Clericalism and the Crisis in the Church

By Fr. Robert Vallee

I agree with Fr. Thomas Rosica, that the root cause of the child abuse problem in the Church has to do with the abuse of power which goes by the name of clericalism. When clerics begin to see themselves as better than other men and women, as ontologically superior to others, all sorts of violent viruses arise and infect the Body of Christ. Pope Francis himself said: “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” In this same letter, the Pope is even more emphatic that the culture in the Church which allows these sins to be covered up must be eradicated and that any bishop who does so must be removed. 

We wonder, once again and not for the last time, how could priests do these things to children and how could other priests and bishops cover it up? I suspect it has something to do with the banality of evil. One makes little compromises at first. Bitterness, loneliness and lust, for power – as much as for sexual release – conspire in the hearts of wounded and hurt men. Even then, the question persists: “Yes, but how is one’s will so corrupted so as to be able to rape or even seduce a child?” By a progressive process of self-deception, one renders oneself blind to the naked and vulnerable face of the other – the face that demands care, respect, tenderness and love: “In the Age of Auschwitz, Levinas has shown that to be or not to be is not the ultimate question: it is rather a commentary on the better than being, the infinite demand of the ethical relation.” One might take note in this regard of the marvelous feminist text of Luce Irigaray, “The Fecundity of the Caress” in Face to Face with Levinas.” It may very well be no accident that this abuse of mainly male children by male clerics could only take place in a patriarchal system. 

Belief is linked to a truth that suffers. The truth that suffers and is persecuted is very different from a truth improperly approached ... it is through suffering truth that one can describe the very manifestation of the Divine: Relation to a Person both present and absent – to a humiliated God who suffers, dies and leaves those whom he saves in despair. The abuser could not abuse if he or she saw and shared the suffering of the abused. True consciousness is broken by disinterestedness: “We must think of consciousness beginning with the emphasis of presence ... Which is required by justice, itself required by vigilance, and thus by the Infinite in me, by the idea of infinity.” In short, one can only blithely smash the face of the other when one is blind to the Infinity in the face of the other. 

“Ethics begins when the face of the other is smashed ... There was no need for ethics in paradise.” Ethics only began when Cain bashed his brother’s head with the jawbone of an ass. In a like manner, we must reflect and struggle as the blood of all those victims cries out from the ground for something like justice, whatever that may be! I understand Levinas to comprehend that justice is a way of interpreting reality, a way of understanding and making sense of myself, others and my world. In a social or ecclesial societies, too readily, “the privileges of rank obstruct justice.” Which is to say that power, “obscures the otherness of the other, the otherness precisely because of which the other is not an object under our control but a neighbor.” We are “called before a form of judgement and justice which recognizes this responsibility, while the rigors of law are softened without being suspended by a sense of mercy.” All ideologies, even religious ones, are deeply dangerous, for ideology masks the immediacy of the human in the face of the other. 

I said I would keep out of psychology but I cannot help but dip my toe into Jungian thought. There was once a priest I knew who had his nephews and nieces call him, “Uncle Father.” Such a situation cannot help but become a mask of formality which covers the face, what Jung would call persona inflation. While it true that priests deserve respect and I wouldn’t allow my niece and nephew to address me by my first name (respect is as good for them to give as for me to get), priests are also human beings who need love and intimacy. However, the persona is a mask and if it is tied on too tightly, the self behind the mask begins to atrophy. The mask covers the face; the collar must be worn by the man, it must not be allowed to obscure his humanity or the humanity of the other. 

It is easy, too easy, for the masks we wear to obscure our own faces or the face of the other: “This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, in his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’ The infinite paralyzes power by its infinite resistance to murder, which, firm and insurmountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes.” If one were to actually see the infinity gleaming the face of the other, it would be impossible to kill or harm the him or her. Hence, abuse is nearly always preceded by an intentional or unintentional blurring of the other’s essential human dignity. One could not harm a small child one recognized as a small child. But “a Jew,” “a terrorist,” “a savage,” or “a violent Arab” – all of these labels, obscure the face of the other behind a mask and dull the conscience. With Leonard Cohen, that marvelously Jewish/Christian/Buddhist poet, “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and overcome the order of the soul.” 

As Levinas says, “Love is only possible through the Infinite – through the Infinite put in me, through the ‘more’ which devastates and awakens the ‘less,’ turning away from teleology, destroying the moment and the happiness of the end ... love is complacent in waiting for the lovable, that is, it enjoys the lovable through the presentation which fills up the waiting.” Perhaps pornography is the short-circuiting of the waiting period. As I once wrote in a song: “Jezebel twisted and turned on Ahab's lace, she had a teeny-tiny heart and a transcendent face. But the dogs ate her beauty in the field of Jezreel, ‘cause what you can't have by love, you will not steal.” 

Language is justice: “We call justice this face-to-face approach in conversation. If truth arises in the absolute experience in which being gleams with its own light, then truth is produced only in veritable conversation or in justice.” The abuser does not engage with the other, with the face of the other. Instead, the abuser has blotted out the sacredness of the other behind a mask of power and lust. As I wrote in a song, “Tear down these wicked walls that scatter and divide; tear down these wicked walls that hatred hides behind.” 

Obligation resides in the face of the other, especially the most defenseless and vulnerable face. Those who commit these horrible acts have not only put themselves in legal and moral jeopardy, they have placed their souls in the hazzard. If one recognizes the sacred infinity in the face of the other, abusive power is paralyzed and rendered impotent. We priests must always remain intensely aware that we are, first and foremost, shepherds and pastors and only secondarily institutional functionaries. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.