Idealizing Religion

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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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18 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    I struggle to believe the man’s apology – “I’m foggier now than I was then!” – when it comes from the same person who blamed everybody but the church’s orthodoxy for what happened to thousands of victims. It seems like he might have strayed over a line in terms of his public discourse that he didn’t intend to, but that’s not the same as not meaning what he’d said. After all, if the problem is with the victims, then the problem isn’t with the church.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Here’s part the explanation from his religious order, for what it’s worth:

      “About seven years ago Fr. Benedict was struck by a car and was in a coma for over a month. In recent months his health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing. He has been in and out of the hospital.”

      • Sam says:

        I recognize that this is your religious institution (right?), but I am dubious. I see no reason to believe the official explanations of a church that has lied for so long about so many things.

        I also find it remarkably convenient that a man who offers an explanation for priestly abuse that falls well within his previous explanations of the problem itself (that it wasn’t the church, but rather, something else) is suddenly showing the effects of a car crash and a coma. When his explanations were more nuanced – when it was the “gay scene” and when it was liberalism and when it was the abandonment of orthodoxy – why were no apologies forthcoming? Why is it only when we have somebody’s horrifying opinions laid bare in such a way as an outsider can easily understand what’s being implied is this car accident a problem?

        It sounds conspiratorial, I know. It sounds cynical too.

        • Kimmi says:

          Whether or not he held these private beliefs, the man certainly knew better than to utter them in public.

          Just like Bill Clinton USED to be a better public speaker, and now is not as good, because of his failing health.

          • hrh says:

            I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say after Pres Clinton speaks at the convention this week.

          • Kimmi says:

            Pumphead’s a medical phenomenon. go read the post on dailykos if you don’t believe me.
            Man’s missing beats, his timing is off. Not bad — not nearly as bad as Gore, who isn’t a natural at public speaking. But he’s lost his spark.

          • hrh says:

            Oh, Kimmicassandra, how prophetic. Poor, poor Bill Clinton, hardly able to string a few words together to make a coherent declarative sentence, not to mention missing all those beats and disastrous timing. It was so noble of the audience to recognize his severe mental and physical limitations, and applaud him a little, nevertheless. The few of them that were left in the auditorium after he began to speak certainly deserve plaudits for suffering through the debacle.

            By the next convention, should he survive that long, he’ll probably have to be wheeled in on his hospital bed, supported by his IV and oxygen, and speak by writing on a personal blackboard. (Hilary will speak the words.)

            Well, I guess he did have one lonely spark left. And it caused that barn to burn down!

            Poor Bill Clinton. Now, an arsonist.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I understand your distrust, Sam. Few things anger me more than how the abuse was handled by my church. I also agree that blaming the victims is a kind of blaming something else, but I would say that calling children “seducers” is morally reprehensible in a way that situating the abuse scandal in a culture of dissent comes nowhere near to reaching, wrong as it is.

        • hrh says:

          Thank you, Sam, for that breath of fresh air. And common sense. No one with a functioning brain can believe ANYTHING coming from the RCCult. As you said, “I see no reason to believe the official explanations of a church that has lied for so long about so many things. ” You sure got THAT right.

          FWIW, Beantown Bernie once said the same thing after the scandal broke and before he fled the country, children seducing the defenseless priests.

          There are probably people out there who are thinking we’re making this up!

      • Sam says:

        Was another part of this explanation, “And whether or not Fr. Benedict meant these sentiments, we disagree. The abuse scandal was a failing of our church, from the Pope to the priests. At no point were the right decisions made. At no point were the right people held responsible. At no point were we good enough people to do what was right and necessary to stop the abuse.”

        Because if it wasn’t, it seems as though the church is again shifting blame, this time to a rogue priest, just as all of the abusive priests were themselves rogues. Nothing is institutional.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Here’s the full text of the statements:

          Statement from the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal:

          The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sincerely apologizes for the comments made by Fr. Benedict Groeschel in an interview released August 27 by the National Catholic Register. In that interview, Fr. Benedict made comments that were inappropriate and untrue. A child is never responsible for abuse. Any abuser of a child is always responsible, especially a priest. Sexual abuse of a minor is a terrible crime and should always be treated as such. We are sorry for any pain his comments may have caused. Fr. Benedict has dedicated his life to helping others and these comments were completely out of character. He never intended to excuse abuse or implicate the victims. We hope that these unfortunate statements will not overshadow the great good Fr. Benedict has done in housing countless homeless people, feeding innumerable poor families, and bringing healing, peace and encouragement to so many.

          Fr Benedict helped found our community 25 years ago with the hope of bringing the healing peace of Jesus Christ to our wounded world. Our desire has always been to lift-up humanity and never to hurt. About seven years ago Fr. Benedict was struck by a car and was in a coma for over a month. In recent months his health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing. He has been in and out of the hospital. Due to his declining health and inability to care for himself, Fr. Benedict had moved to a location where he could rest and be relieved of his responsibilities. Although these factors do not excuse his comments, they help us understand how such a compassionate man could have said something so wrong, so insensitive, and so out of character. Our prayers are with all those who have been hurt by his comments, especially victims of sexual abuse.

          Statement from Fr Benedict:

          I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be. I have spent my life trying to help others the best that I could. I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone.

          • Sam says:

            Although I do believe the car accident’s mention is in there to do precisely what the author claims it wasn’t (“Although these factors do not excuse…”), I will take the entirety of that statement as being offered in good faith.

  2. Burt Likko says:

    There are two possible collective reactions to being called out on a mistake: an effort to change to something new and different from what went wrong before, or doubling down on the problem and insisting that the real issue was insufficient loyalty to the person or entity that did wrong.

    Doubling down seems to be the easier, and therefore more popular, maneuver. See, e.g.,: Penn State, Michael Jackson apologists, and the GOP.

    • James K says:

      This is especially true of an organisation which A) declares it’s leader to be infallible (at least in some contexts) and B) was historically able to deal with this kind of criticism by having the interlocutor burned alive. When you see yourself as the only true source of good in the world, thereby making any criticism of you evil, you create an incubator for all manners of evil.

      Lord Acton said it best – Absolute power corrupts absolutely. He was even talking about the Catholic Church when he said that.