March 2003

Scandal in the church: some bearings from history

Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy is Professor of the History of Christianity and President of Magdalene College in the University of Cambridge. Here he assesses the impact of scandal on the Church in history and concludes that, while there are no easy answers to the present situation, the past at least provides ‘the comfort of knowing that failure is nothing new’.

Scandals are rocking the Church throughout the Western world, successive and apparently endless revelations of clerical sexual misdemeanour, above all the abuse of children. In Ireland till recently a distinctively puritanical style of Catholicism policed and discouraged lay sexual freedoms, like contraception and divorce, taken for granted everywhere else. The discovery that the institution which preached these austerities not only harboured but is alleged to have protected sexually predatory priests and religious, who have betrayed the trust placed in them, and inflicted immeasurable harm on those they have abused, has contributed to a widespread withdrawal of confidence in what had seemed an unshakeable pillar of Irish identity. Congregations have thinned, media coverage is cynically hostile, and vocations, already under pressure, have largely collapsed. In Ireland, as in America and to a lesser extent in Britain and in Europe, it is a bad time to be a Catholic priest, and many feel that it is a bad time to be a Catholic.

There is no softening the horror of sexual abuse, and it is paedophilia, rather than simple sexual misdemeanour, which gives all this its devastating effect. The former Bishop of Galway’s long-term affair, in the course of which he fathered an illegitimate son, now seems a mild and reassuring peccadillo, compared with the gross exploitation of children and the vulnerable which is the stuff of the current wave of scandals. These are betrayals of a particularly revolting kind, and they are deservedly being hunted out in the full blaze of twenty-first-century publicity. There has never been anything quite like this before, and it is hard to predict its long-term effect on the place of the Catholic Church in public life. Certainly much of the publicity comes from sources already hostile to Christianity, and eager for ammunition against it, and our society anyway is informed by a sort of hectic glee at the discrediting of virtue, the defiling of the holy: we love to be told that nothing is sacred. But it would be self-deception to imagine that all this is being whipped up from outside. These multiple betrayals reveal something badly amiss in the Church itself, they are a call to fundamental reappraisal and penitence, rather than to a closing of ranks.

Highest standards
But if these sorts of revelations are comparatively new, ecclesiastical abuse itself is not. The current scandals derive their power to shock and disorientate because for the last three or four centuries we have come to expect – and to assume that we get – the highest standards from clergy. There is nothing inevitable about such an expectation, and when it first appeared in the sixteenth century, it represented a revolutionary break with the past. Since the Council of Trent the official ideal of priestly formation underlying the training of clergy has been a very exalted one, emphasising holiness of life, and the separation of the priest from the contaminating influences of secular life. Clergy were to be recruited young, and separated from family and locality in special ‘seminaries’ or ‘seed-beds’, where, under the supervision of older priests, they lived a disciplined communal life designed to inculcate a distinctive clerical identity and an exalted set of spiritual values, focused especially on rigorous sexual abstinence.

Revolutionary Trent
The Tridentine ideal represented a revolutionary new departure in the training of clergy because up till then priests had mostly been recruited from village altarboys and trained by a system of apprenticeship, often to a priest-relative who might well be the boy’s own father. And although it was legislated for at Trent, in reality the process of the separation of priests from the secular world took centuries to realise – Pope Benedict XIV was still struggling to introduce seminaries for the first time into the impoverished bishoprics of southern Italy in the mid-eighteenth century. However, the seminary revolution was achieved almost everywhere in Europe by the mid-nineteenth century, and our current perceptions of priesthood, and the high moral and spiritual expectations we place on our priests, are a product of that revolution. At its most demanding, it is a heroic ideal, in which the priest’s celibacy and spiritual loneliness are understood as a profound imitatio Christi, a suffering ministry undertaken on behalf of his people. It was given exemplary embodiment in the life of the Curé D’Ars, and unforgettable literary expression in George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest.

The pervasiveness of that ideal by the nineteenth century meant that clerical sin became profoundly shocking, almost literally unthinkable. More than at any previous time in the history of the Church, it became an unspoken assumption that a priest, a bishop, a pope, must be, should be, a saint. By contrast medieval Christians expected their clergy to be sinful, and were accustomed to moral and spiritual compromises which the post-Tridentine Church would come to consider outrageous. Clerical concubinage, for example, was extremely common in the Middle Ages, and the great Dutch Humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam was the bastard son of a concubinate priest. Clerical marriage and concubinage had been routine in the first millennium, not least in Britain: almost all the secular clergy referred to in the twelfth-century Life of St William of Norwich were married men. The marriage of priests was outlawed by reforming popes from the late eleventh century onwards, but although this official disapproval came to be widely accepted, and the laity increasingly preferred their priests to be celibate, there was a widespread acceptance of the gulf between ideal and actuality.

In many places clerical concubinage was accepted as a form of common-law marriage, and some communities even made their priests sign contracts undertaking not to take a concubine from the village, but to find their woman elsewhere, so as not to deplete the local stock of marriageable girls. And in some parts of Europe, even monks were not exempt from the general slackness of sexual attitude. In southern Italy one fifteenth-century bishop inspecting a local monastery discovered the abbot surrounded by children and harbouring a wife in his cell. When ordered to banish his family the abbot protested that he doted on the children, and besides, his doctor had prescribed regular sexual intercourse as a remedy for his gall-stones.

Aware of failure
Medieval Christians of course disapproved of such flagrant abuses, but they were not surprised by them, and they took them in their stride as a recurrent feature of life in the Church: the satirical works of even so devout a Catholic as Thomas More are filled with just such stories. And the awareness of failure went right to the top. Christians of More’s generation were hardened to the spectacle of popes presiding at the baptism of their children or grandchildren in the Vatican, or, equally disturbingly, of popes clad in armour leading armies into murderous battles against their spiritual children.

Paradoxically, one major consequence of the hardening of Western Christian hostility to clerical marriage in the Middle Ages was that medieval people were forced to come to terms with the knowledge that because of the ban many, in some places most, of their clergy were ‘living in sin’. St Francis of Assisi repeatedly insisted that his friars should treat the local parish clergy with respect because of their ordination, even though this meant turning a blind eye to the priest’s sinful life: they should kiss the priest’s hand even if they knew it was the hand of a sexual sinner. The first work of spiritual direction for the laity written in English, the early thirteenth-century Ancrenne Wisse, warned the women hermits for whom it was intended against contact with secular priests or monks of the old orders. The assumption of the writer was that priests and monks would have no wisdom worth offering to holy women, and, more to the point, that they could not be trusted alone with them. Instead, the women should accept spiritual direction only from the friars, who had recently arrived in England and whose exemplary lives of poverty and purity were widely admired.

Notoriously, however, the fresh bloom soon came off the mendicant ideal, too. Dominant in the universities, and increasingly conformed to the patterns of the older religious orders, the radical simplicity and austerity of the early Friars Minor and Friars Preacher soon gave way to establishment status. From about 1270 onwards the buildings of the Franciscans in England had become increasingly grandiose. The London Greyfriars begun in 1279 was 300 feet long, 89 feet wide and 64 feet high: among the burials of the great and the good which thronged its floors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (and which would continue unabated till the house was dissolved under Henry VIII) were the remains and monuments not only of grandees of the City Companies and former Lord Mayors, but of a bevy of earls and duchesses, the heart of a queen of England, and the body of a queen of Scotland.

So the poet William Langland complained that

... friars followed folk that was rich
And folk that was poor at little price they set,
And no corpse in their kirkyard nor in their kirk was buryed
But quick [unless while alive] he bequethed them aught or should help pay their debts.

In a devastating commentary on the erosion of the Franciscan ideal of poverty, the London house of Greyfriars was robbed in 1355 by one of its own members : his loot included gold, silver and jewels worth £200, an immense sum in contemporary terms.

Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman, a product of the age of Chaucer and Richard II, gives voice to a lay Christianity often at odds with the clerical establishment, deeply disillusioned by the huge distance between the Church’s vocation to holiness, and the sordid actuality. Langland returns again and again to the value of a simple faith enacted in charity, not in empty profession. The poem is informed by anger at the ills of the contemporary Church, seen as compromised by slackness and corruption from top to bottom – ‘Unkonnynge [ignorant] curates’, who lead their parishioners to perdition, worldly prelates motivated by pride and greed, ‘heremits on a heap’ wending to Walsingham ‘and their wenches after’, above all the friars, covetous deceivers, peddling cheap grace to eager hearers, and dumbing down the demands of the gospel in order to line their own pockets

... all the four orders Preached to the people for profit of themselves,
Glossed the Gospel as they good liked
For covetous of copes, construed it as they would.

Our generation of Christians has been horrified by revelations of clerical sexual hypocrisy and abuse. As these examples suggest, however, clerical greed shocked medieval Christians at least as much as clerical lust, and they were deeply scandalised by the ‘unnatural’ marriage between religious life and financial greed, the racketeering which posed as piety. Covetousness was central to Langland’s powerful and pessimistic analysis of the state of the fourteenth-century Church: he targeted clerical greed as one of the root evils of Christendom. He believed this greed would rot society to the core and he looked to the secular arm, to king and parliament, for remedies: as Conscience declares,

Sir king, by Christ, but [unless] clerks amend
Thy kingdom through their covetousness will out of kind [nature] wend,
b And holy church through them be harmed for ever.

Dante’s Hell
This sort of pessimism about the lives of the clergy was not confined to England, of course, where indeed clerical standards seem to have been as high as anywhere in Europe. The circles of Dante’s Hell are thronged with wicked priests, bishops and popes: interestingly, it is seldom sex which has sent them there. For Dante as for other medieval Christians there were much worse sins than fornication – envy, pride, murder. One of the most terrible scenes in that most terrible of books is Dante’s encounter in the lowest circle of Hell with the traitor Ugolino, eternally gnawing the living skull of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa, who had walled him and his sons up in a tower and left them to starve. Dante detests, but he is not surprised by, the mortal sins of even the most exalted priests of the Church.

Before the modern era, then, Christians were familiar with and outspoken about scandal in the Church. That doesn’t of course mean that they did not want to reform it: Langland and Dante in their different ways sought to challenge and change the Church by what they wrote, they looked for renewal and purification. And their world was different from ours, because they lived in societies which were overwhelmingly Christian, where alternative world-views like Islam or Judaism were controlled minorities or external enemies. For them Church and world overlapped and interlinked, in a way which we can barely imagine, and the reform of society inevitably involved the purification of the Church. Reformers therefore freely named and shamed the evils of the Church, which affected everyone.

Since the sixteenth century, however, and especially since the end of the eighteenth century, the Church has operated increasingly at the margins of society, has felt itself to be not the spiritual dimension of society as a whole but an alternative society, often beleaguered, always in need of defence. One consequence of the spread of exalted clerical standards and expectations was an undoubted rising of the standards of the priesthood: the rank-and-file clergy of 1900 were immeasurably better educated and better behaved than their counterparts of 1500 or 1600. But a less desirable spin-off has been the emergence alongside this raising of standards of a culture of denial, a concern to protect the Church’s good name, sometimes at all costs. This has often been maintained by a sort of collusive fiction in which clergy and laity alike have averted their eyes from the realities of human frailty within the institution. That condition has often gone along with an authoritarian mind-set which insists that ‘we never make mistakes’, and which interprets criticism as disloyalty. But the problem is much deeper than any straightforward pulling of clerical rank, or the desire of a caste to defend its turf. The practical ecclesiology of the medieval Church was profoundly Augustinian, preaching holiness but expecting Christians, including the clergy, in practice to be sinners, the institution itself a ‘hospital for incurables’ as much as a school of perfection.

Infallible professionals
But for several centuries our practical ecclesiology has been Donatist rather than Augustinian, emphasising the perfections of the Church and its ministers, unable to accommodate or to admit failure. This phenomenon was undoubtedly nourished by clerical ultramontanism, but it is important to register that it was not confined to the Church – the emergence of the professions in modern England involved till relatively recently rather similar assumptions about the infallibility and impeccability of doctors, teachers, policemen and civil servants: the respectability of priests went alongside the assumed respectability of other professionals. For good or ill, we are all more suspicious now.

There is no obvious moral, certainly no obvious remedy for our current ills, to be deduced from these forays into history, though some commentators have been quick to offer such morals. To some, it is clear that the thousand-year-old experiment with the enforced celibacy of the secular clergy has failed, and the way forward lies in a married priesthood, better integrated into the lay society in which their parishioners have to live out their Christianity.

For others, the remedy is diametrically opposed, and lies in a stern reaffirmation of the Tridentine ideal after the slackness of the ‘silly season’, when sexual permissiveness and theological confusion invaded the Church and rotted its values, in the pontificate of Paul VI. On this analysis we need stricter seminaries, and zealous priests more rigorously separated by lifestyle, dress and intellectual formation from the secular world and its values.

Neither conclusion strikes me as obvious: if the current wave of paedophile arrests of celebrities is anything to go by, celibacy is not at the root of that particular ill. Equally, however, the tightening of the Tridentine ideal and the barricading of men into sixteenth-or nineteenth-century clericalist styles and role-models seems likely to breed just that state of fantasy and denial which has enabled some priests and religious to live lives of such baffling and shocking duplicity. If history offers no obvious solutions, however, it does at least provide the comfort of knowing that failure is nothing new. Earlier generations of Christians have understood more deeply and acknowledged more frankly that the treasure of the gospel is held in earthen vessels.

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