The sexual abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church ultimately is not about religion. Some historical elements of the Church’s ecclesiology, liturgies, and customs associated with clericalism, however, have likely contributed to it.

A frequently heard diagnosis of the crisis points at failures in clergy formation. I concur. That said, any argument about failure of formation is undercut if it does not also recognize the structural context of the failure. I am persuaded that current patterns of abuse and cover-up reflect a broader societal failure in the formation of the human person. Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic, Escape from Freedom, among many others, is notable for this analysis. Fromm blamed the flawed individualism of the modern world for undercutting the development of mature, responsible personalities. Increasingly isolated from healthy, formative structures offered traditionally by family and community, individuals flee from the responsibilities that come with the dizzying freedom of contemporary life. Moreover, on account of their isolation, badly formed individuals find themselves overwhelmed by the dynamics of contemporary society—overwhelmed, in other words, by the macro forces of mass culture, the market economy, and the free market of values and ideas that define the human condition today. For the most fragile individuals, the reaction to this reality—as Fromm’s title suggests—is to seek escape from the responsibilities of real freedom. 

Fromm describes different forms by which those failed by formation seek escape. For example, one form, termed “automaton conformity,” results in surrender to the fads and fashions of the time. But it is another, called the “authoritarian personality,” that seems more pertinent for understanding the abuse crisis. The authoritarian personality, Fromm argues, seeks to withdraw from the flux of modern life and to divest the burden of freedom by submitting to the hierarchical authority of an exclusive group. Authority in such groups (which in the extreme might be called cults) is exercised along a ladder of dominance and submission that in effect relieves participants from the uncertainties of self-responsibility and provides ready-made, authoritative answers to questions of meaning and purpose. Mature, responsible, properly formed persons do not seek to escape the world by embracing dependency on authority. Properly formed persons find positive freedom in their participation with others in community, not in escape into dependencies of submission and domination. Arguably, sexual abuse and cover-ups of it correlate with failed formation resulting in dependency on schemes of submission and domination. 

While much about Fromm’s work is dated (such as its unpersuasive Freudian elements), his account of escape from freedom provides much insight for understanding the complexity of the abuse crisis for religious denominations and similar groups. Seminaries and religious orders in the Catholic world increasingly screen against individuals who hope that religious life will provide an escape from modern life. Moreover, seminaries also screen for immature attitudes toward authority, paralleling Fromm’s concern about poorly formed personalities looking to overcome alienation by finding meaning in chains of submission and domination. Whatever other approaches are to be considered in response to the abuse crisis, the importance of continuing and improving such screening must be highlighted. 

Yet, screening for problems of individual formation is not sufficient for addressing the abuse crisis if religious institutions themselves are not organized to promote the formation of strong and mature personalities capable of embracing positive freedom. In this regard, Catholic ecclesiology deserves scrutiny, especially those aspects of ecclesiology that incline toward clericalism.

Theologically, the priesthood can be nothing like a cult. Nevertheless, Church history provides many instances of the priesthood assuming such a quality. The apotheosis of clericalism is an attitude of seeing the clergy as a sacred and closed community—a community unto itself, a community with secret truths, separate from the more general People of God, and set over and against the lower, profane world inhabited by others. The hierarchical character of Catholic ecclesiology can easily (if wrongly) be interpreted to support such an understanding of priests and bishops. Developed clergy traditions of ritualized behavior, forms of address, fashions of attire, gender roles, the architecture of religious buildings, and so on can be powerful signals to the laity and to clergy themselves that priests are a community apart: higher, secret, and closer to God. Liturgical practices often reinforce these signals. In such a context, it is little wonder that clergy formation is an issue. 

Needed are reforms to counter the errors of clericalism. Reforms might begin with rethinking the understanding of hierarchy in Catholic ecclesiology. Even in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the Church is too often presented as a vertical organization, as if mirroring some medieval ontology with the more sacred above and the mundane below. Surely that picture reflects the historical debris of feudalism. Consider differently the way in which the Apostle Paul in several epistles presents an image of the Church as a body, in which parts are equal and commensurate for the life of the whole, suggesting a horizontal or fraternal relationship among them. Priests, thus, are not “higher” than laity, bishops not higher than priests, and popes not higher than bishops. Each has a different responsibility and authority. Although the authority of one part might be situated vis-à-vis another in some situations, the essential organization would not be not one of power based on submission and domination.

Similarly, demarcations between the laity and the clergy ought not be construed as walls separating or isolating the clergy from the world. The vast majority of these demarcations are products of custom and tradition without scriptural foundation, despite having been incorporated into liturgy in some cases. While many of these customs and traditions remain valuable, reform is appropriate where they reinforce the error of clericalism. Distinctions of dress, title, culture, and deferential behaviors among the parts of People of God should be carefully assessed. The formation of clergy in seminaries and religious orders similarly deserves careful re-examination.

The sexual abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church was not caused by clericalism, but clericalism certainly abetted it.

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