking they suffer from group-think. But the attitude which this narrative reflects is also found in the Church.

I want to say something about the association of ideas at work here, making use of things I have already written on this blog.

First a disclaimer: whatever I say below should not be taken as a denial that immoral behaviour and various kinds of abuse can happen in the context of the traditional liturgy and spirituality. Abusive behaviour is not officially sanctioned by any strand of opinion in the Church, so an abuser is always going to have some strange, self-justifying, ideas. Such ideas can and have been put forward in what would otherwise be a traditionalist milieu, just as they have in what would otherwise be a  theologically liberal milieu. The case of Carlos Urrutigoity is Exhibit A here; there are other cases. I'm not going to wallow in the details, but neither am I going to brush this under the carpet.

Back to this association of traditional attitudes and abuse. It works as follows. Traditional morality is about suppressing, sublimating, and channelling desires (/appetites /passions), so that desires, which are not under the direct control of reason, can be brought under the indirect control of reason. The principle applies to all desires, but the most powerful of them are sexual. Aristotle gave a philosophical account of the process of the training of the moral agent through the formation of habits, which has been adopted by the Catholic tradition, but the basic idea is found in all traditional societies and the Bible, even if the details about when it is permissible to act on a desire for this or that object has varied. Against this, we have the thought, not original to but articulated most clearly by Freud, that psychological problems, especially those involving sexuality, are the result of sexual repression. I will call this 'the Freudian principle'. On this view, suppressing, sublimating and channelling powerful desires leads to uncontrollable outbursts and harmful behaviour. They need, instead, an outlet.

A neat illustration of the clash between the two approaches is the long-running debate about whether sex-offenders in prison should be supplied with pornography. To anyone with a traditional or Aristotelian way of thinking, the proposal appears utterly insane. To those influenced by the Freudian principle, it is obvious, humane, and necessary. Oh, and the latter has zero empirical support. It is pure dogma.

The Freudian principle also influences the post-war theory of 'the rigid personality', whose patterns of thought and terms of art are echoed, as I have argued, in the words of Pope Francis, and of many of his generation. Its influence was great in the 1960s and 1970s, just when this generation was most open to influence, and when the Church's defences were very low. (See this thread.) The theory was developed to explain the rise of Nazism by Theodore Adorno, who connected what he called 'authoritarianism' with conventional morality. Adorno and his followers saw Nazism as a refuge for people with weak egos, who could only cope with the world in the context of strict rules, slavish obedience to which promised the approval of their colleagues and superiors. Since these rules are repressive, the scene is set for brutality. This is admittedly the simplified, cartoon-version of the theory, but it is in this boiled-down form that we find it being repeated by seminary rectors and the like thirty years later. A concern to keep old-fashioned rules is an indication of psychological weakness, or worse.

The genuine insight in Adorno's theory is that conformists can be attracted to rule-governed, hierarchical organisations, and that this is a problem because (to simplify) conformists are not good in a crisis. If you take away the Freudian principle, the assumption that traditional restrictions on sexuality and other things are psychologically damaging in themselves, we are left with the reality that conformism can manifest itself in relation to any set of rules. The extreme end of the psychology of conformism is exemplified by cults, which commonly have totally novel rules of behaviour. It can very easily be exemplified in Communist systems where conventional morality is largely rejected, or for that matter in institutions characterised by liberal Catholic theology.

This is important, because it is undeniable that there was a lot of conformism in the Church in the early and mid-20th century, and a central part of the Traditionalist understanding of history is that conformist bishops and priests were incapable of responding appropriately to the crisis which followed the Second Vatican Council. The Catholics of today who are trying to recover some of the spirituality and moral outlook of the pre-conciliar era are not conformists: they are rebelling against a brutally imposed and rigidly enforced non-traditional set of rules, in the secular sphere and in most institutions of the Church. The conformism of the last generation before the Council holds no attraction for them, even if what that generation was were conforming to, such as Thomism or the Divine Office, does pique their interest. Thomism and the Divine Office obviously have no internal connection with conformism, in the sense in play here. They originated in an era completely different from the stifling atmosphere of the 1950s.

If you find that last paragraph incomprehensible, try to keep in mind these points.

1) It is possible to be a conformist in relation to a wide range of systems of rules, not only rules which are chosen to oppress, but perfectly reasonable rules, and even rules designed to liberate. Conformism will lead to an unhealthy attitude to the rules and an incapacity to use their underlying principles to deal with unexpected situations.

2) Only if you accept the Freudian principle (that keeping your hands off your spouse's best friend is, to quote that liberating, artsy, film Two Girls and a Guy, a form of self-mutilation), will you assume that there is any intrinsic connection between a moral system which seeks to channel sexual impulses in a way which is not utterly destructive of society, on the one hand, and 'rigidity', oppression, abuse, and violence, on the other.

The oppression and abuse which took place in dioceses, religious communities, and of course in non-Catholic contexts, from the early 20th century onwards, was crucially facilitated by conformism. I don't think anyone would dispute that. What is equally clear is that the kind of conformism necessary for the cover-up culture did not disappear with the Council (in the Church) or the Sexual Revolution (in the World), but carried on, and indeed is clearly alive and well to this day. In a crisis, conformists cling to procedures and denounce whistle-blowers. They value the opinions of their peers and superiors more highly than the welfare of their subordinates. They back away from difficult tasks and gravitate towards easy or impossible ones. Yes, all the signs are there.

We can use this dismal history to test the truth of the Freudian principle itself. Is abuse more likely in the context of a moral theory in which sexual urges are repressed? As far as the records go (they are of limited value in my view), we can trace Catholic clergy abuse cases from the early 20th century to a peak at the end of the 1970s, and a decline thereafter. This is precisely the era in which the 'repressive' model was replaced by a Freudian model of morality in the Church: not in official teachings, but in seminary teaching, guidance for priests, and the attitude of most, if not all, bishops.

The triumph of the Freudian principle in the Church has been illustrated in detail by the book After Ascetism by the (American) Linacre Centre (2006). In 1958 the Catholic priest and psychiatrist T.V. Moore published Heroic Sanctity and Insanity, the last of his books. It describes the conflict between Freudianism, and aspects of other fashionable theories, with the Church's teaching and practice. This is obvious, right? In the last analysis the Freudian principle is not compatible with clerical celibacy. Moore makes the case that ascetic practices and prayer are, contrary to those theories, psychologically helpful. However, a decade later, when the US Catholic bishops commissioned a report into the psychological health of the priesthood, they chose a researcher completely in hock to the Freudian principle, Eugene Kennedy. The Kennedy report, which came out in 1972, did not even ask about priests' spiritual lives and practices (After Asceticism, p.49). Nor did it gather any data on priests' sexual orientation or their sexual activities. In short, it is impossible to look in its findings for correlations between anything thrown up by the interviews and actual outcomes. Kennedey's own conclusion was that priests should be told to chill out.

There is little indication that American priests would exercise freedom in any impulsive or destructive way. (After Asceticism p52)

This, of course, was at the very moment of the acceleration of the abuse pandemic.

Kennedy's approach is found again and again in later officially approved and officially influential studies. The famous 2004 John Jay report, for example, which perforce had to survey cases of abuse, presented no data on spiritual practice or lack thereof, and presented its data on cases of abuse in such a way that no correlations could be investigated between abuse and dioceses or seminaries. The dogmatic, fingers-in-the-ears determination of these researchers to consider only 'repression' as a possible cause of abuse served as no impediment to their being retained as advisers to the bishops in the lead up to, during, and after, the sex abuse crisis of 2002. Again, it is to institutions wedded to the same Freudian principle that clerical abusers have been sent by their bishops to help them recover.

If ever a hypothesis has been tested to destruction, it is surely this one: that spiritual self-discipline, asceticism, and traditional moral standards made abuse more likely. Might it be time to reconsider the wisdom of the centuries, in light, for example, of modern research confirming what all the spiritual masters said, that fasting reduces sexual appetites? Perhaps they weren't such fools after all. Might it not be time to bring back into focus spiritual, as well as purely natural, factors in the psychological health of clergy and laity? In short, might it not be opportune to reconsider traditional spirituality and practice?

Traditional spirituality is not magic. The process by which desires not under the direct control of reason can be brought under its indirect control, even with the help of God's grace, takes time, and even those seriously addressing themselves to this in their lives do not always complete the process before they die. Furthermore, as we are discovering with the box-ticking approach to child protection, any disciplinary system can be subverted by moral cowardice and conformism. However, that observation should not stop us preferring a better disciplinary system to a worse one.

St Dunstan bests the Devil

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  1. By the way, your link in the 7th paragraph beginning, "The Freudian principle also influences the post-war theory..." is dead.