A Culture of Credulity

A Culture of Credulity

By investing the Church and its priests with absolute authority, lay Catholics have unwittingly helped create a historic moral scandal

By Jack Beatty

Incredibly, lawyers for the Archdiocese of Boston are arguing that a six-year-old child was "negligent" in allowing himself to be raped by Father Paul Shanley, the advocate of man-boy love whom Cardinal Bernard Law knowingly protected—and that the boy's parents, who were unaware of Shanley's predations, were negligent as well. Legal and psychological experts, quoted by The Boston Globe, branded the negligence defense as a legal absurdity and a public-relations calamity. Yet, in a broader sense, negligence is the missing concept in the Church sex-abuse scandal—the negligence of Catholic parents in imbuing their children with an unquestioning faith in clerical authority, a faith so central to some parents that their children had to protect it by enduring rape in silence.

I have been asking Catholic friends raised in the fifties and sixties whether they would have told their parents if a Paul Shanley had molested them. They all say no. It would have hurt their parents too deeply. I doubt I could have told my own parents for that same reason. The ceremonial superstitions of Catholicism—abstaining from meat on Fridays, crossing ourselves when passing Catholic churches, carrying home palms on Palm Sunday, wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, abstaining from food three hours before receiving Holy Communion and from water an hour before—permeated our lives much as they did for Catholics in the Middle Ages. To question the spiritual content of these rituals was unthinkable. The superstructure of the Church rose up from them. Start doubting whether eating fish on Fridays was taking time off your time in purgatory and you could end up questioning the Immaculate Conception—or thinking that the Pope could err in faith and morals, or that his priests could. The whole point of mid-twentieth-century parish Catholicism was to protect the Faith against the rationalism of the age with a wall constructed of counter-cultural argument at the top and talismans at the bottom, from the St. Christopher medal on your dashboard to protect against accidents to saying exactly three Hail Mary's and four Our Fathers to expunge the sins of the week. You were taught to bow to statues, to treat plaster-of-paris as a symbol of the transcendent. Priests were God's emissaries on earth, backed by an infallible Pope. The Church can't be wrong. The priest can't be wrong. "Father" had to be obeyed. That some priests would abuse this inordinate grant of power was inevitable. The culture of credulity of the still-barely assimilated Catholicism of the post-war era, I believe, is the permissive factor in the priestly abuse of children. American Catholics spent their civic lives in a democracy, but gave over their spiritual lives to a clerical absolutism.

In Ivan Karamazov's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, told to his saintly brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Christ returns to Seville at the height of the Inquisition, and, moved by compassion, restores the sight of a blind man and raises a dead girl from her coffin. These acts draw the attention of the Grand Inquisitor—the wizened face of the Counter Reformation—who the day before had burnt nearly a hundred heretics in "a magnificent auto da fé." The Grand Inquisitor has Christ arrested; then confronts him in his cell. Silently, Christ listens to the Inquisitor justify what the Church has done to His legacy.

You could have compelled belief in You, the Inquisitor tells him, and spared humanity a thousand years of suffering. "Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee ... 'Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.' ... Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and crave faith freely given...." But only the elect are capable of freedom of conscience, the Inquisitor continues. "Canst thou have simply come for the elect? But if so, it is a mystery and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, we too have a right to preach a mystery, and to teach them that it's not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly... So we have done. We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority."

In the wake of the hierarchical cover-up of crimes, Catholics are having to affirm their faith despite their Church. But they are also beginning to look in the mirror, seeing not only how badly their bishops betrayed their trust but also, perhaps, how far the very character of a faith housed in miracle, mystery, and authority set the stage for this historic moral scandal. "Keep the Faith, Change the Church" is the slogan of a dissident group of Catholics planning a national convention in Boston this summer. Their goal is to bridge the divide between their civic and spiritual lives. From the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s to "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" in the 1880s to the attacks on Al Smith as an agent of a Romish plot in 1928 and the similar aspersions cast on John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, bigots have poisoned politics with the fear that Catholicism would change America. The Boston dissidents say the time has come for America to change Catholicism.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/a-culture-of-credulity/303158/