It is obvious that the Catholic Church is currently immersed in controversy and soul-searching. Accusations that a small number of clergy, in several countries, have in the past been guilty of sexual abusing children and other vulnerable young people are serious sources of shame for the Church. And the extent of the cover-up of these crimes is also coming to light. But this material is hardly new. It joins a larger body of evidence that within hierarchical, authority-laden institutions – be they religious or secular, be it staff in care homes or teachers in public schools or adults in that supposedly benign institution we call ‘the family’ – violence and cruelty can be (and always has been) perpetrated by authority figures against the weak and the powerless.
Priests and nuns may have a vocation, or may be seen by others as having some special ‘sanctity’ attached to them – but they are (of course) as psychologically complex as any of the rest of us. In my experience, the battle in the human soul between our creative and destructive impulses, our loving and hateful feelings, is never over for anyone. And in spite of what people might want from their clergy, ‘religious’ figures are not exempt from instinctual human desires and conflicts.
So on the one hand this latest furore about the Catholic Church is part of a much wider picture about the corrupting nature of institutions where authority becomes authoritarian. And this is as relevant to Orthodox Jewish institutions and families as to Catholic ones. And I dare say there are Muslim equivalents. But abuse of power in religious settings seems to shock us more – perhaps because the rhetoric of monotheism is full of words like love and compassion and justice.
Yet we really shouldn’t be shocked. When a religion has at its centre an authority figure – otherwise known as ‘God’ – who Himself doesn’t like challenges to his authority – "You shall have no other gods before Me" – then we can predict trouble ahead. Those who see themselves as speaking in God’s name have a potent image to draw upon when they say ‘Do what I tell you’. To think you are speaking in the name of an all-powerful deity is a dangerous belief to hold. It can justify any action you take. If God is always right and I am acting as God’s representative here on earth then it is easy to find oneself caught up in an (unconscious) omnipotent fantasy that I am always right.
So this identification with a divine power who is uncompromising in saying what is right and what is wrong – and in dictating what is forbidden and what has to happen – this unconscious identification will be used to ‘justify’ cruelty and terror and transgression. Whether it is sexual violence or domestic violence or institutional violence, this enactment by individuals of their own instinctual need to exercise power mirrors – and draws upon - monotheism’s own strands of hostility, aggression, and intolerance of dissent . And all monotheisms contain plenty of that kind of stuff, mixed in with the more benign strands of faith that believers love to quote.
So I’m never shocked by evidence of crimes by so-called ‘religious’ people. It so happens that in his career the present Pope, Benedict XVI, has been rigorous in investigating cases of clergy who have been accused of sexual abuse. But what is new on this occasion is the way in which these current accusations – of crimes and the cover-up of crimes – has been taken up by the world’s press. They now have a perfect weapon with which to beat an institution that ‘preaches love but practices abuse’ – as if all priests are secret perverts. This is never stated openly but is the subtext to much of the reporting I have read. It’s as if there is almost a kind of schadenfreude at work: ‘You claim to be so holy and good, but look at what you are really like...now (about time!) it’s our turn to hold you responsible, to make you feel guilty ...’
Is this the revenge of the secular press (whose own authority is fading in the internet era) on the enviable religious authority of the Church? Is a secret, maybe unconscious, battle taking place – can the power of the print media bring down the power of the Church?
Take, for example, a recent article headlined ‘Pope’s preacher says attacks on Catholics are like antisemitism’(the Guardian, April 3rd) At an Easter service at St.Peter’s - attended by the Pope and other Catholic leaders - Father Raniero Cantalamessa had quoted a letter he’d received from a Jewish friend – note this, from a Jewish friend – which contained the remark that ‘The passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt reminds me of the more shameful aspects of antisemitism.’ This had caused, so it was reported, a storm of further controversy amongst Abuse Victims’ groups and Jewish representatives, particularly in Germany, whose shock and horror at this remark were duly recorded.
Now I may have some lack of moral imagination here, or a real failure of moral intelligence, but I am rather puzzled by this reported outrage. What the ‘Jewish friend’ seems to have been pointing out was that just as antisemitism is stereotyping and prejudice expressed against a whole group, so the current antagonism being expressed in the media towards the collective authority of Catholic priests and the hierarchy of the Church and the person of Benedict himself and the institutional practice of celibacy, etc , etc, is a form of prejudice - for it condemns the group, the collective institution and its ways of life, for the crimes (and sins) of some individuals.
So isn’t the analogy of antisemitism rather a useful one? Yes, it might be rather ironic from a historical perspective for a leading Catholic to use this particular analogy. But isn’t Father Cantalamessa’s inference a legitimate, benign and even illuminating perspective? - that a form of collective scapegoating is happening in the attacks on the Catholic Church that is similar in its psychological mechanism to attacks on Judaism as a religion or Jews as a collective group?
Sadly, a Catholic spokesman felt the need to issue a statement afterwards saying that the preacher wasn’t speaking as a Vatican official and that such comparisons ‘lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic Church.’ The problem is that for those who are so minded – the intolerant, the insecure, the paranoid, the self-regarding narcissist - anything someone else says can ‘lead to misunderstandings’.
Maybe silence is, after all, a virtue to be cultivated.