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

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic System – Docetism

One of the indispensable tasks of any …. formulation [of Christology] will surely have to be a convincing vindication of the thoroughgoing humanness of Jesus, a humanness which the classical Christology formally and officially defended, but practically and effectively undermined. [Donald P. Gray, “The Incarnation: God’s Giving and Man’s Receiving,” Horizons, 1 (1974), 1]

One of the lines of thinking that began to emerge in Australia in the 90s, in the wake of the emerging sexual abuse cases, was concerned with the possibility that
there might be something about the Catholic ‘system’ – for want of a better word – that had/has a relevance to sexual abuse. A few people began to ask, for example,
whether there might be something in the way we Catholics regard and exercise authority or think about sex or structure the institution or train men and women in
houses of formation etc, that has allowed or even enabled in some way the instances of sexual abuse to occur and that has not allowed us to deal well
with the horrible truth of it.

The systemic line of thinking did not gain significant momentum at the time. Now, with the publication of the Murphy Report in Ireland, we are being prompted to raise the systemic questions again. The Report noted that the leaders of the Irish Church

…. the maintenance of secrecy,
the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and
the preservation of its assets. All
other considerations, including the welfare of children and the justice for
victims, were subordinated to these priorities. (1.15)

In an article entitled
“Culture that Corrodes” (The Tablet, December
5, 2009, 6-7), Fr Donald Cozzens notes that the Murphy Report “details a
pattern of church response to clergy sexual abuse that mirrors that of
countless other archdioceses and dioceses throughout the Catholic world.”

I suggest there is a close link
between the attempts to cover up the crimes and the crimes themselves. Some of the roots of both lie deeply embedded
in a particular way of thinking and acting that has been endemic to
Catholicism. We can no longer postpone
the rigorous scrutiny of the Catholic Church system.


In pursuing this
scrutiny, many matters must be surfaced.
The Christological heresy of Docetism is one of those matters. That heresy has been highly significant in
misshaping the Christian vision and culture in general and the Catholic vision
and culture in particular.

Docetism, from
the Greek dokein meaning “to seem”, rejects
the humanity of Jesus. According to this
heresy, Jesus only seemed to be a
human, his body being some kind of phantasm.

Early signs of
Docetism can be found in the Christian Scriptures:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test
the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone
out into the world. By this you know the
Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh
is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus (Gk dissolves
Jesus) is not from God. (1John

Many deceivers have gone out into the world,
those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such
person is the deceiver and the antichrist!
(2John 7)

St Jerome wrote:

While the Apostles yet
remained upon the earth, while the blood of Jesus was almost smoking upon the
soil of Judaea, some asserted that the body of
the Lord was a phantom. (St. Jerome, (d.
420 CE); quoted in T. E. Pollard, Johannine Christology and the Early Church,
Cambridge University Press, 1970, 19)

In the 2nd century the Gnostics espoused this way of
thinking, based on their belief that matter is evil. However, it is one thing to recognise Docetism
in the Gnostics of the 2nd century, it is quite another thing to recognise
it in the Catholic mind down through the ages and into our own time. Cardinal Walter Kasper writes:

It is undeniable that in generally current ideas of Christianity, Jesus
Christ is often thought of more or less as a God descending to earth whose
humanity is basically only a kind of clothing behind which God himself speaks
and acts. Extreme notions of that kind
see God dressed as a Father Christmas, or slipping into human nature like
someone putting on dungarees in order to repair the world after a breakdown. The biblical and Church doctrine that Jesus
was a true and complete man with a human intellect and human freedom, does not
seem to prevail in the average Christian head. (Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ,
Paulist ‘Press, 1976, 46)

Karl Rahner
wrote similarly:

In the ordinary religious life of the Christian, Christ finds a place
only as God.” (Karl Rahner, “Current Problems in Christology,” in the
author’s Theological Investigations, (Volume I), Helicon, 1961,

Denial of – or
at least failure to embrace – the enfleshing of God in Jesus of Nazareth, is
not just an academic matter. In fact, it
is probably a fair guess that, at a theoretical level, most if not all Catholics
would totally reject Docetism. The true
importance of Docetism lies in its implicit presence in the way we think and
behave. I believe there is ample
evidence to support what Cardinal Kasper and Karl Rahner have claimed.

As a practical
matter it becomes obvious when we ask the simple question: Why would we have
difficulty in accepting Jesus Christ as human?
What is it about the enfleshing of the Son of God that so troubles us?

Obviously, we
are troubled by the utterly incomprehensible fact that the Infinite has taken
on a finite identity. That distresses
the human mind seeking to understand the Incarnation. However, I suggest a significant part of the truth
of the matter is that we have difficulty accepting ourselves as human. In other words, it is our own enfleshing that
troubles us and prevents us from accepting the enfleshing of the Incarnation.

Another early
heresy – one that, like Docetism, has endured at least into the middle of the
20th century – bears witness to this troubled relationship we have with
ourselves as enfleshed beings. Louis
Bouyer writes of the early centuries:

The chief deviation to which
the ascetic ideal of the first centuries was sometimes reduced in popular
literature was an insistence on continence so fervent that it came rather to
neglect its motivations. Then, under the
influence of the pessimistic dualism of the period, marriage came to be
condemned along with the whole of life in the flesh. This is what has been called encratism. (Louis Bouyer, History of Christian Spirituality I: The Spirituality of the New
Testament and the Fathers, The Seabury Press, 1963, 189.)

The Jesuit,
Thomas H Clancy SJ, writes of modern times:

Naked will,
mistrust of pleasure – those are bywords of a spiritual doctrine drummed into
many generations of Jesuits and other priests and religious. Father John Roothaan, the twenty-first
general of the Society, wrote in his spiritual journal the following principle
of abnegation:

Whatever is
pleasing is to be avoided for the precise reason that it is pleasing. Whatever is displeasing is to be sought for
the precise reason that it is displeasing, unless some just motive persuades
otherwise, or rather some just and certain
motive of the divine service and glory commands
otherwise. (Quoted in Robert North, The General Who Rebuilt the Jesuits (Milwaukee, 1944),
180. Italics added.) (Thomas Clancy SJ, “Feeling Bad About Feeling
Good,” Studies in Jesuit Spirituality.)

The reality of
our enfleshing leads inevitably to the experience of ourselves as sexual
beings. It is probably true to say that
many of the Gnostics would have felt at home with much of the Catholic sexual
morality as it has been articulated over the centuries. It was hard to avoid the sense, as a young
man growing up in the Catholic Church of the 1950s for example, that there was
something “bad” about sex. A “moral
problem” was typically assumed to be a problem with sex.

The reality of
our enfleshing also leads to the experience of ourselves as mortal beings. The flesh, sex and death are of a piece. Our mortality is intimately tied up in this. A common way to avoid the implications of our
mortality and the anxiety it provokes, is to seek power and control wherever
and however we can get it. This prompts
a serious practical question: Might that interplay of flesh, sex and death, have
something to do with the use and abuse of power in human societies, the Church
included? The expression, “lust for
power,” may in fact hold a deeper truth than we normally allow.


Docetism sets up
a radical – and generally unacknowledged – conflict in the Christian
consciousness. This conflict tends to
undermine our attempts to be “Christ like.”
Sebastian Moore pointed in this direction when he wrote some fifty years

The effect of
being continually exposed to the truth which is doing one no good is
distressing to the soul. There can even
result a kind of unbelief, an exhaustion of the spirit, which is all the worse
for being partly unconscious. (Sebastian
Moore OSB, “A Catholic Neurosis?”, The
Clergy Review, Volume XLVI, No. 11 (November 1961), 647.)

If the Christ I
am daily endeavouring to know and follow was actually unwilling to identify
himself with my flesh, then I find myself torn.
Even if this conflict is not acknowledged or even recognised, is it not
fair to assume that it will have some significant effect on my sense of myself
and eventually on my behaviour? And if this
conflict has been operative within the Catholic system, is it not also fair to
assume that it will have adversely affected the training of priests and
religious? Most particularly, will it
not have affected our attitude to and training for celibacy?

When human
beings get caught in a radical and unconscious conflict, it takes a toll. It can leave them joyless and even
depressed. It can generate chronic anger
and rigidity. Perhaps more alarmingly,
it can lead to compensatory behaviours.
The more gross and obvious of these compensatory behaviours are manifest
in bodily actions, such as inappropriate eating, inappropriate drinking and inappropriate
sexual activity. However, some may find
compensation in more subtle ways, in “success” for example, and the trappings
of power the system offers.

I do not think
it is a great distance from Docetism to inappropriate sexual behaviours or the
inappropriate use of power and control within the Catholic Church. If Docetism is a relevant part of the sexual
abuse issue – and I believe it is – then one part of our response to the sexual
abuse issue is an urgent reframing of our Christological vision, particularly
at the practical and pastoral level.