Journey of Love, Not Law

Jack Dominian

The Cumberlege Commission, which has been examining child protection in the Catholic Church, has just finished gathering evidence. Here, a psychiatrist with many years’ experience of assessing priests, argues that clerical sex abuse of children can be dealt with only if we understand the impulses behind it. Power, he believes, is not the dominant aim.

The worldwide clerical sexual abuse scandal was – indeed, still is – an opportunity offered by God to the Church to repair a longstanding defect in its theology and structure. So far its response has been severely inadequate.

First of all, the scandal provided the Magisterium with the chance to evaluate whether it was a small, localised episode in individual countries needing local action or not. The Nolan Report, published in Britain in 2001, was an answer with a localised interpretation. The Cumberlege Commission, which has been gathering evidence to assess the efficacy of the Nolan Report’s guidelines in Britain, will report later this year. However, the Church is facing a global issue, which involves the very core of its life, for sexuality involves both the single and married. No attempt has been made to recognise and face this reality.

While every kind of excuse can be made for the response of the bishops, it is clear that in many instances they simply did not recognize the severity and complexity of the issue and made major errors of judgement. Collectively the Magisterium has yet to apologise and ask forgiveness from the people of God to whom this abuse was and is a severe betrayal of trust.

Even more important, given the theological teaching it has propagated for nearly 2,000 years, no explanation has been offered how celibacy, with its implicit extensive spiritual advantages and all the graces attached to it, could allow even one instance of what has happened. Nor did the Nolan Report answer major questions regarding this teaching. Above all, this scandal has drawn attention to the major issue of human sexuality facing the Church. So far it appears to have tested Catholicism’s coffers and little of its theology and practices. I am well aware, given its long history, how difficult it is for the Church to change its course. That is why I have publicly suggested that nothing less than a council on sexuality is needed to address what some have gone as far as to call a canker in the midst of the Church’s life. Certainly I would argue that parts of its teaching on sexuality is a severe impediment to evangelisation.

The Nolan Report quite rightly sought to protect children from sexual abuse. Little has been said that this very protection severely restricts in many instances the essential love and affection needed by all children, but particularly the very young, mediated through touch. Jesus’ invitation to little children can be made to look a mockery.

Even more seriously, the Nolan Report may have given the impression that the Church has dealt effectively with the sexual scandals in its midst. If only it was so, but it is not.

The Church thinks that the law can remedy, or alleviate or at least contain human sexual frailty. It can certainly try to do that. What it has yet to learn is that (despite valiant efforts of bishops and priests), the law is a very poor balm for the wounds of the heart, of feelings and emotions, of the spirit, even with the help of counselling.

The issue is far more subtle and deep. I have said publicly, on the basis of clinical experience of individuals and from my understanding of psychology, that in almost all these instances of abuse, admittedly a very complex subject immaturity was at its centre. I would now go much further and suggest that behind every instance of priestly sexual abuse lies consciously or unconsciously a hunger for human love and, very much in the second place, of seeking power. It is primarily the hunger for love and intimacy that pathologically and mistakenly seeks a remedy through sexual activity, especially through touch. Of course this explanation does not excuse the action but let us not put all the pressure on priests. Rather, let us ask what all of us, the Church in general, can do for priests, particularly given their dwindling numbers.

First, we should consider whether seminary training is satisfactory and whether it still has the right ingredients. There is a fundamental issue regarding priests and their human needs, particularly love. Far more psychology is needed today in their training, compared with philosophy, given that it plays a large part in priests’ pastoral work. Studying psychology also helps the priest understand himself. I would argue that sexual abuse is ultimately a desperate attempt to seek love gone wrong.

For 50 years through my professional work I came into contact with priests and nuns and their problems as well as the difficulties of married couples. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of priests were drawn to the priesthood not only because it was the right Catholic thing to do but because in the depth of their being they felt called; they sought, however strongly or dimly, to meet Jesus and be identified with him in this special way. Whether they appreciated it theologically, they sought the love of the Son with his Father. It was also clear to me during 50 years of psychiatric practice that beyond wanting to be part of an institution and serve its people, they wanted also to be loved, to feel secure, to belong to something socially and spiritually which
they and their families saw as unique.

While I have talked to many priests who experience this dream of love, friendship and fulfilment with Jesus, I have met others who in the privacy of their homes, in retirement or in their old age, looked back to a life of variable disillusionment, aridity, loneliness and the absence of female succour. It is easy, too easy, especially nowadays, to turn round and blame all these casualties on the basis that they knew what they were choosing freely when they entered. But being free prompts more questions than it answers.

In the seventies when there was an exodus of priests and nuns from their vocations, the Vatican insisted on a psychiatric examination before releasing them from their vows. I saw some 200 priests and nuns whose reason for departure was uniformly immaturity (often starting in junior seminaries). This raises questions about freedom, understanding of vocation and of the Church in general.

The Catholic Church knows all this, but has often accentuated, for the sake of its image, the ideal image of priesthood. The universal Church knows that in the ranks of its priests a small number who have experienced in depth the glory of joy of the priesthood (not necessarily bishops or to be found in the Vatican), the vast majority who have laboured hard in their different vineyards with utter dedication and have reaped a variable degree of disappointment, cynicism, and intense joy, and a very small number of abusers.

But at least we can begin to recognise now that sexual abuse does not come out of the blue but lies at the end of a continuum of real pain, joy and the whole range of human achievement
and imperfection.

The centrality of sin in sexual abuse and indeed in every sexual sin is the disjunction of the physical (Eros, libido) from love (the affective). In every sexual sin we must see and recognise the lack of enough presence and attachment of love.

There is not a vestige of excuse for the Church not to recognise this and transform its teaching. Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est spells it out. The inadequate reception of the encyclical suggests to me that the Church is not ready to appreciate the treasure it contains, just as the Church was not and is not ready to appreciate and follow in full the teaching of love in marriage in the Second Vatican Council. Nowhere in the encyclical does Pope Benedict use celibacy as a particular symbol extolling love.

What is vital is that we recognise that the vocation of priesthood not only requires discernment of God’s particular grace before selection but continuous real, rather than notional, loving support afterwards. And prayer, the sacraments and the liturgy, together with intellectual and theological growth are not enough.

Priests, like all human beings, need love and affirmation – something they receive from their parishioners, but especially from their bishop. This was not always the case. I remember clearly that 50 years ago the ideal life of the priest was considered to be the vertical relationship with God, which was felt ample for all his needs.

But priests need more than that. They need regular contact with their bishop, telephone calls which might reduce the all too common belief that after their appointment they are taken for granted. Visits at all times – canonical, social and particularly during sickness (not only just the statutory presence of themselves or their representative at their funeral) – are desirable, and this means more than a confessor who deals with the spiritual state. It also needs concrete enquiries about their work.

It will be said that bishops are too busy to do all this, but, if they recognise the spirit in which I am writing, they will have no difficulty in finding lay or clerical ambassadors for the individual nurturing of their priests. If we look at Jesus’ experience as we see it in the gospels there is the constant love of his father but also the enduring love, support and friendship of the apostles, friends (both male and female) and his celebration of meals with so many, of which the Jews disapproved.

Priests mirror the high priest, Jesus Christ. Thus they need not one iota less of his incarnational divine dimension expressed in their spirituality of prayer, liturgy and sacrament, but equally not one iota less of his incarnational human dimension. In Jesus the divine and the human became one – in this world and for everyone, both priests and laity, the ravages of sin separate the two and every effort must be made to bring them together again.

Let us by all means attend to and if necessary refine the Nolan Report, as the Cumberlege
Commission has been attempting to do in recent months. But instead of battling with the negative absence of love in sexual abuse, let us follow carefully and be inspired by the words of St John’s first epistle, “In love there is no room for fear”. If the Nolan Report represents the response to fear, people should move on from such fear to discern that love is a single unity to be found both in the celibate and married priesthood and in marriage.

I believe that something precious can yet emerge and be salvaged from this sexual scandal. The Church has an opportunity to understand and explain that celibacy, marriage and married priesthood are all different but a single expression of love mediated in and through the love of Christ.

Despite all the Church’s efforts sexual frailty (even if a married priesthood is allowed) will remain in some priests as my work with Protestant pastors shows me. Sexual abuse is often a planned and calculated act and the aim of prevention, using all the support outlined above, should be to contribute to the steady growth of maturity, expressed in self-esteem and better psychological and spiritual health.

Much of the lack of human integrity is the substitution of the counterfeit for the genuine. In the past different language was used, but all sin can be seen in this way. Of course it takes a lifetime of unremitting effort to get anywhere near this goal. But in my opinion this is a journey primarily of love, not of law.

The Church will be shocked from time to time (indeed will it ever cease to be surprised by sin?) but, if it gives the unconventional support suggested in this article, it will be much less often by abuse and all the other affronts to love.

Jack Dominian is the author of many books, including A Guide to Loving (Darton, Longman and Todd), and Priestly Development in a Changing World (Dominican Publications).

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