Sin and Error

David Gibson added to the pile of pope analysis yesterday. If you’re getting tired of the scandals and rumors of scandals, I could suggest you get outside and soak up the sunshine. But I’ll suggest you read the whole essay first.

In speaking of the Holy Father’s “exit strategy,” Mr Gibson’s second premise (of six) focuses on the notion of sin, and his interpretation that Pope Benedict “doesn’t feel he has done anything terribly wrong.” What caught my eye:

Benedict is at heart an old-fashioned moralist who sees the “sins” for which the church must repent almost exclusively in terms of the sexual abuse committed by priests. Bishops who shielded child molesters were, in Benedict’s view, largely guilty of misjudgments and management errors. Many of Benedict’s top officials and allies in the Vatican themselves have very questionable records when it come to dealing with abusive priests, and the fact that they go unpunished, and are even given plum jobs, will only underscore the gap between Benedict’s words and his actions.

I’d like to elaborate with some care on this. I’ve seen a few places in the past few days a focus from some conservative commentators on the sex abuse crisis as an expression of personal sin. Like the pope, the bishops don’t enter into the consideration of sin. They made mistakes. Mistakes are not sins, so the thinking goes.

My first caution (to myself) is to be wary about the generalization that all of Pope Benedict’s apologists see this issue in terms of predators being sinners, and bishops being just mistaken. But I think we should be skeptical of this trend, when it appears.

It’s no news to my readers that I view the sex abuse/cover-up scandal as a manifestation of a system of addiction. Many religious leaders were sex addicts, and as such, we can explain the “errors” of their bishops and protectors in terms of grooming and codependency. The abuse of minors and the cover-up are really two sides of the same coin. For me, a complex problem like this merits a search for one overarching solution, and see if it fits.

This is why I’m deeply skeptical of most of the blame heaped on other factors. First, it too is part of the cycle of addiction. Addicts are in denial, and they will blame others for their failings: family members, the 60’s, childhood abuse, the sexualization of society, victims who “asked for it,” and significantly, people who misunderstand the poor, mistreated offender.

While it is true that loved ones of addicts are far from perfect–some of them are dangerously addicted or co-dependent themselves–and that getting kicked around in life is a bad thing. If the goal is recovery and healing, the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous is their insistence on what we Catholics might interpret as an examination of conscience, confession, contrition, and acts of satisfaction. Consider the core of the Twelve Steps:

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Applying these principles, one would think, would satisfy a person insistent on moralizing the sex abuse and cover-up scandals. Mr Gibson quotes those not sure the pope is getting good advice from those close to him in Rome. If the pope were to give me fifteen minutes, I’d tell him the Twelve Steps would be the best route for him to go.

At best, Benedict is part of a secretive and closed society that actually can accentuate addictive behavior. I would agree his own administrative sins were minor. Other people share the blame for letting abusers go free. It would have taken an exceptionally astute bishop in the 70’s, or a very discerning mind in the CDF in the 90’s, to have headed off the much of the mess of administrative mismanagement. Somebody would have to have utilized the Steps or brought an awareness of addiction to the upper levels of the Church. In the post-conciliar climate, that person would probably have been a liberal. But the liberals had no ear from 1978 on, if they ever did.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Sin and Error

  1. Sam Schmitt says:

    Perhaps Benedict “doesn’t feel he has done anything terribly wrong” because he hasn’t.

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