Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Sexual Abuse in the Catholic System – Moralism

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic System – Moralism

“Chuang Tzu’s concern with the problem that the very goodness of the good and the nobility of the great may contain the hidden seed of ruin is analogous to the concern that Sophocles or Aeschylus felt a little earlier, in
the west. … the hero of virtue and duty ultimately lands himself in the same ambiguities as the hedonist and the utilitarian.

Why? Because he aims at achieving ‘the good’ as object. He engages in a self-conscious and deliberate campaign to ‘do his duty’ in the belief that this is right and therefore productive of happiness. He sees ‘happiness’ and ‘the good’ as ‘something to be attained,’ and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have
what he desires: between the wrong and the evil, the absence of what he seeks, and the good that he hopes to make present by his efforts to eliminate the evils; between his own idea of right and wrong, and the contrary idea of right and wrong held by some other philosophical school. And so on. …. (this is) organized despair: the good that is preached and exacted by the moralist thus finally becomes an evil, and all the more so since the hopeless pursuit of it distracts one from the real good which one already possesses and which one now despises or ignores. [Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, New Directions, 1965 22-23.]

In this series
of reflections prompted by the tragedy of sexual abuse within the Catholic
Church, I am in search of ways of thinking within the Catholic Church that
might have in some way enabled that tragedy to occur in the first instance and
then to be badly handled in the second instance. I believe it will not be enough to simply
tighten the rules or enact more severe sanctions or exercise greater scrutiny
of candidates for ministry or make encouraging and challenging statements.

These and other
measures must certainly be taken. But if
this is all we do, and we make no attempt to search out and deal honestly and
constructively with our ways of thinking and acting that are in fact
detrimental to what we seek to be, then we will have achieved little. We will also have missed a rare opportunity
for transformation.

In the first of
these reflections I proposed that the heresy of Docetism is alive and well
within the Church and that the ways of thinking and acting implied in that
heresy have, potentially at least, been one significant contributing factor to
the sexual abuse tragedy. In this second
reflection I am proposing that Moralism has been and remains a significant


What do I mean
by the term “Moralism”? As with
Docetism, the key idea in Moralism is a misrepresentation of the
Incarnation. Whereas in Docetism, the
key idea is that Jesus only seemed to
be enfleshed, in Moralism, the key idea is that Jesus is only an exemplary
cause, not an efficient cause, of our redemption. Or, to put it more simply, Moralism does not
believe that the Cross was effective and therefore redemption remains to be
achieved by us.

Again, as with
Docetism, most Catholics would accept the abstract proposition that Jesus is
more than a moral exemplar, that he is in fact the very cause of our
redemption. In practise, however, it is a
different story. The real life picture
is generally much more complicated than any abstract proposition would suggest. I am saying that the Catholic culture –
probably for many centuries, but certainly in the twentieth century and into
the twenty first century – has been and remains significantly influenced by
Moralism in the concrete if not in the abstract.

Moralism has
tended to shape our understandings, attitudes and efforts in the pursuit of
holiness in general and the virtues in particular, it has tended to give a
peculiar weight to sin and guilt and judgement, it has tended to sideline
mysticism and the apophatic way in theology, it has tended to promote
repression and suppression of emotion and it has tended to radically diminish
our appreciation for the infinite Love that is on offer in the Incarnation.

In this kind of
milieu, it is reasonable to suggest that some men and some women developed
destructive behaviours, among them sexual abuse and violence towards those in
their care.


Rollo May’s
description, in another context, of what he calls “Victorian will power,” applies
also to Moralism as it is found in the Catholic tradition:

That “will power” was
conceived by our nineteenth century forefathers as the faculty by which they
made resolutions and then purportedly directed their lives down the rational
and moral road the culture said they should go.
(Rollo May, Love and Will, W W
Norton & Company, 1969, 182. This
book is a classic in the psychological literature. I highly recommend it – 40 years on it is no
less topical than it was as the 1960s drew to a close.)

Substitute “God”
and/or “Church” for “culture” in this statement by Rollo May and you have a
pretty good practical description of Moralism.
These additions – God and Church – of course can add a heavy weight to
the person’s life and almost certainly a sense of hopelessness – mostly unrecognized
– in the face of the moral demands he or she assumes. This is the “organized despair” Merton refers
to and it is likely to find expression in various strategies and tactics
developed more or less implicitly to allow the individual to cope with the
burden of being a “Christian.”

May points out
that this “will power” approach to living leads to “futility and
self-deceit.” He argues that this was
perhaps Sigmund Freud’s greatest discovery:

(Freud) uncovered the vast
areas in which motives and behaviour – whether in bringing up children or
making love or running a business or planning a war – are determined by
unconscious urges, anxieties, fears, and the endless host of bodily drives and
instinctual forces. (Ibid.)

We do not have to accept Freud’s conclusion
that the human person is dominated by instincts and unconscious drives. I believe we do have to accept his
observation that we are all subject to instincts and unconscious drives which
are not adequately dealt with by “will power” and rationality.

The response to
Moralism therefore necessarily involves a response to the conflicts it implants
within the human psyche. More
concretely, it demands that we actually face those conflicts, with all their
urges and wishes, their anxieties and fears, their rationalizations and
self-deceits. If we do not engage in
this facing, we will engage in destructive behaviours instead. One of the most perplexing and disturbing
aspects of the sexual abuse issue has been the seeming ability of perpetrators
to quarantine their destructive behaviours.
As observers we are left wondering how someone can celebrate Mass, for
example, then engage in such immoral actions.
There is no simple answer to this disturbing, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
behaviour. However, I believe it is
reasonable to suggest that a religious culture dominated by Moralism could well
enable such dualistic behaviour rather than limit it.

If we do engage
in this facing of our conflicts there is every chance that we will be
transformed. The psychiatrist, Karen
Horney writes:

To experience conflicts knowingly, though it
may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset.
The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the
more inner freedom and strength we will gain.
Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal
of being the captain of our ship. A
spurious tranquillity rooted in inner dullness is anything but enviable. It is bound to make us weak and an easy prey
to any kind of influence. (Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts,
W W Norton, 1945, 27.)


Maybe the
seduction of Moralism is found in its promise of control. Wilful assertion is heady stuff when it is
successful. When I can conquer my faults
and achieve “virtue” by the strategies and tactics of personal effort and
self-discipline, I am likely to succumb to the illusion that my life is now
under control. Rather than admit that
control is what this ego project of wilful self-assertion is actually about
however, I re-badge it as “holiness” or “moral integrity” or “being faithful to
Jesus Christ” or simply “virtue.” This
produces the kind of “morality” that gives Charity a bad name.

The best response
to both the call to holiness and to immorality in our own lives and in the life
of the Church, is not a stiffening of resolve and a reassertion of law and
doctrine. It is rather a recovery of the
mystical heart of our faith. When we
know in the depths of our beings that there is nothing we can do to make God
love us more or less, that the essential intent of the Christian life is to
open ourselves to the wonderful invitation to
be in Love, then we will be able to outgrow that powerful primitive urge to
establish control by being “moral.”

Moralism is not
a nefarious plot, a conspiracy hatched and perpetrated by those seeking to
control us. It is, sadly, a very human
defensive process that we are all liable to pursue in the mistaken belief that
it is in our best interests. Whenever
and wherever it emerges in the Church it must be faced and named for the counterfeit
it is.

In fact, it was
insightfully named against the backdrop of a very sad event in the United States. A religious sister, a member of the Ethics
Board of a Catholic hospital in Phoenix,
Arizona, agreed to a decision to
abort an eleven-week old foetus in order to protect the life of the mother who
suffered from pulmonary hypertension.
The local ordinary – Bishop Olmsted – formally excommunicated the
religious sister.

Needless to say
the case attracted wide attention. In an
essay in The Tablet (5 June 2010, 5),
Michael Sean Winters wrote:

Yes, the controversy can be
seen as part of the culture wars. But it
is also an example of a deeper pathology in American religious experience – the
way religion is reduced to ethics in American culture. ‘It is a great temptation for the Church to
reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to
the public forum,’ Mgr Lorenzo Albercete wrote in the Catholic quarterly Communio more than 15 years ago, and the
warning remains true. Pope John Paul’s
and Pope Benedict’s call for a ‘New Evangelization’ will be stillborn if the
Church cannot find ways to proclaim the Gospel effectively, and a main
impediment to that proclamation is this reduction of religion to ethics. Today, in America, the Catholic Left reduces
the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic, and the Catholic Right reduces
the Church’s mission to its ethics on sexual morality. Bishop Olmsted’s decision has encouraged
partisans of both Left and Right to embrace a defensive posture in which it is
difficult to even hear the transcendent call of the Crucified who lives. When a moralism of the Left or Right trumps
mercy, the Gospel is not proclaimed. The
most frightening thing about Bishop Olmsted’s decision is, finally, not its
justice or lack thereof. It is that, in
his multi-paragraph statement announcing the excommunication, he did not even
mention God. That is, if you will pardon
the expression, damning.

When Moralism is
allowed to go unchecked, it has the potential to displace all that is most
precious to us as Catholics. The English
Catholic writer, Nicholas Peter Harvey sums up the challenge:

The point is not to attack particular groups or schools of thought, but
rather to draw attention to the craving that is in us all for an all-embracing
moral system to assuage our anxiety. It
is only when the fruits of this craving are recognised as the destructive
flight from reality that they really are, that the Gospel can begin to come
into its own. Then the world of the
child and the sight of the lilies of the field can begin to work their way in
us. (Nicholas Peter Harvey, Morals and the Meaning of Jesus:
Reflections on the Hard Sayings, The Pilgrim Press, 1991/1993, 35.)

By focusing on the human person
primarily as moral agent rather than the recipient of God’s love, Moralism
makes of the Christian life an ego project; in this way it tends to promote the
image of God as primarily judge, someone to be feared therefore. It places rules and regulations and laws at
the centre of the Christian life, usurping the primacy of Covenant and
relationships and the freedom and dignity of the person as one made lovingly in
the image of God. It tends to develop a radical
conflict in the human psyche that prompts dysfunctional and even destructive
behaviours. It is a travesty of the Good
News. When we who claim to be Christian
are dominated by Moralism, we in fact cease to be Christian. “Christianity
is more than an ethical system …. Jesus not only teaches us the Christian life, He creates it in our souls by the action of the Spirit.” (Thomas Merton, The New Man, Burns & Oates, 1961/1964, 116.)

See the first
Reflection in this series: