The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World and the Sex Abuse Scandal: A Reflection

The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World and the Sex Abuse Scandal: A Reflection April 5, 2010

As we find ourselves in the midst of another discussion of sex abuse by priests within the Church, and the covering it up or mishandling of it by our bishops, one of the things we have yet to explore in its fullness is the role social structures as they exist in and outside the Church have had in this problem. This is not to say there has been no discussion on this point, but what we have mostly seen is a defensive posture by bishops and their defenders, where they look out to the world and point out how the same evil found within the Church exists in the world. Those who reject this see it as an excuse; they point out that although this might be true, it should not be used as a way to forgo reformation in the Church. The Church is expected to be better because it is the bearer of God’s grace into the world. It is in this light it is being judged and criticized, as it should always be judged and criticized when it fails to follow what God would have of it. Peter said that the Church should be judged first, not second: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1Peter 4:17).

We are to be the light of the world. When we are engulfed in our own darkness, we cannot sanctify the rest of the world. It is for this reason we must always be reforming ourselves. When the darkness has come into the Church, we must expel it — not make excuses for it. But to expel it, we must understand how it got there, and we must understand what it is we can do to help prevent it from coming back.

It is in this light I find an e-mail sent to me by Gerald Campbell provocative. In it, he goes further with many of the observations he has made on Vox Nova in the past. He presents in it the spiritual crisis which exists in America today — but one can say, and must say, it is a crisis which we find not only in America, but in the world at large. But significant for our discussions on the sex abuse scandal, it is also the crisis which helped create this scandal in the first place. It is, as Gerald points out, the crisis created by the way we have become isolated from each other:

From the depths of the person, there exists an existential urgency to reach out to others and alleviate “the unmet need to belong.”  St. Augustine put it this way: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”  Simply put, spiritual alienation is a state of being that cannot be tolerated by the human heart.  Never.  Never.  Never.  By virtue of its existence within, the person must find a way to alleviate it, to mitigate it.  The “unmet need to belong” has to be reconciled at any cost.  This accounts for the choices we make and the compromises we choose.  The person’s intrinsic desire is “To Be” with others through Freedom in Solidarity.  As the play writer says: To be or not to be.  That is the question that confronts us all in the depths of our being.  For this reason, Love constitutes the central form and passion of a free person.  Freedom and Dignity can only be perfected in Love.[1]

We are lonely and we need each other; we were not meant to take on the world as lone individuals, but together. When that bond is lost, people suffer and try to find a way to compensate for it. In our society, sex and drugs are two of the means by which this is attempted. Gerald understands this as it plays out in the United States:

It is a sad commentary that Love is only remotely present in the living dynamics of America.  Neither dignity, nor freedom, nor solidarity but spiritual alienation is the essential form of America today. The wealth of sociological statistics is a dramatic demonstration of the truth of this statement.  All too clearly, this data shouts to the heavens that to heal America, it is necessary to alleviate the “unmet need to belong.” Indeed, for America to once again be a “beacon on the summit of the mountain,” it is necessary that America radiate to the world not only Freedom but the warming spirit of Love and Mercy.[2]

This observation has been central to many of conversations Gerald and I have had, both in person and in e-mail. Gerald understands this loneliness, knows first hand the wounded nature of the people in the streets, not only because he sets out to observe what is happening around him, but he has set out to overcome that isolation and to enter into communion with others:

When I lived for five years on the streets of Washington, D.C., after leaving USIA, I stayed in abandoned buildings, in crack houses, on park benches, and in the untraveled alleyways and forgotten hedgerows of the nation’s capitol.  I befriended the homeless, the substance abuser, and violent youth in ways that were authentic.  I was usually by myself and undefended.  I was totally vulnerable, meeting unknown people at night while alone.

Despite this, I discovered strength in vulnerability.  I discovered that, if I attempted to protect myself against a perceived threat of others, I was sending them a message that they were something to be feared.  At a deeper level, this act would disrespect their intrinsic dignity and it would require from them an angered response.  So, I accepted my vulnerability, and instead of fear, I set about to forge meaningful relationships with street people, knowing beforehand the universal laws of human passion would carry me safely to their acceptance.  I tried to act as Pope John Paul II advised: Be not afraid.  As a consequence, I underwent a personal metamorphosis of spirit, reconciliation with the “other” and the “Other.”[3]

For the short time I have known Gerald, this insight, which is central to his concerns, has been important to me — it fits in with my own understanding of the problems of individualism and how it creates hell on earth. But what came to me in this observation is how close to home this really is about the Church. The crisis we have before us has come, in part, because of the isolated nature of priests, and the even greater isolation that bishops themselves have with us.

One of the problems I know many priest confront is how lonely their life is. While some think the answer to this is that we should allow married priests, this is not the case — it is not that I think priests need to be celibate (I understand the arguments of both sides here, and I favor the Eastern approach, but I can see the wisdom of the Western), but rather, the priests need to somehow form better ties with their parish community, and their parish community needs to form better ties, not only with the priest, but with each other. When I visited Egypt so many years ago, one of the things which really fascinated me was how close the Christians were to their parish; they would go, not just for worship, but also as a place for family outings. One monastery-parish I would go to, every day, was filled with families — in the courtyard, they would have picnics and the children would be at play. There was a real sense of community, and to a level I have not felt at any parish in America.[4] As a way to begin overcoming this isolation, the priest needs to be seen as for what he is: one of us. Yes, he has holy orders — but he is also one of us. This is why, in the Divine Liturgy, he has his back to the people for so much of the service: he is praying with us, he is one of us.

With this lack of community, with the loneliness priests feel, many of them break down. They break down as anyone who is lonely breaks down. Their responses to that break down might be different according to the priest — alcoholism, for example, was and is a big problem for many priests. In this way, saying their isolation causes their spiritual problems is not to say that they will end up in the same kind of activities because of it. But the things which tempt them the most, the things which they desire the most, will become even greater a temptation for them. It might even get perverted as it is influenced by many other outside sources. But the point is, the isolation, the way the priest feels outside of society leads to the breakdown, and that breakdown can lead to many problems including the sexual abuse which is prominently before us today.[5]

Bishops, on the other hand, are further isolated. In the earliest era of Church history, bishops were quite close to their flocks — it would be easy for one to be united with their bishop, as St Ignatius of Antioch says is necessary for orthodoxy — because their bishop was never far from them and would most likely be directly presiding at their liturgical celebration. Through the centuries, bishops have become more and more distant and isolated. And now, after having been isolated as priests, they become bishops, and only know how to relate in the way they have trained themselves to relate due to that isolation. Is it any surprise they then reinforce that isolation as a defense, and put up all kinds of barriers when confronted with problems within the Church? They are comfortable in their isolation, they no longer know how to be vulnerable and open, to be with the people, to see to their needs — how can they be, when they are so cut off from the people?

Who were the great bishops of history? Were they not the ones who were with the people, who understood them — and were understood by the people in return. They were free because they didn’t feel the need to construct barriers of protection to defend themselves -or their own good name. They were willing to do what was necessary when confronted by the people –sometimes, to be sure, they did so in excess (as we see in the case of Theophilus of Alexandria), but the excess could be and was balanced out. In this way, we can understand why Oscar Romero was and remains beloved, just as we can understand, in the early Church, why St John Chrysostom or St Basil were beloved. They did more than speak from the seat of authority — they were willing to be with, and suffer with, the people.

While I am suggesting that priests and bishops to be more open to their communities, this openness must be true openness — a true restructuring and reformation of the Church from within which brings about true communion and an end to the isolation which has been reified by the present structures of the Church. This is something which requires work from the hierarchy but also the laity — both sides need to be open for communion, both sides need to work for that communion, to be willing — as Gerald points out — to be vulnerable.[6] We need to make sure that, as a result of the current priestly abuse crisis, priests are not further isolated, that bishops are not further isolated, from the people. This does not mean “put the spotlight on them” — just being in public does not end this isolation. One can look about and see people gathered together in their isolation (as Gerald has shown me and many others in his photographs). Indeed, being alone in the crowd, being isolated in the crowd, is a further source for alienation. Priests need to be understood as one of us — whether or not they are married or celibate (the Eastern tradition of secular priests being married priests is one way to help this along, but it is not enough, and it is not necessarily the only way this could be done). Bishops need to be more with us, listen to us, work with us, instead of constantly pontificating on political matters instead of ecclesial concerns.[7] If I were to suggest how they could do this — my answer would be extreme, and it might shock many: elevate many churches to that of bishoprics, so that one can begin to have the ecclesial dimension found in the time of St Ignatius of Antioch.

Henri de Lubac in his monumental work, Catholicism, brought into the open the problem of individualism and how it had been brought into the Church. He engaged the problem theologically; this, of course, was necessary in order to show why Catholics cannot back such a Satanic principle. This individualism, one could suggest, had its start long before the Protestant Reformation, but it certainly was reinforced and doubled-over as a negative influence from the Reformation itself. The hierarchical approach combined with individualism has made our bishops and popes as monads which had no real connection to another or their people. The Church has, for far too long, been seen mostly as the hierarchy (a problem which faces us today as we see criticism of bishops as being attacks on the Church; such a defense isolates the bishops from the Church and shows once again the problem as it now stands). Thus, not only were bishops isolated, they grew comforted in that isolation, and reinforced the structures with bastions formed by egoistic power, making the Church all about themselves. The Church became divided into independent structures, and then the lower structures were removed from the vision of the Church.  The sex scandal before us is only one of many problems which we must face as a result of this imbalanced ecclesiology. We must be sure, it is not the only way this spiritual crisis can be, or has been, played. By being brought out in the open, by breaking down the isolation which has separated the hierarchy from the Church and the world, there is a chance for real renewal, if the hierarchy does not retreat further into isolation. The media, even if it has a bias and is not making criticism of the Church for the Church’s own good, nonetheless can be, like Cyrus, used for the good. The Church as a whole needs to come together, to work together, to open up — to let the world and each other know of our failings, to be vulnerable so that, in such openness, grace can come and perfect us. As long as we retreat in a defensive posture, we are closing ourselves from God, reenacting the fall as we blame the other for our sins. The story of the fall is the story of sin, the story of isolation. Adam could have repented and opened himself to God, but instead, went into his bastion of the self, putting up the defenses which lead to his spiritual death. He started the blame game, and we see it continues today.

Let’s stop that now. It’s time to raze the bastions.


[1]E-mail of Gerald Campbell., “Easter: promise/warning” (April 2, 2010).

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] I find it is better with Byzantine parishes than Roman ones, but even then, it did not compare to what I saw in Egypt.

[5] It is a problem not only for the modern church, but something which can be found throughout time. One needs only to read Chaucer or the Desert Fathers to see this.

[6] This must be understood in the proper sense; of course. More importantly, the more authority one has, the more vulnerable they must be — power is for service, not egoism.

[7] Their confusion of prudential decisions as being absolute principles comes as a result of this isolation.

"Memories of the Lent I spent in Phoenix come to my mind."

Seeking Silence: My Life in Maundy ..."
"Rolf, there are many ways of applying CST, and many different ways that you can ..."

Saints and Social Justice, by Brandon ..."
"I see your point clearly, David - and I think it always is an issue ..."

Saints and Social Justice, by Brandon ..."
"I'm familiar with Mach bands. Thanks--interesting illustration.Which comment are you thinking of?"

Guest Post: On Biden-Harris Administration’s Polarizing ..."

Browse Our Archives

error: Content is protected !!