As you’ve probably heard by now, an iconic priest named Father Benedict Groeschel depicted clerics involved in sexual abuse as the victims of seductive youngsters in a now-removed interview with the National Catholic Register. Both he and his religious order apologized for the comments, explaining that he did not intend to blame victims and that his mind and way of expressing himself are not as a clear as they used to be, and acknowledging that the remarks were untrue, insensitive, inappropriate, and hurtful. I’m familiar but not well acquainted with Father Groeschel’s work, but from what I gather, the words were out of character for him.
When I first read about this interview, I remembered that I had a book on the shelf by Father Groeschel, on the sex abuse scandal of all things. I’d never read From Scandal to Hope, which was published in 2002, but with his name in the news I picked it up and read most of it, while skimming a few sections here and there. Nowhere in the book did he blame the victims, I’m happy to report, but nor is the work about the victims. Instead, Father Groeschel charted a path for reform in the context of the abuse scandal, admitting that his course would lead to a Catholic ghetto, which he said would offer protection and be a cause of great identity. “One man’s ghetto is another man’s hometown,” he wrote.
In From Scandal to Hope, Father Groeschel complained a lot about the media feeding frenzy (warning Catholics to be loyal and not join in), which he labeled the work of Satan (along with the sins of abusive priests), and he devoted an entire chapter to how his church is being persecuted by its cultural enemies. He blamed the abuse scandal on mistakes, serious and egregious errors, negligence, bad psychology, and the “gay scene” in seminaries, while tracing the scandal’s root causes to relativism, skepticism, and dissent. “Today’s mistakes are not about misbehaving clerics,” he wrote. “That’s over. Today’s mistakes in the Church are about the continuing appointment of people who openly dissent from Church teaching.” In this reading, the scandalous behavior was due not to anything inherent in the church’s true institutional structure and function, its doctrine or its discipline, but to outside influences that corrupted or fooled members of the institution. The takeaway: orthodoxy marks the path to religious and moral purity; dissent the way to sin and spiritual ruin. Or, in the words of George Weigel, whom Father Groeschel approvingly quotes, “orthodoxy is not a problem. Orthodoxy is the key to the solution.”
None of this analysis surprises me; it’s pretty much part and parcel of the belief that one has the true religion. If you believe that your religion was founded by God and that God will guide it till the end of time, then it seems only natural to conclude that strict accordance with the true way of religion (orthodoxy and orthopraxis) will not lead you astray. I dissent from this conclusion, but do so out of respect for orthodoxy. If we take sin seriously, and I dare say we should, then we must acknowledge that anything–even orthodox religiosity–can be an occasion of sin. There are no sanctuaries from temptation, no safe havens from the capital vices. I suspect Father Groeschel would agree, and yet I fear that his framing of the abuse scandal idealizes his (and my) religion. Contrast him with Garry Wills, whose historical study of his church highlights what he marks the ecclesiastical sins in which some Catholic disciplines and doctrines were formulated and pronounced. Whatever else it is, religion is the work of fallen human beings, and so while orthodoxy may not necessarily be a problem, it can be. As Father Groeschel himself acknowledges, ultimately faith should not be in religion. Even orthodox religion.