The sexual abuse crisis has been on the table in a dramatically growing way since the years of Benedict XVI. The problem is systemic and pervasive.
The public image of the Roman Catholic Church emerging out of the sexual abuse scandals is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil.
Having several top leaders (cardinals, bishops, priests) and institutions (seminaries, schools, the Vatican curia itself) incriminated for either abusing children or covering up abuse undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome.
Over the last ten years, horrible things have come out: first in Ireland, then Australia, then Chile, and more recently in the USA (where a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report exposed systemic abuses committed by priests) and Germany (with a recent report saying that 3,677 children have been abused by Catholic priests since the 1940s). These are just five regions where exposure of the traumatic evidence meant that the scandals could no longer be covered up. The impression is that we have not yet reached the peak. The vast echo of these scandals reached the Vatican headquarters when former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò accused vast sectors of the Roman Curia of covering them up and called for Francis’ resignation due to his inability to properly deal with the abuses.
The sexual abuse crisis has been on the table in a dramatically growing way since the years of Benedict XVI. Its increased scope was one of the reasons Pope Ratzinger felt overwhelmed, contributing to his abrupt resignation. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to deal with the issue first by using the analogy of the “black sheep”: these are terrible but isolated events and the church is dealing with them. Then, the magnitude and extent of the scandal revealed that the problem is neither regional nor limited to individual cases, but lies within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Hence Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August) calling for repentance and envisaging stricter procedures in the recruitment of the clergy, in the prevention of abuse, and in the prosecution of abusers.
The “black sheep” metaphor is no longer adequate. The problem is systemic and pervasive. The magnitude of the scandals challenges the doctrine of the indefectibility of the (Roman) church, i.e. the view that the church never errs and that only her “sons” make mistakes as individuals. No, the church as a whole is called into question by the abuse of thousands of children by its leaders.
There are several issues at stake here. When nearly half of its priests are sexually active (as evidenced in the book Sex and the Vatican), a structural problem is evident. It is more than the failure of many individuals. It is the failure of a whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on. In the words of the above mentioned Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the USA, “The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated... These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” How will the church deal with the issue of homosexuality among its priests and its members? Will the church’s hierarchical structure be used to defend the victims, or to adopt a self-defending attitude? These continue to be standing and open questions.
More than a Moral Issue
Of course, every institution, every church, every community, every denomination is subject to failures. In this sense, the problem is not exclusively a Roman Catholic one. The Lord Jesus reminds us not to pass hypocritical judgment on others as if we were exempt from failing. If we are tempted to say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, we should be careful not to have “a plank in our own eye” (Matthew 7:4).
Having said that, the disgusting scale of the scandal points to something bigger than a failure.
Here is what the above-mentioned report of Pennsylvania Grand Jury says:
There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church's own records. We believe that the real number - of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward - is in the thousands. Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.
In Persona Christi?
A moral and instititional crisis? Yes, but there is more. One wonders whether a significant factor in determining the present-day moral disaster lies at the very heart of the theology of the Roman Church: not the only reason, but one that is often overlooked. The problem has to do with the Roman theology of priesthood and, in particular, with the organic association of the priest with Christ.
The priest, by way of his office, acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as if he were Christ himself. In Roman Catholicism, the priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing the words by which the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ. The priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. The priest and bishop act in the person of Christ as the head through their leadership of the Church.The priest does not merely represent Christ, but acts as if he were Him.
This doctrine is grounded in the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ and the church. According to Rome, the latter continues and prolongs the incarnation of the former. In his masterful assessment of Roman Catholic theology, Gregg Allison speaks of “the Christ-Church interconnection” as being one axis of the whole Catholic doctrine (Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, pp. 56-66). The church acts in persona Christi because she carries on the incarnation after Christ’s ascension as if she were Christ, claiming his authority, demanding the obedience that is due Him, ruling in His name and on His behalf.
When the leader of a church and the faithful who belong to it operate within such a theological framework, to “control” consciences becomes a natural outcome and to create a state of emotional dependency and submission is a consequence. When the priest (and the church that empowers and protects him) acts in persona Christi, he thinks he is beyond accountability from below. His priestly state is somewhat superior to that of the submitted, ordinary people. Moreover, the imperial, top-down hierarchical structures of the Church of Rome provide another theological reason for evil high-ranking priests to take advantage of weaker people belonging to an inferior rank.
Of course, there are other sociological and historical reasons that can explain the present-day abuses, but the theology encapsulated in the understanding of the priest as acting in persona Christi has had a role in creating a spiritual and cultural atmosphere of power in which abuses are tolerated. Will the church ever change its view of the priesthood as a separate, somewhat superior state acting in persona Christi?
As Martin Luther argued in his 1520 Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, the Church of Rome needed a biblical reformation of its theology of the priesthood based on the Christ-Church interconnection. For the Bible and for the Protestant Reformation, Christ alone is the head of the church, and its members are all equally endowed with the priestly role. None of them is “superior” to another. The Holy Spirit, not an institution or a class of people, is the only one who can be said as acting in persona Christi.
This is a serious reform that Rome needed then and still needs today. Instead of defending its traditional outlook, which has lost all credibility, will Rome instead be open to change?
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy), theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism.