First presented at a Yale conference on the Roman Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal

My task is to reflect on the Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal from a
theological angle: why does sex abuse happen within the Church? why was there an
upturn from the 50’s through the 60’s and peaking in the 70’s with a decline in
the 80’s and 90’s? why was there a pattern of institutional toleration and secrecy
that did not so much punish as transfer repeat offenders? Of course, theology
is–among other things–ideology, and ideology has an impact only insofar as it
forms and informs a culture and its players. After reading the documents
concerning clerical sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I asked myself
what theological loci might possibly shed some light.

Roman Catholic Ecclesiology: One obvious place to begin, is Roman Catholic
doctrines of the Church. The “Institutional” Model: Pre-Vatican II ecclesiology,
which is still reflected in Lumen Gentium,<1> understands the Church to be the
Body of Christ, which is in turn identified with the visible institution. If the
Holy Spirit is the ésprit de corps, the Spirit’s relation to the visible
institution is ontological, even likened (albeit without philosophical precision)
to that between the Divine Word and the human nature in Christ.<2> Thus taught by
the Spirit, the Church is infallible (or at least ex cathedra papal pronouncements
are held to be infallible).<3> The Church is over all and in the end
indefectible.<4> The Holy Spirit works through proper channels to teach the Church
all things necessary for salvation, and the Holy Spirit cannot be wrong!
(Protestants are quick to identify the non-sequitur.)

Christ Himself intended to found a church, and meant the apostles to
establish a top-down pyramidal hierarchy: with the successor of Peter, the
plenipotentiary pope at the top; then the bishops; then the priests subordinate to
and instruments of their bishops; then deacons, then sub-deacons, then laity,
religious and unvowed forming the broad base.<5> Holy Orders makes an ontological
change in the ordinand, confers on the priest a sacramental character that
conforms him to Christ as head and shepherd,<6> so that the priest is empowered to
act ‘in the person of Christ’<7> and even (within his assigned territory) as vicar
of Christ. In subordination to pope and bishop, the priest “heads” by “ruling” and
“sanctifying” his parish.<8> Stretches of some documents seem to construe the
priest’s shepherding or pastoral function in terms of sacramental delivery. The
sacrifice of the mass must be daily repeated to make the saving work of Christ
present, alive and accessible to the faithful who are prepared (by baptism) and
screened (by confession).<9> From the pre-Vatican II perspective still reflected
in many documents, outside the Church–specifically, the Roman Catholic
Church–there is no salvation.<10> Sacramental participation is necessary for
salvation. Therefore, priesthood pertains to the essence of the Church (its esse
and not merely its bene esse).<11> Like Christ the Good Shepherd, priests are gate
and gate-keepers to the fold of eternal life.<12>

To the extent that it took hold, this institutional model might help explain
some of our data. Its explicit clericalism makes priests powerful privileged
characters, which–what with overwork, loneliness, and lack of pastoral care for
the clergy–slides over into the implicit conviction that the shepherd is entitled
to eat some of the sheep. Identifying the Body of Christ with visible Roman
Catholic institutions puts the Church on a pedestal. If the Roman Catholic Church
is above reproach, any evidence to the contrary must be covered up to “keep up
appearances.” Likewise, whatever goes wrong cannot be the fault of an infallible
and indefectible institution. Bad-apple priests must be scape-goated. It is they
who–as some documents say–“defile” the priesthood by betraying their vows.

Mid-Course Corrections: More recent documents on priesthood and priestly
formation recognize that the priest’s responsibility to give pastoral care goes
beyond making sacramental rites available. It involves modelling Christ’s
compassion, accompanying people on their spiritual journeys as a guide and friend.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guidelines recognize that priests
cannot give what they have never received. They acknowledge that priestly
formation has to be built upon healthy human formation, which includes all
dimensions of the human personality.<13> They emphasize the need for integrated
role models, wise and sensitive spiritual directors,<14> and regular sacramental
confession.<15> They recognize that priests will need social support to live into
and remain faithful in a challenging life-style. Instead of discouraging
“particular attachments,” the bishops’ guidelines stress the importance of
priestly fraternity, a lasting community of friends who will support one another
through thick and thin.<16>

At the level of theory, such adjustments in the Church’s theology of
priesthood are welcome. There is much to admire in the bishops’ proposals. But the
idea of priestly fraternity is not itself an innovation. Back in the eleventh and
twelfth centuries, Anselm and Aelred write about spiritual friendship among
monastic brothers, each and all committed to the same goal, standing ready with
cheer-leading and constructive criticism to help each other on. Priestly
fraternity as that of a military corps bonded together for a challenging
assignment was also part of the rhetoric of the pre-Vatican II institutional

The trouble is, the institution did not practice what it preached. Some
diocescan priests trained in the fifties and sixties complain that it never
happened.<17> Moreover, our data base shows how easily fraternal loyalty is
perverted, when friendship gives up on constructive correction and support for
amendment of life, and sinks back into condonation and cover-up. Our data base
shows how in many cases, protecting the club and its members in fact became more
important than the common goal that brought them together in the first place:
viz., of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, of seeking first the Reign of

The Communal Model: Reforming Roman Catholics heard Vatican II as forwarding
an alternative model, according to which the Church is to be identified, not with
the institution, but with the whole people of God; a model, according to which
role differentiation is still recognized, but the pyramidal hierarchy is
de-emphasized in favor of a horizontal community of brothers and sisters, each of
whom has gifts and contributes to the organic integrity of the Body of Christ.<18>

At the level of theory, this family of ecclesial models has much to offer by
way of correction, not least the honoring of the priesthood of all believers and
emphasizing the role of personal relationships for Christian life and mission.<19>
Since the sixties, religious communities (catholic and protestant, christian and
otherwise) have experimented with such communal organization. Much good has come
of it. Still, it is not a panacea for institutional corruption. Communal
institutions promise to be more transparent by affording more opportunity for
face-to-face communication among persons in different roles. The downside is that
their modus operandi are in fact less explicit, depending as they do on personal
connections, and so are after all apt to foster a-wink-and-a-nod decision making
at the bar or in the corridors. Likewise, communal structures can be easily
co-opted, when community is put ahead of individuals. How often are members
asked–in the name of love and trust and the Reign of God–to cede individual
power and interests to the group, only for power-mongers surreptitiously to fill
the vacuum and dictate group agenda.

The Loci of Sin: My point is this: the worst contributing theoretical mistake
that Roman Catholic ecclesiology made was, not forwarding the institutional
instead of a communal model, but its insistence that the visible Church is
infallible and overall indefectible
. Most Catholics have “read, marked, learned,
and inwardly digested this” from baptism and first-communion host forward. And it
led many official-responders to the sex-abuse crisis to ignore what–at the level
of theory–they surely know. Sin is individual, but it is not only individual. It
is also corporate.
Traditional harmartology acknowledges this with its doctrine
that all of Adam’s descendants (with the exception of Jesus and the BVM) are born
in original sin.

Nor is this merely a matter of biological inheritance, however mythological.
Human beings are socially challenged, are neither smart enough nor good enough to
design social systems and institutions that do not give rise–in unanticipated and
not consciously intended ways–to systemic evils, i.e., to structures of cruelty
that privilege some while degrading others. Because the evils are products of
systemic properties, systemic evil taints all of the social roles. Individuals who
play them become complicit in the systemic sin, whether or not the script inclines
or drives them to individual sin.

Both pre- and post-Vatican II ecclesiology stress how there is no such thing
as priesthood outside the institution. What it means to be a priest is
institutional through and through.<20> If the priest gets his identity from his
institutional role, he is thereby complicit in the systemic evils to which the
institution gives rise. Conversely, institutions are expected to take
responsibility for the (mis)deeds of employees who act on their behalf, all the
more so for the behavior of individuals whom it trains and forms for institutional
functioning. Church officials were misled by their theology into the conviction
that the institution could train, keep, and protect predator priests, while
keeping institutional hands clean.

Vatican II documents hint that because the Church is human as well as Divine,
the Church is always in need of reform, that perfection in holiness is an
eschatological goal, not a presently entrenched reality.<21> Some responses to the
crisis (e.g., Chinnici and the Franciscan order in California) acknowledge the
Church as an institution, religious orders themselves sin and for that reason–and
not just because individual members go wrong–need to repent and reform
.<22> Mid-
and post-crisis documents on priestly formation tend to assign greater
responsibility for selection and training to institutional authorities (especially
bishops and superiors of religious orders).<23> But some pronouncements still
scapegoat predator priests as if to wash institutional hands of them.

What is needed at the theoretical level is a sharper and more radical
distinction between the Body of Christ (the way Divine Providence is organizing
the Church) and any and all human institutional structures which are fallible and
defectible, reformata et semper reformanda, deserving of our loyalty only insofar
as they remain skillful means to Gospel proclamation.
The Holy Spirit is
infallible and indefectible, but flesh and blood cannot inherit these features.
The Vatican is wrong to think that it is an exception, because in organizing the
Vatican and its world-wide branches, not only Christ and the Holy Spirit but
multitudes of merely human beings are involved.

The Vincentian Canon and the Theology of Sexuality: There is another
pernicious corollary (persistently drawn non-sequitur?) in the neighborhood. If
the Church is infallible in faith and morals and overall indefectible, then when
it comes to essentials, the Church has “everywhere-and-always” believed the same
When this not-so-pious ecclesiological fiction spills over into the
theology of sex and gender, it affects the way the Church holds on to marriage and
celibacy as the only acceptable ways to manage human sexuality. The Vincentian
Canon blinds the Church to the way that sex-and-gender mores are imbedded in
cultural contexts and shift with socio-economic conditions.
Even within the
bible, ‘marriage’ is a homonym: Sarah’s relation to Abraham was different from
that of David and Bathsheba, which again was not the same as those of
deutero-pauline bishops and deacons who were to be the husband of one wife.
Needless to say, all of these contrast significantly with the bond between Ozzie
and Harriet of fifties radio fame.

The Vincentian Canon licenses the Church’s otherwise reinforced tendency to
treat sex and gender in the modality of taboo or authoritarian prohibitions.
Taboos aim to make prohibited behaviors unthinkable. They are inarticulate and
under-rationalized. Even to ask “why not?” flirts with violation. Relevant here is
the fact that inarticulate taboo and authoritarian demand was the pre-Vatican II
modality of enforcing celibacy on candidates for the priesthood.
Anecdotes report
how seminary instruction about sexuality was cast into the outer darkness of the
latin language,<24> placed behind the veil of euphemism (Vatican documents speak
of ‘solitary sins’<25>), and closeted in the confessional.

Post Vatican II documents recognize the need for clear and explicit accounts
of the celibate life that take the topic out of the closet into the light of
vigorous discussion.<26> They also acknowledge the importance of going beyond the
old pauline rationale–that celibacy frees the priest from familial distractions
to devote himself exclusively to Christ and His Church. But their ecumenical
posture, which acknowledges valid orders among married priests in the East, and/or
biblical scholarship showing that Peter had a mother-in-law and hence a wife,
forbids them to say that celibacy is essential to priesthood.<27> They are backed
into the corner of saying that celibacy pertains to the bene esse of the Church in
the Roman Catholic cultural context.<28> Reaching for a theological rationale,
they herald priestly celibacy as a sacrament of Kingdom-coming: ordination
conforms the priest to Christ, whose celibacy was a sign that true fruitfulness is
the spiritual fruitfulness within the Reign of God. It also symbolizes exclusive
faithfulness to Christ and to the Church as His spouse.<29> Inspiring as this may
be, it is too brief and underdeveloped to bear the weight of justification for
Paul VI’s reassertion of the law of priestly celibacy. Even in that document, Paul
VI falls back into the pre-Vatican II posture of commending celibacy as a “heroic”
and “truly virile asceticism.”<30>

My point is not that clerical celibacy is a bad policy. Certainly, I have no
wish to deny that anyone is ever called to it or that it can play a positive role
in a person’s Christian vocation. Rather, my first point is that the
taboo/authoritarian-dictate modalities meant that the Roman Catholic Church was
unwilling/unable to integrate sexuality in a healthy way at the institutional
level, with the result that it was at a loss to foster healthy sexual integration
in its priests at the individual level.

My second point is that the Vincentian Canon, not only encouraged the Church
to ignore how sex-and-gender mores are imbedded in cultural contexts, but also
left the Church without a meta-theology of how to be faithful through times of
cultural change.
Everyone knows how American and European sex-and-gender mores
began to unravel in the sixties. They have not yet reached equilibrium. The
Vatican’s response has been “just say ‘no’”: “no” to birth control, “no” to
sexually active partnerships other than marriage, especially “no” to homosexual
liasons, a definitive “no” to women clergy.<31> But “just say ‘no’” digs in, puts
on blinders against the fact that times are changing, willy nilly. “Just say ‘no’”
polarizes and fuels the fires of culture wars. It does not offer guidance for
living into the future. It didn’t offer that guidance to sixties, seventies, and
eighties seminarians. Sadly, it isn’t offering that guidance now to help a
transmogrifying society reintegrate sexuality in fresh and wholesome ways.

Culpable Ignorance: The institutional pyramidal model of Church, the taboo
modality towards sexuality, and traditional hamartology fused in a mind-set that
made it easy for bishops to remain aloof from the crimes. Taboos that were
supposed to make pederasty unthinkable and unspeakable, did their job by erasing
the full horror of actual violations. Traditional hamartology handed bishops the
abstract category of ‘grievous’ sin–sin which, if unshriven, dooms the sinner to
eternal damnation. The doctrine of the keys encouraged the Church to focus on the
eternal rewards and ruins, access to which it controlled. This is not to say that
the post-Vatican II Church has paid no attention to the horrendous suffering of
this present life. On the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church puts most protestant
ecclesial bodies to shame with its track record on social justice teaching on the
duties of rich nations of the world towards the poor, and of powerful nations to
wage peace. But taboo modalities kept this prophetic posture from penetrating into
the realm of sexual mores.

Shaped by taboo-modalities and theological abstractions, bishops sat on
thrones at least two layers higher on the institutional pyramid than the victims,
so that they didn’t have to engage concretely how bad it was for them. Ignorance
was bliss, allowing the bishops to subordinate the gravity of the sin (which–for
the priest–could be shriven in confession) and the harm to the victims to the
interests of institutional damage control.

Yet, judgment is a facing of the truth. Sexual violence generally and
pederasty in particular are horrendous evils. Over and above any physical harm
done, they threaten psycho-spiritual ruin that damages the victims’ ability to
trust and wrecks their relationship with God. Horrors cannot be measured in the
abstract. To grasp how bad they are requires concrete empathetic engagement with
horror participants.

As with the citizens of Weimar forced by the Allies to tour Buchenwald to
face up to what had been happening in their neighborhood, so also with hitherto
dismissive higher-ups. Works meet for repentance should begin (happily have
already begun) with confrontations in which bishops and religious superiors learn,
not only to listen, but also to hear what the victims have experienced. Then they
will be positioned for a theological re-think that rekindles John XXIII’s passion
for institutional reform.


Chinnici, Joseph P. When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse,
and the Challenges of Leadership
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010).

Hedin, Raymond. Married to the Church: Updated Edition (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003).

John Paul II, Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Pastores Dabo Vobis: To the
Bishops, Clergy, and Faithful on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of
the Present Day
(Vatican: March 25, 1992). (PDV)

McBrien, Richard P. The Remaking of the Church: An Agenda for Reform. (New
York, Evanston, San Francisco, London: Harper & Row, 1973).

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program of Priestly Formation
(Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1993). (PPF)

Paul VI, Decree on Priestly Training: Optatam Totius (Vatican: October 28,
1965). (OT)

Paul VI, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests: Presbyterorum Ordinis
(Vatican: December 7, 1965). (PO)

Paul VI, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium (Vatican: November
21, 1964). (LG)

Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (Vatican: June 24, 1967). (SC)

Paul VI, Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio (Vatican: November 21,

Sacred Congregation for Religious, Religiosorum institutio: Instruction on the
Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and
Sacred Orders
(Vatican: February 2, 1961). Accessed 6/5/2011.



<1>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.1, secs.1-6.

<2>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.1, sec.8; ch.2, sec.14.

<3>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.3, sec.25.

<4>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.2, sec.12.

<5>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.2, sec.14; ch.3, secs.18-29; ch.4, secs.31-37.

<6>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.2, secs.12 & 15; ch.3, secs. 21 & 25.

<7>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.1, sec.34. A Program for Pastoral Formation of
declares that Christ is present in a special way in priests (ch.1, sec.42).

<8>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.3, sec.20; Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch.3.2, sec.15; Program
for Priestly Formation,
ch.1, sec.34.

<9>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.3, sec.20; Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch.III.1, sec.13; John
Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.3, secs. 25-26.

<10>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.2, sec.14; ch.5, sec.48.

<11>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.2, sec.16.

<12>:Lumen Gentium does allow that those with invincible ignorance will receive the
graces needed for a good life (ch.2, sec.16).

<13>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.5, secs.42-43, 45; A Program for Priestly
ch.1, secs.91-93; ch.2, sec. 182.

<14>:Sacred Congregation for Religious, Religiosorum institutio, II, secs. 18-20, 24;
III, sec.32; John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.5, secs. 50, 65-67; A Program for
Priestly Formation,
ch.2, secs. 195, 198, 215-217.

<15>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.3, sec.26; ch.5, sec.48.

<16>:Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, secs. 80-93; Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch.2, sec.8;
John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.5, secs.44, 60, 68; ch.6, sec.74; A Program for
Priestly Formation,
ch.1, secs.54-55, 57, 59; ch.2, sec. 296.

<17>:Raymond Hedin, Married to the Church (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana
University Press, 2003), ch.5, 100-101.

<18>:Paul VI, Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch.2, secs. 6-7; John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis,
ch.6, sec.74.

<19>:For a fuller discussion of alternative theological models of Church, see Richard P.
McBrien, The Remaking of the Church: An Agenda for Reform (New York, Evanston, San
Francisco, London: Harper & Row, 1973. For an expansion of the communal model in terms of
Franciscan principles, see Joseph P. Chinnici, When Values Collide: The Catholic Church,
Sex Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010).

<20>:John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.2, secs.16-17; ch.3, sec. 28.

<21>:Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, ch.1, sec. 3; ch.2, secs. 6-9; ch. 7, sec. 48; Decree on
Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio, ch.1, sec.3; ch.2, sec.6.

<22>:See Joseph P. Chinnici, When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and
the Challenges of Leadership
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010).

<23>:Sacred Congregation for Religious, Religiosorum institutio, II, secs. 17 & 23; III,
sec. 33.

<24>:See Raymond Hedin, Married to the Church: Updated Edition (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), Introduction, xviii; ch.1, 31.

<25>:Sacred Congregation for Religious, Religiosorum institutio, III.2, sec.30.

<26>:A Program for Priestly Formation, ch.2, secs. 287-291.

<27>:Paul VI, Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch. III.2, sec.16. See also Raymond Hedin, Married
to the Church
, ch.5, 83.

<28>:Celibacy is presented as a sine qua non of Roman Catholic priesthood in Religiosorum
III.2, sec.29. But the Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio
acknowledges that “lawful variety” between East and West “can exist in the Church” (ch.3,

<29>:Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, secs.19-28; Presbyterorum Ordinis, ch.III.2,
sec.16; John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch.3, sec. 29; ch.5, sec. 50; A Program for
Priestly Formation,
ch.1, secs.63-65, 79.

<30>:Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, secs. 37 & 78. Cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, sec.16.

<31>:See the Sacred Congregation for Religious, Religiosorum institutio, II, sec.30,
which speaks of the “evil tendencies to homosexuality and pederasty.