What is the Moral Standing of the Catholic Church?

Date: 5 Jan 2012 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 4 Facebooktwitterredditmail

When a totalitarian regime aids and abets the rape of tens of thousands of children one would expect it to be shunned by governments and citizens alike.  And any statements it might issue on matters of morality accorded no respect.

Why should we make an exception when the regime is the Catholic Church?

That the Roman Catholic Church is totalitarian is undeniable. Church law itself makes this clear.  Canon 331 declares the Pope “the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

Canon 333 emphasizes the remarkable power this institution endows in one man,  “No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”

And whenever the Pope chooses he can issue decrees related to faith and morals that not only have the power of law but must be considered irrefutable, at least since 1870 when the Church declared the Pope “possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed.”

The entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is at the mercy of the Pope.  He appoints bishops and can impose his directives on the lowliest priests and nun.

I hasten to note that the Church was not always totalitarian.  The first Christian communities were remarkably democratic.  For at least the first 100 years after Jesus Christ was killed, during the time Matthew and Luke and John and Mark wrote the Gospels, women (yes, women) as well as men directly elected church leaders.  But that was before a new religion metastasized into the world’s most powerful, centralized and enduring institution.

That the Catholic Church is guilty of widespread rape is also undeniable. A few years ago there was a spate of news items when sexual abuse cases first surfaced in Boston and a few other cities.  Media coverage since then has withered but the issue has not.  Just the opposite.  In 2011 allegations of sexual abuse of minors have spread to 26 countries. In just one case in the United States the Church agreed to pay $250 million in compensation to about 700 abused males and females.  The Netherlands has documented almost 2000 cases.

Following the publication in July of the fourth report since 2005 documenting sexual abuses by Catholic clergy in Ireland, its Minister for Children and Youth Affairs observed that the abuses described “would be horrifying if it were done to prisoners of war, never mind little boys and girls.” The Irish Prime Minister and parliament publicly denounced the Vatican for its culpability.

The human toll of decades of exploitation and predation can get lost in the fog of statistics but comes through clearly in individual stories.  Like that of Katherine Mendez who related her horrifying account to Kimberly A.C. Wilson of the Oregonian last March.  Katherine was “11 years old when she was raped at St. Mary’s Mission School in Omak, Washington moments after she scuffled with another student and was brought into the office of Father John J. Morse.  The sexual abuse continued from the sixth grade into eighth grade she said. And even after Mendez left the school and moved in with a foster family in Selah, 200 milers away, the priest tracked her down to continue the abused.  “Every day, every single day, it was a nightmare”, says Mendez.  “I was always looking over my shoulder.”

In November the overwhelmingly Catholic country of Ireland took the extreme step of shutting its embassy in the Vatican. (The Vatican has been a state since 1929, when it was granted that status by Benito Mussolini in return for its support for his dictatorship.  Comprising 110 acres, an area smaller than Washington’s National Mall, and 800 people Vatican City is by far the smallest nation in the world.)

Some might say that an institution, even a totalitarian institution, cannot be blamed for the actions of a small fraction of its members.  But when stories of sexual abuse were first raised the Catholic Church ignored them.  Later it often reassigned the rapacious priest to another parish where he might prey on other minors.  The 2011 Irish report concluded the Church had informed its Bishops that reporting sexual abuses to the police violated Church law.

On September 13 the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) took the next step by asking the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague to investigate and prosecute high level Vatican officials, including the Pope, for widespread and systematic rape and sexual violence against children and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy.

The CCR accompanied its complaint with 22,000 pages of documentation.  Pam Spees, staff attorney for CCR noted, “The magnitude, scope, and depth of harm are nearly unfathomable, especially when one considers that what we know at this point, shocking as it is, is likely the tip of the iceberg.”

Most of us view the ICC, established in 2002, as a prosecutor only of war crimes.  But its mandate is broader–to prosecute crimes against humanity.  And the ICC explicitly considers rape and sexual violence as crimes against humanity.

This election year the Roman Catholic Church will regularly pontificate on policy matters. And the media will report its views and actions as if they came endowed with a certain moral authority despite the fact that the Church itself has been found guilty of the most heinously immoral actions.

Instructively, virtually all of the Church’s most aggressive policy interventions relate to sex. (e.g. contraception, abortion, gay rights).

Indeed, the Catholic Church acts of if it believes that sex matters above anything else.  It will not go to the mat to fight against poverty or injustice but it will pull out all the stops to prevent people of the same sex from marrying.

After Illinois legalized civil unions the Roman Catholic Bishops shuttered most of the state funded Catholic Charities rather than allow gay couples to avail themselves of its adoption services.  This also occurred in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts.

Better not to enable any adoptions, the Catholic Church insists, than allow the possibility of an adoption by a gay couple.

The most recent target of the Catholic Church is the provision of the health reform bill requiring employer health insurance plans cover contraception services without a co-pay.  A few days before Christmas the United Conference of Catholic Bishops took out full page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post urging Congress and the administration to change the mandate.

As Sarah Posner writes,  “…this campaign will not essentially consist of clerics issuing recommendations. Staffed with ten of the Bishops’ brethren, the Ad Hoc Committee (on Religious Liberty) will be assisted by the USCCB’s (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) former top lawyer and now Associate General Secretary, Anthony Picarello, who served on Obama’s first Advisory Council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A staff lawyer and a lobbyist have also been hired and assigned to the effort.”

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution last October, Bishop William E. Lori, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, described LGBT equality and access to reproductive care as a disease that must be treated immediately, “lest the disease spread so quickly that the patient is overcome before the ultimate cure can be formulated and delivered.”

Which leads to the question, if the Catholic Church loses its battle to amend the health reform law will it close its hospitals as it shut down its Catholic Charity offices rather than pay for contraceptives?  Stay tuned.

In late September HHS rejected an application by the Catholic Church for funding to continue to counsel sex trafficking victims because the Church refused to provide a full range of obstetric and gynecological care, including abortion and contraceptives.

Under prodding from the Church, the Republican House is investigating.  Is it just me, or doesn’t it seem the height of effrontery for the Catholic Church, an institution found guilty of raping thousands of girls and boys to insist that it be allowed to withhold services to rape victims out of some sense of moral outrage?




David Morris
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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

4 Responses

  1. Michael Orange
    | Reply

    Thank you for another excellent article, Dr. Morris. I have some questions:
    • Those who defend the record of the Catholic Church argue that, although even a single child abuse instance is a terrible thing that must be prevented, people tend to overstate the problem. The defenders argue that Catholic clergy abuse children at rates comparable to the clergy from other religions (although I don’t know how one measures such things; abuse instances per clergy-child contacts perhaps?). How do you respond to this argument?
    • The celibacy requirement for Catholic clergy (including Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite) is very rare among the world’s clergy (some Buddhist clergy also are celibate). I believe this requirement creates unnatural conditions and is a significant factor in child sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy. Do you agree? Do celibate Buddhist clergy abuse children at rates comparable to Catholic clergy?
    • It’s likely that data does not exist to do a fair and complete analysis to address the above questions. Nonetheless, a crime more monstrous than even child abuse occurs when the controlling institution hides the crime, protects and moves the perpetrator to another target area, and ignores or blames the victim. Do we know how other religions have responded to child abuse cases by their clergy as compared to the Catholic Church?
    • On what bases do you choose the topics for your articles? Enquiring minds want to know.

    • David Morris
      David Morris
      | Reply

      @Michael. Good questions. I have seen some statements that the level of sexual abusers in the Catholic Church is comparable to that of other religions but not studies. According to a study paid for by the Catholic Church about 5% of priests, 6,000 in all were guilty of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2000.

      What makes the Catholic Church unique is the combination of widespread sexual abuse AND the totalitarian structure of the institution, which makes the institution itself culpable.

      No studies of which I am aware support the conclusion that celibacy fomented abuse of children. Remarkably, one of the conclusions of a 5-year $1.8 million study for the Catholic Church released in May 2011 concluded, “Social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests of the Catholic Church in the United States.” In other words, the ‘60s made them do it! This takes the famous Twinkie defense (the lawyers for Dan White in his 1979 trial for murdering gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone successfully convinced the jury that he was less responsible because of his consumption of high sugar foods) to a whole new level.

  2. Vince Hyman
    | Reply

    @Michael–celibacy is a conditional part of the free choice to enter the priesthood. It is a false argument to causally link celibacy to child rape. And it seems a false assumption to state that celibacy creates unnatural conditions, when many people can and do choose to be celibate. Moreover, many people, not through personal choice, live celibate lives and yet never turn to bullying, raping, and otherwise brutalizing the people around them. Your question essentially eases these priests’ behaviors and attaches them to what is, in fact, a natural or chosen, temporary or permanent state for many people (celibacy), and I find that objectionable and unfair to celibate individuals.

    I don’t know of research to support my next point, but I think it more likely that the Church has protected the practices of rape and bullying as a way of maintaining power over its members; whether the institutional support was a deliberate power move or defensive one could be debated, but it is about power nonetheless. Its power structure is based on using secrecy, occult behaviors, rituals that tap into human fear, and other forms of psychological manipulation to gain and maintain power. (Of course, this is is a feature of many religions, but the particular one under discussion is among the most powerful and skilled.) So one should not be surprised that an outcome of this power system is rape of the most vulnerable. Institutions that gain and hold power through psychological manipulation are already on a slippery slope, and child rape is a particular feature of that long slide downhill.

  3. Michael Orange
    | Reply

    @Vince: I agree with what you wrote in your second paragraph about the role of the Church in the matter of clergy abuse being primarily about power. David’s comments support this position as well. But I disagree when you write that, “It is a false argument to causally link celibacy to child rape. And it seems a false assumption to state that celibacy creates unnatural conditions.” Your point rests on the assumption that voluntary celibacy among laypeople is comparable to the celibacy requirements of the Catholic priesthood because it too is voluntary. I think this is a false assumption.

    I’ll make my argument within the time period David refers to, i.e. the 60s, because that’s the period I’m familiar with when I was still a Catholic and a high school seminarian studying for the Catholic priesthood. (I left the seminary after graduation and abandoned all beliefs in the supernatural after the service four years later.) Celibacy among laypeople is usually a voluntary condition that may also be temporary. In contrast, the mandatory celibacy requirement for a Catholic priest comes from the totalitarian institution David aptly describes that is completely in charge of the priest’s life. Consider that celibacy for a priest goes beyond that for a layperson. The Catholic Church of my youth classified “unclean” thoughts, words, and deeds as sins, with the “crime” of masturbation, for example, being a mortal sin worthy of eternal damnation in a hell of torment for all eternity. Celibacy for a priest requires the complete suppression of a sexual life. This is not true for the lay celibate.

    Yes, joining the priesthood is a voluntary act, and a priest has the option of having a sexual life by sinning through unclean thoughts, words, and deeds (alone or with others) and can confess these sins and gain absolution. And the priest can leave the priesthood if he wishes and disavow his vow of celibacy. But these are substantial barriers for the priest that do not exist for the average celibate layperson.

    I believe the Church’s requirement that priests suppress the sexual aspects of their personalities under threat of eternal torment creates an unnatural human condition and that this repressive situation increases the potential for sexual abuse of weaker people. We see a similar (not identical) situation in prisons where heterosexual men, deprived of the opportunity for normal sexual relationships, prey on other men. I am not suggesting abusive priests are less culpable because the institution to which they devote their lives creates this unnatural condition. I’m saying the Church bears some responsibility for the behaviors of their abusive priests (in addition to full responsibility for the cover-up of the crimes).

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