Facing up to Spiritual Abuse
Sean Fagan SM (Doctrine & Life, March 2001)
[Sean Fagan SM is author of Has Sin Changed? (1977), and Does Morality Change? (1997), both Gill and Macmillan, Dublin.]
We need resources to help us understand and address the deep-down damage which so many people have suffered in their emotional and spiritual lives when Church practices and attitudes left them with huge burdens of unhealthy guilt.
One such resource is the article, ‘Sexual Abuse and Spiritual Abuse’ in The Furrow (October 2000). The author, Donal Dorr, is a highly- respected world-class theologian who writes with insight and feeling and with great courage and humility. His writing has the ring of truth. Because of the courageous way in which he speaks of the experience of how he saw spiritual abuse by the Church affecting his life, I am prompted to reflect on my own experience.
Ordained in 1953, I have been teaching moral theology (as well as philosophy, Scripture and some canon law) in the seminary and in the Milltown Institute since 1955. At intervals since 1960 I have taught moral theology and spirituality to international renewal groups of priests, nuns and brothers in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. For the past forty-seven years I have heard confessions and given spiritual direction in twelve countries of widely different languages and culture. What I most remember is that, after two to three hours in the confessional on a Saturday night (with penitents who confessed weekly or monthly), I often came out on the verge of tears, thinking: what in God’s name have we done with people’s consciences? With a mixture of sadness and anger, it was difficult to pray about it.
One of the great blessings of my life was that I seem to have missed the fear and scrupulosity that marked the lives of so many, both growing up and into adult years. From infancy, my God was the loving God of infinite compassion, who smiled on his creation, one who did not have to close his eyes or turn his back when I took a bath or discovered that I was a sexual being convinced that the female human body is the most beautiful of all God’s wonderful creations. I sat through many hell-fire sermons and listened to all the warnings; but they never bothered me seriously, although they reminded me that I could mess up my life and hurt people by not keeping close to God. Hell fire was certainly in the back-ground, but I never thought that large numbers of people would be punished in that way. Even as a teenager, when I read of saints who spoke of souls dropping into hell like leaves in wintry weather, I was annoyed; but I simply felt that one could be a canonisable saint and still talk nonsense.
When studying moral theology I was fascinated by the logic of it all, but felt that the treatment of sexuality and marriage was wooden and unreal. I wondered about the psychological make-up of celibate clerics who could picture, analyse and measure the weirdest details of sexual deviations. Their texts nowadays seem to border on the pornographic.
In assessing the morality of sex, the basic principle in these books was that all directly voluntary sexual pleasure is mortally sinful outside of matrimony. This meant that for a single act of teenage self-gratification one would be condemned to hell for all eternity. People were led to believe this, and had to live with the fear. Unlike all other areas of morality, where the seriousness of a sin may be lessened by smallness of matter, even the slightest experience of sex was matter for mortal sin. I was never convinced of the reasons for this and never accepted it, but it was imposed by authority and most people felt obliged by it. I taught it simply as a matter of history, but could never convince students that it was true. Truth cannot be decreed or imposed, but only discovered and shared.
Only later, in the ministry of counselling and in the confessional, did I realise the enormity of the burden of fear and guilt people developed as a result of this teaching. For decades I seldom heard confessions without ‘bad thoughts’ being mentioned as a sin; and over three quarters of men confessed ‘self-abuse’ as a mortal sin keeping them from Communion, even though most of them were devout Catholics quite saintly in every other area of their lives.
Until the mid-1980s I knew about paedophilia as a psychological phenomenon, and I was vaguely aware that some ‘homosexuals’ ‘tampered with little boys’; but, like most of the population, I was unaware that large numbers of people suffered child abuse as we know it now. It was never mentioned in confession by either perpetrators or victims, and I think that few victims were able to reveal it. So one can hardly speak of a ‘conspiracy’ of silence. Most people were simply unaware of the abuse unless they had personal experience of it. I doubt if police or social workers knew much more.
For centuries, moral theologians listed the major sexual sins as: fornication, adultery, rape, abduction, incest, sacrilege, sodomy, and bestiality. These were analysed in terms of what was natural and appropriate, just or unjust; but the age of the victim was never a factor of importance. Child abuse was not a special category, and hardly anybody knew that the practice was so widespread, or so devastating in its consequences.
The early sex scandals that brought shame (and criminal charges) to priests and religious around the world were not always about child abuse. But the publicity and court proceedings in such cases encouraged victims of child abuse to speak out, and more people have found the courage to come forward. Since then I have listened in counselling sessions to many victims, and I become more and more horrified at the enormity of the harm done. Some extreme cases may be driven to suicide, but very many are emotionally and spiritually crippled for life. They can be helped by counselling, but it is a slow and painful process, and there is no guarantee of total success. Financial compensation can never make up for what the victims suffer. The Church must name this evil as a special sin in a category of its own, and wherever Church individuals or institutions are even slightly implicated they must accept their responsibility and ask forgiveness. The victims need this to begin their healing.
It is clear that child abuse is not a new phenomenon, but an evil that seems to be part of the flawed human condition. Because of the taboo surrounding sex it was not generally recognised or discussed, so that only in recent years have we become aware of its malice and its crippling effects.
The same may be said of the spiritual abuse that has crippled generations of Catholics. just as victims of sex abuse find it almost impossible ever to feel ‘happy in their own skin,’ huge numbers of Catholics find it difficult to experience the joy and inner freedom that Jesus promised his followers. It is now generally recognised that sex abuse is more an abuse of power than of sex; and in a similar way it can be said that the spiritual abuse that is a disease in the Church, is an abuse of power and authority. For centuries, a certain type of Church teaching, instead of setting people free to grow into the fullness and maturity of Christ, kept them enslaved by a childish conscience, forever in dread of hell for all eternity.
This fear was particularly felt in the area of sexuality. Text books were unanimous in describing ‘company keeping’ as a necessary occasion of sin, and marriage was such a minefield that it was almost impossible for married couples to avoid sin. The charismatic renewal movement helped many people towards some degree of joy in their religion, but it seldom went to the root of their agony and fear by questioning the ignorance and prejudice on which certain sexual teachings were based. The Church was the absolute authority, speaking in God’s name.
When the Church spoke in God’s name it had no direct communication from him. It had the Word of God in the books of the Bible, but these are all in human words. There is no word of God in pure unadulterated form, a-temporal and a-cultural. The word of God comes to us in human words, and every word from the moment when humans first learned to speak is culturally conditioned, reflecting the experience and culture of the speakers. At times the picture of God is quite savage as he exhorts the people to slaughter their enemies in thousands; and he has no objection to slavery and polygamy.
Throughout the Bible there is growth and development in moral sensitivity, but there are also huge blind spots. St Paul is quite lyrical about people being equal, so that there is neither Greek nor Jew male nor female, slave or free; and yet he saw no reason ever to question the institution of slavery as a part of the social order. We have learned to accept this cultural conditioning of God’s word expressed in human terms, and we make the necessary distinctions.
But cultural conditioning did not stop with the Bible. Every word and thought of the Church over two millennia is subject to the same cultural conditioning. We need to be aware of this, and in order to understand any word we need to ask: What does it say? (language); What does it mean? (cultural context); and: Is it true, in what sense, how does it apply to life, how does it fit with my experience?
We can understand cultural conditioning as a normal part of history. But can we be sure that some of the attitudes in the past that we are now ashamed of are not still at work in our collective subconscious? Has the misogynism that was a feature of the Church for centuries been admitted and repented of? Church leaders can be patronising in hesitantly admitting that women may have got a raw deal in the past, but most men have no idea of how deeply women feel about the injustice they still suffer today. Can it be said that the words of leading theologians and some saints for centuries in the past had nothing to do with modern attitudes to women?
It is naive to imagine that thinking or speaking of women as a ‘necessary evil’, or as ‘the gate of hell’ or as ‘mis-begotten’- and all these terms are found in the works of great male theologians from the early times to the middle ages – had no influence on Church teaching and practice.
No matter how much the ideal of Christian marriage was preached, ordinary people were deeply affected in their spirituality by the pessimism concerning sex. According to Augustine, only procreation could justify marriage, sex, or even women. Pope St Gregory the Great claimed that it was as impossible to have intercourse without sin as it was to fall into afire and not burn. Clement of Alexandria compared marital intercourse to ‘an incurable disease, a minor epilepsy.’ St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, held that virginity was the norm in paradise, that marriage came about as a result of sin, and that the only good in marriage is that it can give birth to virgins. In the fifteenth century St Bernardine of Siena, one of the greatest preachers in Europe at the time, claimed that ‘of 1000 marriages 999 are of the devil’s making.’ He also maintained that it was a piggish irreverence and a mortal sin if husband and wife do not abstain from intercourse for several days before receiving Holy Communion.
For centuries it was Church teaching that women should not be baptized when pregnant or during their monthly periods, and they were not allowed to enter churches or receive Communion at those times. The ritual impurity incurred by women at childbirth was accepted until quite recent times (in the ‘churching’ ceremony). This notion of ritual impurity infiltrated Christian thinking and legislation from pagan superstition, according to which terrible things were believed to happen when women touched anything during their periods; crops would dry up, fruit rot on the trees, and iron would turn rusty.
It is easy to smile at such thinking today, but it is hard to avoid the impression that the negative attitude that permeated Catholic moral theology’ for centuries still lurks behind Church teaching on women. Modern women are not shy in dismissing the nonsense of some Vatican documents, but Christian women for centuries were psychologically and spiritually crucified by the way they were spoken about and treated.
ABUSE OF POWER
Both sex abuse and spiritual abuse are really abuses of power and authority. An interesting indication of this is an incident from the discussions of the special commission set up by Pope John XXIII to study the question of birth control. The majority of its members at the start supported traditional Church teaching against artificial contraception. But they changed their minds in the course of their meetings, and in the end the almost unanimous conclusion was that contraception is not intrinsically evil. The Spanish theologian Fr Zalba could not accept this, and he burst out impatiently: ‘What becomes of the millions we have sent to hell if this teaching is not true?’ Courteously Patty Crawler (who with her husband was one of the first lay people invited to the committee) asked him: ‘Fr Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?’
But she was up against a Church convinced that it had all the answers even before hearing the questions or looking at the facts. A Church that insisted so much on authority had no regard for the authority of the facts. The three thousand letters from Catholic married couples in eighteen countries describing their experience were totally ignored by Pope John’s successor, as was the recommendation of the special papal commission set up to study the case. The Vatican has not allowed this documentation to be published
The four theologians holding on to the traditional teaching had to admit that they had no arguments to prove the majority wrong, except that to change the teaching would damage the authority of the Church. And so the encyclical Humanae Vitae came to be written and published.
Insisting on authority conveniently forgets the many dreadful things that were proclaimed for centuries as the ‘teaching of the Church,’ but which nobody could accept today. To take an example from living memory: Pius XI in an encyclical on Christian education (with the same level of authority as Humanae Vitae) solemnly declared: ‘co-education is against all Catholic principles. It is erroneous and pernicious, and is often based on a naturalism which denies original sin … Nature itself, which makes the two sexes different in organism, inclinations and attitudes, provides no argument for mixing them promiscuously, much less educating them together.’
Catholics naturally wonder how the thirty-seven-year interval between the two encyclicals (1931, 1968) allows us to treat one as a museum piece quietly forgotten and the other as a serious obligation in conscience. Is this not a further reminder that all doctrinal statements, like the Bible itself, are historically and culturally conditioned? No statement from the past is set in stone, and it would be difficult to prove that the Church never made a mistake. We are a mixture of saint and sinner, and this applies to the Church as institution as much as to its members individually.
CONSCIENCE A SANCTUARY
This narrow Church teaching not merely left people with sexual hang-ups, but struck at the core of morality by crippling their conscience. They were always told to follow their conscience, but it was stressed that it had to be an ‘informed’ conscience, with the implication that the Church would give the ‘information’ on what they were to do.
It was never explained that it was not just a matter of information to be supplied by the Church. We are to follow a ‘formed’ conscience, one which is continually being formed through life as we grow in moral maturity, discerning moral values and deciding moral questions with full responsibility before God. People who lived all their lives in the ‘do what you are told’ Church found it hard to believe that the Second Vatican Council, the highest authority in the Church when in session, with the Pope as member, could solemnly teach that conscience is our most secret core, and our sanctuary. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths. People would be helped enormously if they felt that the Church really believed this in practice.
The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship recently issued new rules for celebrating the Eucharist, the central thrust of which is to stress the sacredness of places, things and people surrounding the Eucharist. The presidential chair is not an ordinary, profane piece of furniture, but a sacred seat for the sacred priest celebrating in the sacred place of the sanctuary. Should we not respect and reverence even more the sanctuary of people’s conscience, which is truly sacred. For centuries conscientious objectors to war were merely tolerated by Church authorities, seldom respected as morally responsible people who quite frequently were prophetic in their stance.
The Church was so conscious of being the highest moral authority, acting as the voice of God, that its leaders expected total obedience even in areas in which some of its members had far more competence and experience. The Vatican Council acknowledges and respects this competence, which is not limited to secular concerns but is to be seen also in theological and scriptural research and reflection. Many of the writings of women and men theologians frowned on by the Church have enriched its health and vitality. Cardinal Newman stressed that infallibility, (not a very helpful term) is an attribute of the Church as a whole, with the hierarchy (including the pope), theologians and the whole body of the faithful having their appropriate share in it. A sad tendency in some Vatican departments is that theology is being reduced to a simplistic ‘the Pope says.’
At times, what the Pope says is a genuine step forward. For example the new Catechism of the Catholic Church defended and justified the death penalty. When Cardinal Ratzinger was reminded that the Pope in a public lecture declared that it was difficult to justify it in the circumstances of today’s world, he promised that the next edition would make the change. In describing and evaluating masturbation, the Catechism still implied that in the area of sex there is no parity of matter, so that unless psychological factors diminish responsibility, the eternal punishment of hell that goes with mortal sin still applies.
Intelligent laity have real difficulty in understanding and accepting some of the language used in official documents. Traditional Church teaching speaks of contraception, sterilisation, masturbation, direct killing of the innocent, divorce and remarriage as evil in themselves, independently of all circumstances. But few theologians today accept such language, since they know that no physical action on its own can be given a moral label unless seen in its concrete totality including motive and circumstances. Murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. Lying is telling a falsehood, but not every falsehood is a lie. Contraceptive pills are said to be intrinsically evil, but they were allowed by the Vatican for nuns threatened with rape in the Congo, and Humanae Vitae explicitly allows them for therapeutic reasons, e.g. to regulate the cycle. But all these cases involve the same pills, working in the same way according to God’s chemical and physiological laws. Since the main difference is the intention or motive, it cannot be the artificial contraception as such which is evil. If there are exceptions according to motive and circumstances, the description ‘intrinsically evil’ has little meaning when applied to physical actions. To insist on the use of this language is a failure to respect people’s God-given critical intelligence. The Holy See’s Declaration on Abortion (1974) makes no use of this expression and yet presents a very convincing moral argument, whereas the Declaration on Sexual Ethics (1975) uses it freely with reference to masturbation and homosexuality and signally fails to prove its point.
HOLY MOTHER CHURCH
One could continue in this vein, multiplying examples, but the point is clear. Personally, I have overwhelming evidence of the harm done to people’s emotional and spiritual lives by the abuse of authority by our Holy Mother Church (with the best of maternal, protective intentions). Much of its teaching stunted their lives. French psychiatrist Pierre de Salignac wrote a book called The Catholic Neurosis. A committed Catholic, he treated many people (not only French) over a period of twenty-five years, and came to the conclusion that among his patients Catholics in general had far more hang-ups, scruples and fear than members of other groups. He did not blame the Church directly, but he said that their formation – in home, school and Church – aggravated, if it did not actually cause, their psychological problems.
The Church has never openly and honestly admitted and disowned the many terrible things that passed for ‘Church teaching’ over the centuries. A little humility and repentance would do far more for its credibility than more solemn documents insisting on its authority and its monopoly of the truth Jesus did not say that we possess the whole truth, but promised that his Holy Spirit would lead his followers into the truth.
Large numbers of Catholics around the world are crying out for the affirmation, healing and growth that they have a right to expect from the Church which claims to be not only a light to the nations, but also their mother.