Philip F. Lawler
Phil is the editor of, which brings you daily news headlines from a Catholic perspective. He is the author of The Faithful Departed, a history of the Church in Boston and the scandal of the abuse of children by priests.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sexual abuse and liturgical abuse: connected?

After a week of interviews with radio, TV, and newspaper reporters, most of them concentrating on the sex-abuse crisis, I'm more convinced than ever that most American-- even most Catholics-- are missing a vitally important point.

Most people see the sex-abuse crisis as an isolated problem, like a malignant tumor that appeared on an otherwise healthy body. Now the tumor has been removed (or so the line goes), and we can get back to normalcy. But you know what? Malignant tumors generally don't appear on healthy bodies. When the tumor appears, the doctor looks for an underlying cause.

There are some people who think that the real disease is the Catholic faith itself. They've been having a field day, because they claim the ability to explain something that most Catholics aren't explaining. If we expect to counteract their anti-Catholic rhetoric, we'd better come up with an explanation of our own. That's what I tried to do in The Faithful Departed.

So: Is/was the sex-abuse crisis isolated? Now that priests who prey on children are being removed from ministry, can we feel confident that the same failures of leadership won't crop up in other areas?

Let me put the question in more concrete form. Suppose you encountered a pattern of clerical abuse in a completely different field: gross liturgical abuse, let's say. There wouldn't be any civil crime involved, so the courts wouldn't enter the picture, as they eventually did with sexual abuse. The newspapers wouldn't help; they wouldn't really care. So we'd have to rely on Church leaders-- our bishops-- to resolve the problem.

Now let's say that there are gross liturgical abuses occurring in your parish. (Perhaps this is really the case; abuses are not rare.) You dutifully bring the problem(s) to the attention of your pastor, who ignores them. So you report them to the bishop.

What kind of response can you reasonably expect?
  1. The bishop immediately intervenes to stop the abuse and/or discipline the priest(s) responsible;

  2. The bishop gently assures you that the abuses didn't really occur, you were probably mistaken, and maybe you should stop being so critical and support your priests; or

  3. The bishop completely ignores your complaint.

Option 1 is the proper one, obviously. But Options 2 and 3 are more common. They're also the options which, when applied to reports of sexual abuse, allowed the tumor to swell to such frightening size.

If the sex-abuse crisis was "sometimes very badly handled"-- not much debate on that-- and if liturgical abuse is now being handled the same way, it's time to recognize that there is an underlying disease.


Jerry Benitz said...

When Church Doctors found an underlying cause, they usually called it heresy. My pick is Modernism, which St. Pius X fought valliantly but didn't exterminate. The timing is about right, because, as you note, the Church had deteriorated long before Vatican II. Fr. Shanley was ordained when I was born, and his mentors were obviously in place already.

Other trappings of Modernism are gnosticism and phenomenology. The gnostic has the new inside information -- "spirit of V-II?" And the phenomenologist reduces all knowledge to experience, hence liturgy must become an experience. Also, all experience is "valid" so even disoriented types must be given lattitude.


Anonymous said...

You have a good point. I have noticed more bishops removing priests for taking too much vacation time, misuse of funds, and ignoring bishop's appeals or programs. The last issue is the liturgy. However, if the bishops were to remove pastors for liturgical abuse, there would be very few priests left and hardly any over the age of 45.

TSO said...

Now the tumor has been removed (or so the line goes), and we can get back to normalcy. But you know what? Malignant tumors generally don't appear on healthy bodies.

I read your book - excellent read. It is persuasive. Still, the bottom line is that bishops do not have a strong faith (as then-Cardinal Ratzinger once told Raymond Arroyo). And you can't force faith.

So I'm not sure how good it is for people to know that their shepherds lack faith, especially given how tenuous the faith of the faithful is. No full cure appears on the horizon, at least not until this generation of bishops have been replaced.