Turning punishment into instrument of love


OPINION:Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has questioned the response of some “church academics” to the sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the church. Here one theologian analyses how the abuse culture grew in the church

IS THE abuse of children and minors systemic in the Roman Catholic Church?

There is not a simple yes-or-no answer to this question. Yet there is no more important question to answer in the course of the current crisis; for on the answer to this question will depend the true extent of the necessary changes to church teaching and practice, and perhaps to the very structure of the church.

The question cannot be answered by the numbers and spread of child abusers in the church, compared to those in society at large.

Rather must one examine in detail the system of beliefs and practices that today characterise the Roman Catholic version of the Christian religion, in order to discover whether there is anything in these that could provide a seed-bed for that appalling and ever-increasing litany of physical and sexual abuse, and for the criminal cover-up that facilitates its spread.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (pictured below) offered, in June 2009, one answer to that question of systemic status, with reference to the humiliation, deprivation, physical and sexual violence visited upon inmates of industrial schools and Magdalen laundries.

In his own words: “There are questions to be asked regarding how much Irish devotional practice in general had drifted away from the fundamental fact that God is love, (to be inspired instead) by a punitive, judgmental God; a God whose love was the love of harsh parents, where punishment became the primary instrument of love.”

For it was this drift that facilitated the punitive and humiliating culture which developed in these institutions, as clergy and religious imitated that punitive divinity of theirs in behaviour towards inmates often seen as the spawn of sinners.

The archbishop’s answer is, as usual, brave and good; yet it does not go far enough. For the picture of a judgmental and severely punitive God cannot be traced simply and only to some rather recent Irish devotional practice. It goes back much further and to a more central feature of church belief and practice; back to the third century AD and to a theology of Mass and of Calvary then developing, in which God’s love for sinners took the form of a demand for a cultic sacrifice offered by a priest and taking the form of the most humiliating and cruel torture and death of the man, Jesus – a human sacrifice therefore – in order to satisfy God’s justice for all our sins.

It was this that made the God whom Jesus called Our Father and asked us to imitate, into the judgmental and punitive God for whom punishment became a primary instrument of love.

There is another feature of church belief that supports such a picture of the judgmental and punitive God we should imitate.

This is best seen in the last judgment story from Matthew’s Gospel, in which poor unshriven sinners are condemned to eternal torture by fire, a fate far worse than even the cruellest death; a story that tempts church persons to believe that punitive measures should be applied in this life, if only to lessen those that could be expected after death. Punishment again is the primary instrument of love for those that would imitate the God of eternal hellfire who – true to form – had Jesus put to death to satisfy divine justice.

But even if this is all true and correct and evidence of the systemic nature of child abuse in the church, could the church reform these doctrines and practices so apparently favourable towards such abuse, and do so in the name of the following of Jesus? It could, for Jesus saw himself as a prophet in Israel, not a priest; he saw Calvary as his execution, secured by a High Priest who judged him to be prophet to a false God, and consequently convicted him as a blasphemer. Furthermore, the God Jesus preached as Our Father is one who never returns evil for evil, here or hereafter.

Many who leave the institutional church nowadays say they do so in order to follow a Jesus they can no longer recognise in the institutional church. They have a very strong point. For indeed, the case for abuse being systemic in the Roman Catholic Church – both the violent kind and the sexual kind that is also a form of violence rather than one of simple sexual gratification – can be based on other features intrinsic to the teaching and practice of that church: on the church’s traditionally distorted teaching on sex, for instance, combined with the total unpreparedness for the celibate life that its priests experience; or on a kind of secularisation in the church which the pope was happy to mention as cause of clerical abuse in Ireland, while failing entirely to realise and mention that his own office, in concept and exercise, is a prime example of the oldest and most thorough form of secularisation that any part of the church has ever experienced. For the power of the papacy has from the beginning been cast in the mould of the very secular Roman Emperor; the kind of absolute power that Jesus explicitly and often insisted the leaders of his community were to abjure absolutely, in favour of a ministry to that community modelled on the lifestyle of a slave.

Even the historic definition of the infallibility of the pope at Vatican I was explicitly sought by its most ardent proponents as part of a pursuit of the total absoluteness of an already rather absolute power of papacy; and as power of its nature is inclined to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Finally, in case this piece might be read as singling out Diarmuid Martin for failing to go deep enough with his critiques of certain Roman Catholic devotions as sources of recent failings, and in view of his address on Monday night – reported in full in yesterday’s Irish Times – about all of us having to share in the guilt for what has been happening, making special mention of church academics along the way, let me be clear. May I on my own behalf at least apologise sincerely for the sheer length of time, in a life-time practice of theology, that it has taken me to identify, with the hope of its reversal, so much of the theory and practice of that church that over the long centuries has proved to be a betrayal of the faith of the historical Jesus, the mighty prophet and son of God that this church still claims as its founder.

James P Mackey is Honorary Professor in the school of religions and theology at Trinity College, Dublin, and Thomas Chalmers Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Edinburgh. His book, Jesus of Nazareth,is published by Columba Press, Dublin