Following the avalanche of revelations regarding sexual child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, the suggestion has been recurring recently that the root of the problem is to be found in the – by all means silly, dated and inhuman – prescription of celibacy for priests and members of congregations. See, e.g., this, this, this and this. I believe that this idea is a side-track of a serious kind – averting attention from what is really the source of what we have seen revealed during the last few years. The Roman catholic child abuse scandal is, I conjecture, the effects of certain key elements in the core of the Roman Catholic ideology with regard to human reproduction and the family.
First, to my knowledge, there is no credible evidence whatsoever that sexual child abuse is more common within the Roman Catholic social context than in other comparably large social or institutional settings. In particular, there is no such evidence with regard to settings where celibacy is not proscribed practice. But this is hardly the issue! What is the issue is what has been pressed by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others recently: the fact that the institution of the Roman Catholic Church has (presumably for many centuries) embodied a conscious and organised cover-up of the cases of sexual child abuse occurring within the confines of this church, especially when perpetrated by priests. This may look as an analysis close to satire such as this one, but hang on a minute and you'll see it's more to it than that!
What is the issue is not that some Catholics, or even some professional Catholic representatives, are child abusers. Child abusers are to be found all around the human block! What is the issue is the way in which the Roman Catholic Church, condoned by their highest leaders, has systematically shielded the abusers to the detriment of the victims, and set the preservation of the institution before the interests of real human being. I've blogged before of what becomes of the Christian message of love when unchecked by secular rationality – this is another example. However, in this case, there is a sinister connection to some of the core ingredients of ideology on which the Roman Catholic Church builds its power over people, nations and ideas.
A recurring theme in Catholic teaching is the sanctity and impenetrable integrity of "the family" – a teaching that has been inherited from Judaism and preserved also in other versions of Christianity, as well as taken over within the Islamic faith. As a matter of fact, this dogma, as observed by feminist philosophers like Alison Jaggar and Susan Moller Okin, has been transported into sizable portions of secular liberal democratic societies, perhaps best evidenced on the theoretical side by the uncritical way in which John Rawls awarded "the family" an unmotivated shielded position as an autonomous "sub-society" in his otherwise outstanding political thinking (said by a moral philosophical opponent, mind you).
A recurring theme in Catholic preaching is the notion of the dignified family, i.e. the heterosexual (properly) married couple who have sex only to glorify the master plan of the creator to have humans fill up the earth and who, accordingly, have hordes of children. This ideal reflects several central themes in catholic moral dogma: the sinfulness of all sorts of sex that lack procreative potential (hence, the alleged sinfulness of contraceptives, masturbation, oral sex, petting, homosexual sex....), the sinfulness of even potentially procreative sex outside the context of (Catholic) marriage, the sinfulness of procreation (even for a married couple) that is not the result of sex (hence the critical view on assisted reproductive technologies), the impossibility of dissolving marriage no matter what failures with regard to caring duties married partners engage in, etcetera. In this teaching, human beings are mere instruments for the institution allegedly installed merely for the sake of being obedient to a supposed supreme authority – what Catholic ethicists and propagandists usually refer to as human dignity. This is why, for the Roman Catholic Church, the family is not for society to meddle in, it is the business of the church. This is what explains what for non-Catholics like myself has always come out as the most superbly bizarre preoccupation with sex you might find among anti-sex extremists. Well, you know all about this, I reckon, so what's the connection to the child abuse you might ask?
Well, here you are. We already know that, regarding ordinary families, the official Roman Catholic attitude to sexual child abuse is to have the preservation of the family as the highest priority, not the well-being of the victim. Confession and atonement for the torturer is the prescribed medicine, not the rescue of victims of torture. This is not changed by the opaque rhetoric about children's best interest always being about not being separated from their family - this empty and cynical gesture is hardly believed by anyone nowadays besides the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (if you have some time, please study the teachings of this virtual central committee of the Roman Catholic Church) and a few fanatical followers. Now: the institutional attitude towards sexual child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church itself perfectly reflects this very attitude at a grander level. For, in Catholic ideology, the Church is more or less a perfect analogue of a family - it is God's family. Thus, the family has to be preserved whatever the cost to its members. Thus, the institution goes before the well-being of people. Thus, shielding the abusers even at the cost of facilitating further abuse is perfectly in line with core Roman Catholic teaching, and so is lying your head off in the face of allegations you know to be perfectly true. So much for human dignity.