A Church That Kills

The revelations of abuse never cease. These are not only isolated incidents, but a whole system of failure, including organized trafficking in women, right in the heart of the institution. Whether it be the “Child Protection Summit” held in Rome, the “Synodal Process” in Germany, or a convicted French cardinal who may not resign – the Church leadership continues to run on sight. “However, our analysis needs to be more decisive,” says Daniel Bogner.

Just how dark is the place to where abuse has led the Church? Revelations, confessions and reports about the unspeakable are never-ending. Even now, bishops speak of “systematic abuse condition”. A recent ARTE documentary report (Nuns Abused by God) shows how fluid the transition is from the clergyman’s spiritual leadership to sexual abuse.

Patterns of Evil 

There are evident patterns of evil in the Church and by virtue of the Church. Take for example the Philippe family’s brothers, Marie-Dominique Philippe and Thomas Philippe from northern France; both from classically good Catholic origin. However, what yesterday was considered to be a model Christian family (seven of twelve children chose religious professions), is revealed today as a system of religious over-identification. Both brothers have made careers in the Church. They both joined the Dominicans; one became a theology professor in Fribourg, Switzerland, as well as the Spiritus rector to the Community of Saint John, founded by some of his students in the late 1970s. The other brother was a spiritual guide to the international Arche Community, founded by Jean Vanier, where disabled and non-disabled people live together.

Later, both have been accused of abuse. When one of the abused women suffered a breakdown following abuse from Marie-Dominique, she was then led by him to the his brother Thomas, who put her through similar turmoil. These are events that leave one speechless, precisely because this is not something that happened out on the fringes of the Church, but instead in the midst of a European Catholicism believed to be in step with the times and with a highly developed spiritual and social consciousness.

“Moral failure happens casually, in passing.”

Just like Doris Wagner’s comments and contributions, ARTE’s documentary provides an indispensable educative work that leads to the heart of the matter. It shows a visible Church life, in which there are no limits; while moral ruin is practiced in an unperturbed, unfeeling, almost trivial way, spiritually and theologically underpinned. Marie-Dominique Philippe from the Community of Saint John developed the spiritual elaboration of the “amour d’amitié” (friendship love), which asserts the physical-erotic overlap as part of spiritual accompaniment and a divine pedagogy.

Then, this: Religious superiors serve up young nuns to priests; the sisters’ families are then financially supported in return for sexual services – an important factor to one’s livelihood in many African countries; in order to be even destined for life in a religious order, a woman is thus expendable as a family member. Ecclesiastically supported pimping and exploitation, including forced abortion. Everything in the heart of the Catholic Church. Practiced, tolerated, admitted and sworn by the most loyal of Church officials and leaders. This is beyond words.

We Are All Involved and Responsible

Where do we stand after all this? Can we actually measure that in a precise way? We are all somehow involved in an ecclesiastical system that allows this.

Of course, this primarily addresses Church leaders. They have formal and institutional responsibility. They are the ones who first have to “deliver”. However, in every social system – and this also applies to the Church – the management staff’s leadership style and legitimacy also depends on the behavior of the “grass roots”, in this case, the people of the Church. For too long, this has just been the “people in the pews”; a taciturn social body that absorbed and processed the clergy’s spiritual instructions. It remained unchanged because the impatient ones had long since moved out of the pews and used their energy and courage elsewhere; and because those who remained were not spoiling for a fight but were resolute and good-natured, while still maintaining a spark of optimism and hope. Although, it seems that this has changed, too.

Finally, there’s also theology. This, too, has become complicit; preferring, for understandable reasons, to embark on all sorts of intellectual invitations for genuine exchange, rather than dedicating itself to cleaning the filth out of its own Augean stables. On the other hand, whoever now says, “Church – oh dear, I’m done with that, there are more interesting things than that…,” are making themselves accomplices to the present situation. The Church needs theology, more than ever. We are all responsible for the present situation, and what will follow.

“Here, you can do that!” – The Church’s Open Windows of Opportunity

There seems to be an entire ensemble of constellations and contexts that allows for abuse. This provides an opportunity structure for abuse. The individual, susceptible perpetrator profiles an invitation, suggesting, “Here you can do that!” The organization’s sustained resistance had to wait in vain, until recently. Those who hoped for indignation and the unequivocal adjustment of moral orientation through decisive protest were almost always disappointed. What a discrepancy: The Church should be proclaiming the message of life. However, for many, it has become the place to experience death; the destruction of personal integrity, the violation of human dignity and the death of one’s soul.

Can the Church regain its credibility – and thus, the only resource with which it can fulfil its vocation to missionary existence? First and foremost, it has to be honest with itself and consistent in its analysis.

The Toxic Core of the Church

It is very painful, but one has to realize that there is something resembling the dark heart of the Church – a network of interrelated attitudes, as well as a habit of the organization. This conglomeration of teaching and practices unfolds in the end; developing into a poisonous and, in certain situations, a deadly effect. This dark core is fed by different elements and factors, which intertwine again and again.

1. The Sacred Hull. Ministries’ roles and structures, in which such ministries’ roles are embedded, have become an outer surface in the course of church history, so that the Church’s vessel and hull in turn are considered as sacrosanct and venerable. There is little practice possible with such vessels – the concrete Church action – but the hull of the Church itself is regarded as the representation of the Word of God in time and history. The symbolic reinforcement of such a sacralization of a role costume, which is possible and customary in liturgical ritual, contributes in part to this phenomenon.

2. An Attitude of Reverence. Sacred forms and structure demand respect. They reinforce the sense of respect felt by many believers towards the Church’s ministries and its official leaders. There are real differences between the “The King’s Two Bodies…” (Ernst Kantorowicz), which become more and more blurred while it creates a subjects’ mentality towards the Church’s authority, which indeed “in repraesentatione Christi“” acts and makes use of its very own “sacra potestas”. How should one contradict this? Who has  wanted to demand control, or even participation here? On the other hand, there are the Church’s ministers. Some of them quickly and happily get used to the tailwind that the “consecration bonus” gives them. One can take advantage of this, if and when the other resources and tools seem inadequate.

3. The Dangerous Concept of Power. Sacralization moments have not only ensured for an iron-clad institution that is heavily armored against criticism, but also for the almost complete loss of binding control. To criticize an institution and correct its actions when it shines sacred and sanctified – is a paradox! And vice versa: Why should one divide the rule of an institution whose power is only one that has been “loaned” to it, which one has only in trust, and which emanates from a single source (claimed to be the so-called “Authority of Christ”)? Neo-Platonic substance thinking and late-ancient court ceremonials have done their part to deny a genuine separation of powers, of which even bishops, who are ready for reform, are talking about today. The Church, if it is serious about repentance, must go to school not only among the thinkers of (conscience) freedom, but equally intensively among those of political freedom (first and foremost to Montesquieu, the thinker of the separation of powers).

4. Loyalty in the Clerical Social Association. Undivided rule, reinforced by the aura of the scared and abided by the Church’s people who have no real participation status – what has been seen to date is only one side of the coin. The other side consists of specific people and church staff who carry this system and who have to “believe” in it. Through the Church’s tradition, a gender-specific filter has established itself as the dominant selection criterion for this social association. Thus, a gender-homogeneous clergy emerged, which has been also at the same time, and often indistinguishable, as a religious male circle system; with recognition and identification rituals, as well as isolationist mechanisms toward the outside world. As such a loyalty association with a decreed religious aura of determination, the clerical state offers a promise of protection and fulfillment for deficient psychosexual imprints and desires. And it transports – explicitly and implicitly – a constitutive devaluation of the opposite sex, which is often reflected in doctrine and Church practice.  

5. The Long-Term Legitimacy Spiral. There is an added factor to these elements that is not specific to the Church, but has a particular bearing on it: Wherever things grow and become established over long periods of time, a self-affirmation logic of “tradition” and long duration develop. Practices, habitual role patterns and institutional arrangements in the Church are sometimes groaning under a multifarious load of the centuries. This load develops into a seemingly legitimizing atmosphere. The open conversation on access to the ordained ministry, to the atavistic Church constitution or to the variety of sexual identities has, for a long time, seems to be breaking the taboo in this atmosphere – it is breaking the silent agreement, and that is good the way it is. Therefore, the suppression of impulses for innovation and the exertion of the long proffered human sciences knowledge has become the first nature of the Church; which is not interested in curiosity or creative experimentation.

6. A Logic that Continuously Creates Victims. These elements described here only provisionally, intertwine with each other again and again; without a fixed order and resulting in effects that go beyond what has been described. They form the dangerous core of the Church crisis. This Church feels poisoned to many people. And its crisis manifests itself in many areas. Whichever topic of the inner-Church reform debate is selected (gender relations, lay participation, parish amalgamation, priest burnout, etc.), one will come across these elements sooner or later. Abuse is the area with the most visible and arguably the most profoundly injured victims. As long as the chain reactions being produced by this fiery core over and over again are not stopped, the Church shall continuously create victims in different areas.

None of the elements mentioned here, taken individually, directly leads to abusive    behavior.   However, an internal Church culture that can be described as an opportunity structure for abuse thrives in interaction: An action area overburdened with “holiness” leads to overburdening the actors, who are mutually obliged by an existential life decision, whose failure is systematically not planned and therefore needs to be covered up. People with a certain basic predisposition are vulnerable to such “opportunities”; such as those who have a tendency towards pedophilia, as well as those who by nature keep a reasonable distance from others who are prone to cross the line. They can now easily become perpetrators.

At the same time, they are themselves victims of this toxic core of the Church. The victim’s term may be delusive at this point. He should say, the Church offers a culture that favors the perpetrator and does not set limits that would ensure that certain predispositions cannot be applied. However, all of us rely on the abysmal nature of the predispositions that lie dormant within us. That in the state and society there are mechanisms of formal control and informal social control that help us not to become perpetrators. This is where an organization that has a disturbed relationship with transparent communication, public criticism, democratic accountability and gender diversity fails. In no way is the action of such perpetrators excused. However, it sheds some light on how problematic the Church’s “systemic factors” are – in all directions.

The Next Steps

In many places around the world, the Catholic Church is currently looking at the reality of abuse it finds inside itself. The German bishops have responded to this by initiating a “Synodal Process,” whose credibility is measured by its liability. In the Diocese of Lyon (France), they are struggling to see how an authentic new beginning can succeed; if the condemned archbishop cannot resign from his office as a sign of attesting to his responsibility. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is fighting with the Pope for its package of measures against sexual abuse. African bishops in turn are asking the churches in Europe for help, because they see themselves overwhelmed with handling their own scandals. The list goes on and on. It shows a Church in trouble and without common reorientation. The Church will not find this orientation if it does not take a long, hard look inside itself at its own dark toxic core.

Many of the suggestions mentioned here are urgently needed. First and foremost, what does ‘separation of powers’ mean in a faith that assumes the Kingdom of God and the salvific effect of faith can be portrayed in terms of a sacramental role model (the ordained ministry)? Furthermore, would it not be appropriate to express the fundamental distance of the representative (such as church offices, procedures and structures) to the One represented (God), more clearly and tangibly; not only in spirituality and religious language, but also in the organizational form of the church that can be felt by the believers? How can such an ontological alleviation of the priesthood and the Church structure succeed and be socially implemented without losing its specifically Catholic character?

The Christian faith will not disappear. Although, maybe this Church will.

I am convinced that the Christian faith will not disappear from our world. The Church’s message is so strong and valuable that it will continue to move people, even if the Church has provided such adverse conditions. However, it may well be that this encounter between the Word of God and the people takes place less and less in this Church, but instead, more and more outside of its churchyards. Alternative places have long arisen and will continue to evolve, where people experience and live the liberating power of the biblical message. For church leaders, the question is: Can the Church, in continuity with its historical form, also remain or become a (perhaps, even a special) place of encounter with God by actively engaging with the need for renewal, after its abuse has been revealed?

Among the people, and not from the top looking down. The false self-perception of the Church.

The Pope’s speech at the conclusion of the Rome Abuse Summit in March 2019 was heavily criticized. However, there were others who could not understand such criticism, since the Pope had only stated in what context the events in the Church could be seen. That’s right, though. Nevertheless, the criticism applies. For it was not the content of the speech that was wrong, but the way of speaking. The Church has spoken here, as it has always been used to speaking; from a point of view that is outside of the individual social places. It claims to be able to judge the social reality on an objective scale and from the “top view”. The Church thinks it is universal, and does not realize how much it has always been only a particular actor among others. Its high moral claim is no longer taken from it, where it massively violates its own values itself, where systemic causes and failures can be identified and there are reasonable doubts whether it wants to work on these causes sustainably.

It would have been much more honest in this situation not to talk about the “others” first, but about the Church itself. The task is great enough. If the Church succeeds, who knows? “This economy kills,” the Pope said in his critical formulation concerning globalization. Today, it can likewise be said, this Church also kills.

Daniel Bogner (*1972), Chair of Moral Theology and Ethics, University of Fribourg/Switzerland. Contact: daniel.bogner@unifr.ch

Foto: Sybille Hardy / pixelio.de

Recently published on feinschwarz.net:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email