This post and series deal with various types of abuse,
including sexual abuse and abuse perpetrated by clergy.
Please read with caution.
Okay, so we’ve talked about what spiritual abuse is and what it isn’t, who can be an abuser, and some typical forms abuse can take. However, there’s different and subtler form spiritual abuse can take which I want to address. I’ve mostly heard of this in religious contexts, though I see no reason it couldn’t arise in others. It has a few different names; “toxic positivity” is a popular one, though I don’t know if there’s a generally accepted definition of toxic positivity. However, I want to focus on the thing rather than the name, so, to avoid a term that may for all I know be contentious, I will be referring to this as the church of St Disney.
St Disney is a positive, upbeat church. It has peppy music, lots of smiles, and a can-do attitude among both the leadership and the congregants. But don’t mistake them for the wretched “church of nice” that so many conservatives maunder about: they’re proud of their orthodoxy, and their mouths are full of Scripture, pious sayings, and quotations from the saints.
The problem at St Disney isn’t heresy or lax morals. It isn’t even the obvious forms of abuse, like overt judgment or victim-blaming. The problem is what all this neatly organized sunniness serves: self-image.
The way you can tell is by what sorts of things are not allowed, and how they are not allowed. Criticism might be okay, as long as it’s superficial; anything incisive will be “disrespectful,” or better, “unloving.” Difficulties and uncertainties will be listened to very kindly, and “the” solution will be offered; if it is not accepted because it doesn’t work or isn’t relevant, a few responses are possible, such as “It doesn’t happen all at once” or “God will always give you a way to overcome temptation” (the subtext being So it’s always your fault). A problem presented in confidence may be, very compassionately, shared publicly as a “prayer request,” with or without a veneer of privacy.
St Disney knows what many abusers are too angry or shortsighted to realize: there are a thousand ways to accomplish the aim of overt abuse—getting, maintaining, and exercising the power to dominate others—while maintaining a sweet, pious style of doing so. Cover the poison in frosting and it won’t look poisonous. It may not even taste poisonous at first. But it’ll get the job done.
Wait, Is This Even Abuse?
This may seem like it’s just social clumsiness or immaturity or what have you. And sometimes, that’s true. But sometimes, it’s a deliberate power play.
The thing about sweetness and light is, some parts of life aren’t sweet or shiny. This is even true of the life of faith—it’s especially true of the life of faith; the New Testament, the annals of Christian history, and plain common sense all tell us to expect suffering. What’s more, any community or institution is going to have problems and even conflicts, and those things need to be addressed if the place is going to be healthy.
But St Disney, whether the community admits this to itself or not, doesn’t care about being healthy: it cares about looking healthy. It cares about “success.” And all that is perfectly compatible with deceit, manipulation, even bullying.
Franciscan University is currently in the news due to a sex abuse scandal. This came as a shock to a lot of people; Steubenville has, or had, a good reputation as a pleasant, orthodox, vibrantly Catholic college. That there were at least two friars sexually abusing women, and other friars covering up for them, was unthinkable to some. Yet this is only one symptom, albeit the most hateful, of a spiritual rot that may have come from lusts other than that of the flesh. Mary Pezzulo of Steel Magnificat describes some of her own experiences here.
When we got to the retreat, an hour away from Steubenville with no way to get home since we’d all carpooled, there was a surprise announcement that this retreat would be different. The “household coordinator,” a popular young student elected to run the household for a year, had decided that we would have a silent retreat. … And we weren’t allowed to eat the snacks we brought, because we were fasting this weekend. … We were doing penance for the sin of always paying too much attention to the refreshments at Household business meeting instead of humbly paying attention to what the household coordinator wanted to say. …
You’d think I’d have learned then that the household coordinator was a bully and not trustworthy. But I didn’t. That actually took a long time to catch on. She was more and more overtly pushy as the year went on, and I kept not catching on because of the way she did it—with a smile on her face and a gentle voice, always with the insistence that she was only doing all that she did because she loved us. Eventually she revealed something embarrassing I’d shared in confidence to the entire Household Alumnae email loop, just to be cruel to me, and at that point I realized what I was dealing with. I went over her head and talked to the priest in charge of Household Life.
The priest bawled me out and verbally abused me, yelling until I was in tears, and then forced me to resign from being an active member in the Household, as a favor to the coordinator, who was a personal friend.
The priest’s move here was artless; resorting to overt belligerence gives the game away. The household coordinator displayed a greater mastery of the technique. The one-two punch—frosting first and, if that stops working, brutality—is common enough, but the really talented parishioner of St Disney can make even spitefulness and revenge look like candy to the unwary.
Abuse Is a Behavior, Not an Identity
The point here isn’t to pick on Franciscan, of course (though frankly, “getting picked on” should be the least of the college’s worries right now). It’s to give an example of this apparently positive but secretly toxic and dangerous phenomenon. Looking for superficial markers of goodness is a trap. Mrs Pezzulo continues:
Spiritual abusers take advantage of sets of rules … by being ostentatious about outward signs that code as “good.” In order to protect yourself, you need to look at outward signs of piety as neutral rather than a good sign of trustworthiness. … Both trustworthy and untrustworthy people can join religious orders and wear habits. Both saints and abusers pray the Rosary after Mass. Both kind and unkind people wear scapulars. It’s how people treat one another that tells us if they’re trustworthy.
There is a story (I don’t know how accurate it is) that St Thomas Aquinas was invited to visit a nun who had a reputation for levitating. He did, and she duly floated. When asked what he thought about it, the saint replied, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.” Outward fervor, a religious style of speaking, even miracles, are not the things to rely on: “they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets.” Look for what people do.