Sin, secularization and the Vatican’s PR problem

By Michele Dillon Over the past few months, following years of evidence of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests … Continued

By Michele Dillon

Over the past few months, following years of evidence of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and its systematic cover-up by church officials, Pope Benedict has reiterated a commitment to church actions to redress what he eventually came to acknowledge as “the sin inside the church.” Canon laws in effect since 1922 have long given the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith authority over the handling of sex abuse cases; yet, as we now know, these rules and others outlined in more recent years, were mostly ignored by Vatican officials, whether intentionally or not.

This week, the Vatican outlined more new rules for the disciplining of abusive priests, and called pedophilia a grave crime constituting egregious violations of moral law. In the same breath, the Vatican also reaffirmed its opposition to women’s ordination and reminded Catholics that “the attempted ordination of women” is a grave crime too.

The jarring juxtaposition of these two disparate issues seems mindboggling. Their insensitive conflation highlights that Vatican officials still do not fully apprehend the grave emotional cost of the irreparable harm done to numerous individuals and their families by the actions of priests and church officials. It also shows that the Vatican does not fully grasp how the scandal has diminished its credibility among Catholics, victims and non-victims alike, who want to find pastoral healing, spiritual strength, and moral leadership within the Catholic Church.

It might well seem that the Vatican is poorly versed in basic principles of public relations management; particularly during Benedict’s papacy there have been several notable public relations gaffes. There is, however, a larger context to the Vatican’s juxtaposition of sex abuse and women’s ordination. Since becoming pope, Benedict has time and again publicly denounced the increased secularism of the West, and has exhorted Catholics to return to the orthodoxy defined by the authority of the church hierarchy. Indeed, quite remarkably, the Vatican has explicitly linked the causes of the sex abuse crisis to secularization forces. Pope Benedict’s much anticipated pastoral letter to Irish Catholics (in March 2010) stated that the “overall context of the disturbing problem of sex abuse” is related to secularization and its impact on “people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values” and “loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.” It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to forestall secularization. Catholics in Europe and especially in the U.S., where they are far more involved in parish life, persist in exercising judgments that are autonomous of Vatican teaching, and which are highly critical of the church’s structure and institutional practices, including its exclusion of women from ordination.

Pope Benedict’s focused attentiveness to the threats posed by secularism contributes to blinding the Vatican to the pastoral consequences of the sex abuse sin within the church. Besieged by secular forces, the defensive response is to reaffirm the church hierarchy’s authority and, in particular, to denounce the threat of any change to its constant tradition of a male priesthood. Since the 1970s, the Vatican has been unambiguous in denouncing women’s ordination and its advocates. And these statements, many of which were issued with the authority of the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), did not get muddled by other issues; no public relations stumbles there. The simultaneous categorization of sex abuse and attempted women’s ordination as grave offenses, therefore, may not be so bizarre. It is the Vatican’s assertion of authority against internal and, in particular, what it perceives as external threats. It is understandable that the church wants to uphold certain traditions and is concerned about the consequences of overturning what it considers core doctrine. But in doing so, the Vatican risks losing sight of the damage done to the victims of priest sexual abuse and the consequential further erosion of its pastoral and moral authority.

Michele Dillon is Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

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  • usapdx

    The administration of the RCC still must believe that to blame all will distract from the fact that the administration silennce the truth of the sexual crimes against children by their employees to protect the image of the church. Why does thow paint thow into a corner? NUTS!

  • SCKershaw

    Just when you think that the Church cannot sink any lower, they throw out two heaping shovels full. Basically he is saying in one breath “secularism” causes priests to have sex with little boys and in the next breath that those who even disagree with the Church on the ordination of women have committed an equivalent sin. That’s not being tone deaf; that’s being morally dead.Ironically, this Pope doesn’t seem to understand that a sectarian government might choose to establish a religion other than Roman Catholicism. That is just one of the reasons that any government that is not secular is inherently unjust.

  • eaglehawkaroundsince1937

    The real crime in all of this is not letting priests marry if they so choose. What is so difficult to understand?

  • thebump

    We all would benefit from more time in prayer, and may I in all charity suggest that that is true as much for the misguided souls who natter on about priestesses as for anyone.

  • Chops2

    “overall context of the disturbing problem of sex abuse” is related to secularization and its impact on “people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values” and “loss of respect for the Church and her teachings”What a crock. It has gone on for centuries. Anyone thinking this is a new thing is kidding themselves. Which means they have raped kids for centuries. This is a result of an unimpinged theocratic regime. Its secular forces that are exposing these b*stards and the only loss of respect occurs through their blind stupidity of thinking they can systematically rape kids and get away with it.

  • mini2

    My problem is a simple one; please resolve it for me:The Vatican insists that Roman Catholic dioceses operate as independent entities; hence, it is not responsible for the goings-on in these places. Yet these places must follow the Vatican line. How, exactly, does that work?Years ago, as an undergraduate at Notre Dame (Indiana), a classmate made a very convincing argument that Orwell’s 1984 could be applied to the governance of the Roman Catholic Church. An O’Brien, you’ll remember, was Big Brother.In 50+ years, nothing has changed.

  • patmatthews

    Maybe Religious Leaders do NOT get it. These religious Leaders; Catholic, Christian, Jewish, etc; when they violate any form of moral responsibility, they have let go of their faith completely, and replaced their faith with personal greed. Catholic/Christian believers allow for repentance, but as a Buddhist, I am beginning to believe the idea is being overused and not respected. Once is enough, more than once it is a habit that needs to be changed internally.Religious Leaders are hypocritical when they allow their group to act outside of their identified moral responsibility and become an accomplice to the act, condoning immoral behavior within their religious order.Looking down and calling gay people faith-less while the Catholic Leadership allows pedophilia of children is unacceptable, like the pot calling the kettle black.

  • johnklenert

    Once again, the bishops are wearing their miters too tightly. What are far more serious episcopal sins: 1-denying the Eucharist to its members because there are no priests available due to the non-marriage law. 2-refusing due to pride to acknowledge the power of the Spirit to acknowledge the need and the place for women in its ordained ministry. Yes, Jesus started off with 12 men but do you think he would be preaching a “No women need apply.”?

  • FortBliss

    Perhaps Buddhist monks should be allowed to marry? Perhaps women should become Buddhist monks? Why not allow Catholic nuns to marry?

  • intrepidone38

    You, Professor Dillon, I believe are far too sympathetic to the Vatican’s line that there are forces external to their religion that account for the crisis of sexual abuse revelations in the RC Church, rather than intrinsic psychological and therefore moral wrongs they themselves propagate that in fact have led them to the unsavory place they find themselves. I have written at length elsewhere ( about the self-deception they are engaged in, but let me just advance the notion here that in displacing moral blame, and doing so inveterately, they continue to do what individual priests do in instances of child sexual abuse, which is create victims. That failure to look within and failure to listen to those from without is the ultimate source of their blindness and deafness to the harm caused to victims–not just ineptness at PR with the secular press, secular world, and their own followers.R.S. Hoffman, M.D.

  • gvahey

    Being a member of a reformed catholic Church (the Scottish Episcopal Church) we watch with interest the spiralling catastrophe emerging with the Roman Church, which is sad. Their adherence to the Pope’s dogma is still curious. RCs are not encouraged to have an informed opinion. I know of many RC friends who ignore the Pope’s statements and follow their own, inner consciences. His condemnation of women priests in the same breath as sex abusers is appalling.

  • mwcob

    What’s stunning is that these crimes occur in Jewish synagogues, Baptist churches, Episcopalian churches, Public Schools, Pediatrician offices, etc. In fact over 400 public school teachers every year will be charged with sexual misconduct related crimes. Where are those reports? I don’t dismiss the grave mortal sin that selected priests have committed. But as a devout Catholic, I object to the fact that out of a billion Catholics, the vast majority of whom are raising their kids responsibly, the Post wants everyone to believe that the Catholic Church is the exclusive domain of a comparatively small group of failed priests. (comparatively next to the billion of laity they to whom they should be ministering)I am security contractor. I am a devoted father of two. I go to weekly confession, volunteer at food banks, and volunteer in various youth services jobs. As much as any offending priest……I too am the Catholic Church. She is my home. She is my family.

  • Gerry6

    Ms. Dillon says: “This week, the Vatican outlined more new rules for the disciplining of abusive priests.” As Catholic Church documents go, the one she mentions is very unusal. Most Church documents bearing on wrongdoing concern its moral aspects. This one does nothing but codify many points of the Church’s law, most of which were already in effect. (The attempted ordination of a woman was already dealt with by a decree issued on 19 December 2007.) For that reason, nothing in this document articulates the Pope’s and his helpers’ views on the relevant moral or other aspects of the matters treated.Church law is concerned with everything from a very different point of view than the laws of political society. Public law should defend and promote the human common good of the society’s members. Church law should defend and promote reverence for God and the holiness of the Church’s members. Unless one shares that perspective, Church law is bound to seem absurd.From the perspective of the Catholic Church’s law, simulating the celebration of the Eucharist, soliciting a woman who is confessing her sins to commit adultery, and trying to ordain a woman are all greater crimes than leading an adolescent boy to participate in sodomy. However, even the latter crime is far greater, from the perspective of the Catholic Church’s law, that treason against one’s country, which Church law nowhere mentions.

  • DwightCollins

    gays cannot be priests or any other authority figures…

  • areyousaying

    So what the Pope is saying is a Bishop ordaining a woman is no less of a sin than of a Priest raping me when I was a 14-year-old boy?Without a mandate to turn existing perverts over to civil authorities for prosecution like any other pervert teacher or minister, the Church is still holding itself above civil law and tries to tell us they will take care of the problem. History has shown they can’t and won’t.Why is a Church above the law, especially in the US? Why do we look the other way as if God entitled old men of the clergy to help themselves to the bodies of young boys?I don’t want any of the Church’s dirty semen and blood stained money and never did. All I want is civil law protection for future victims as a deterrent against perverts and as a deterrent against criminal obstruction of justice by hiding them.When the Church coughs up all its known pervert priests for civil prosecution and officially tells us it did, may you no- longer-complicit Catholics enjoy your religious freedom. Until then, the rest of us, especially victims who your leaders have demonized as “gold diggers,” aren’t going to sit back, look the other way and pretend the problem doesn’t exist like you apparently do.

  • ggrant9170

    The difference between prodestant crimes and papacy is that if a prodestant preacher is caught having sex with a child, that preacher goes to prison! The papacy scares me. I see the pope decorated in such elaborate garb then I see Jesus dressed in simpe clothing, non assuming, teacher, prophet, healer. It seems the teachings of Christ, the commandments are a second thought to the papacy. The pope seems to be the central theme and Jesus an afterthought. The laws of men vs the laws of God. This was the primary reasons for the reformation. When regards for a human man the pope are above our Saviour. Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour and the pope is a employee of our Lord. The pope walks around in what i consider silly elaborate expensive garb, huge gold crowns, like he is a god, that seems wrong. That is my view.

  • Sajanas

    Its funny to see Catholic posters complain that other religions and institutions have sex abuse too, as if it excuses them. The critical difference is that none of these institutions feel that they have the right to govern themselves and act as judge and jury, instead of turning the guilty over. No public school has a trial over a teacher that rapes a child and then reassigns him to a new class because they are low on teachers.It amuses me to no end that Benedict keeps raging against the secular. He may have some people brainwashed, but how does he expect to win this fight? When secular morality offers gender equality, gay rights, and reproductive health, I find it hard to see how a culture that denigrates all of those will survive. Especially when the supposedly most moral of institutions takes decades to address the pretty basic moral wrong of child rape.

  • areyousaying

    gays cannot be priests or any other authority figures…Posted by: DwightCollins

  • WESHS49

    I am Catholic who is geatly disturbed by the manner in which the Church has handled the sexual abuse of children by priests scandal.For years the Church put the avoidance of embarassment and protection of those priests who violated children ahead of the well being of children.The arguement that others have done the same is counter-productive. Until Catholics admit that the Church is guilty of a terrible sin and work agressively to prevent it from happening in the future the stain of this tragedy is a wound that will remain and fester.

  • AdventurerVA

    Fort Bliss says: “Perhaps Buddhist monks should be allowed to marry? Perhaps women should become Buddhist monks? Why not allow Catholic nuns to marry?Ridiculous, right?”Um, no. These rules carry stimatism against marriage and human emotions of love and caring. What’s the big deal? I’d love to have a happily married nun teach the kids. We might have more nuns in Catholic schools!

  • elwoll

    The Catholic church is a dinosaur. Period.

  • elizdelphi

    I agree very much with MWCOB. The few sick priests who go horribly astray and do grave harm to children, are obviously not representative. They are obviously not our ideal, and we obviously do not defend their actions. As MWCOB points out, most Catholics are lay people like MWCOB–and myself, and we too are the Catholic Church, and we love her. I add, we love our priests, truly I know some exceptional, wonderful, and truly chaste priests.Those wonderful priests I know are ~~Catholic~~ priests, and together with other faithful Catholics, laity included, they believe as the Catholic Church teaches. They don’t believe artificial contraception or abortion or same-sex behavior, or divorce and remarriage are in keeping with the natural moral law, nor indeed that these are what is good for people and society. Their espousal of these basic and consistent Christian beliefs, apparently makes some people (who are free to practice Catholicism or not) absolutely hopping mad. Rage over the Church’s witness to truths of sexual morality, is clearly a factor in the lack of civility in response to the news about the grave sexual offenses of some priests. No Church response to the sex abuse issue could ever appease someone for whom the real issue is they want the Church’s blessing on their own sins. Any sense that the Church wills anything but the annihilation of priests who did heinous things to children, may be intolerably painful to them, maybe because this is so much objectively graver and more humanly devastating than, for instance, contraception. Why can’t the Church just follow suit with the culture, and say that these common things like contraception and homosexual behavior (for instance) aren’t really sins anymore–and focus on the very most horrendous things, like child molestation? The answer is that the Church doesn’t see herself as the source of the moral law, rather this is from God, is intrinsic to our nature, and unchanging, and we are called to be holy, to do God’s loving will in actuality, as best as we know how and are able to, in virtue, which is also living our humanity in the fullest and most beautiful way. It’s the way to happiness, to beatitude.May God’s mercy be on all here.

  • cprferry

    “So what the Pope is saying is a Bishop ordaining a woman is no less of a sin than of a Priest raping me when I was a 14-year-old boy?No. Again, you’re misunderstanding the Vatican. (So is the media.)The CDF is a Vatican committee that handles cases of grave crimes against faith and morals. False ordination is a grave crime. You can’t have priests out there claiming what they aren’t.However, there is and has been no attempt to equate the two. It is simply that the same committee handles both cases. Just as criminal courts handle both cases of murder and burglary. The state doesn’t equate the two crimes, but does consider them criminal crimes and assigns them to the same court.However, the latest revision of the committee’s policies did equate something with child sex abuse. They raised the penalties of perpetuating and/or covering up the abuse of mentally-challenged adults to the same level as abuse against children.

  • cprferry

    “Its funny to see Catholic posters complain that other religions and institutions have sex abuse too, as if it excuses them. The critical difference is that none of these institutions feel that they have the right to govern themselves and act as judge and jury, instead of turning the guilty over. No public school has a trial over a teacher that rapes a child and then reassigns him to a new class because they are low on teachers.What are you talking about? If a teacher is to be removed from her job, it goes to an administrative court and may even be subject to an arbitrator. That’s completely in house.The concept is called state immunity. Crimes perpetuated by the public sector remain under a separate jurisdiction, with its own courts, its own burdens of proof, with a reduced statute of limitations (most states 6 months), and immunity for supervisors and organization as a whole from civil (monetary) penalty.In NYC and other cities with strong public sector unions, there’s teachers that were successfully prosecuted in criminal and civil court that have not been fired because the teachers stalled the administrative court proceedings.I recall one case in which the principal knew the teacher had an affair w/ their student (he actually married a former student when she was under age), but the crime wasn’t reported until the teacher had another affair years later. Unfortunately the latest case won only in civil, not criminal court. So when the administrative court brought up its process to fire the teacher, it sought to bring up the older case to show this teacher is real threat. However, the principal never reported original case, and so neither the teacher or principal could not be fired for the original or latest case because the administrative rules had a statute of limitations of only a few months.Municipalities hold dearly to this privilege too. There was a bill in the NY state legislature that targeted private and religious schools for sex abuse. When it was successfully lobbied to include public schools, the municipalities raised a fuss and at present the bill hasn’t come to a vote.And it’s not just NYC. Didn’t you read the news this past year that the present DC teachers contract has no sanction against teacher sex abuse over the age of 16? The teachers union and DC ACLU were fighting against a zero-tolerance policy. The union and ACLU wanted to restrict it to teachers’ and their current students. So, in their view, it would be alright for a janitor to prey on a child or 12th grade teacher on a 10th grader.

  • nyankslawrence

    I hope peaple just hate the catholic church,and there is no reasion why they are ever commenting about it.We should know that the Catholic church is the Mother of all churches in the world,and it has got the mojolity followers.

  • nyankslawrence

    Why peaple mind abpout the doctrines of the Catholic church?If you are not a Catholic then why are you so much concerned with it`s teachings and beliefs?

  • elizdelphi

    Areyousaying wrote (about the laicized priest who molested Special Olympics athletes as a lay person):Actually, I read that the diocese where he lives states that not only has he never worked for their diocese in any capacity, he is not registered in any parish there. It’s not clear whether this man practices his Catholic faith anymore, but what I read seemed to imply that he does not necessarily. Unfortunately it happens sometimes that the rupture with the Church is severe enough that there are some laicized priests who are basically “fallen away Catholics”. I know of one (though not a child molester!) in my local area, who essentially says so.I note that the Catholic Church has been criticized by some people for not having a policy of immediately laicizing any priest who molests a child. In this case the priest was indeed laicized, but people like Areyousaying still want to blame the Church for the action of this individual who is not only no longer among its ministers, but perhaps not practicing his faith as a lay person either. Others would say cases like this suggest arguments against laicizing such priests, because then the Church is in a position to continue monitoring the priest. As it is, this laicized priest no longer had a relationship with the Church of a kind that the Church would have a responsibility for where he was or what he was doing, even as intensely as the Church might desire that he not have contact with children or molest them.

  • areyousaying

    Whether a priest is “laicized” or not is of no significance to me. That is your and your Church’s business.Read the article again:Erickson was a priest in the Diocese of Superior, Wis, who made the settlementErickson admitted in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that he had fondled three boys but denied having contact with a fourth child involved in the settlement. He said the settlement totaled about $5 million.Bishop Peter Christensen of the Diocese of Superior was out of the office Monday and did not return a call seeking comment.

  • glorybe1929

    This is such a volitile subject. The abused need to heal and they can do that by distancing themselves from the RCC as far away as they can get. They don’t need apologies from evil men and or women who delibertly and willfully groomed them for their sexual purposes. If at all possible, the survivors need to reconnect with their LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST IN PRAYER. These men and women who have done these hidious things to you, are being held accountabile to the HOLY SPIRIT, as they have committed the UNFOIRGIVEABLE SIN. That is what the Bible says They all need to be in jail, away from any more people they can harm. The whole RCC should be on trial in the World Court and found GUILTY, as they have done these Crimes Against Humanity for millenium(s)

  • B2O2

    Report CardStudent: The Catholic ChurchEvolution vs Creationism: FRecommendation: Student is showing profound learning disabilities. Recommend continued remedial education through watching and (following its customary period of kicking and screaming) ultimately emulating liberal, secular society. Eventually student may catch up to the other kids and be a functioning member of society.