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Impious Religion, or Irreligious Piety?

May 13, 2013

“Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

“Oh cruel, irreligious piety!”

Tamara, Titus Andronicus

Last year, the National Catholic Register published an interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel to mark the anniversary of his order’s founding.  During his interview, the reporter asked him about his work with priests who committed acts of pedophilia.  It was this question that launched a bombshell.

In the article, Fr. Benedict Groeschel talked about how, in many cases, the priests are seduced by their victims, and he referred to Jerry Sandusky as “that poor man.”   This interview was eventually deleted from their page, and according to one source, the reporter who did the article was fired.

It is not my intention to rehash what Fr. Benedict Groeschel said or meant in the article.  What I wish to discuss today is the response of lay devout Catholics to his comments.   The comments on various different Catholic websites were a disturbing and enraging revelation to me, one that I can only now talk about calmly and rationally, somewhat.

The comments from devout Catholics were statements of unwavering support for Fr. Benedict Groeschel and blamed his comments on his stroke.  This is true, Fr. Benedict Groeschel has suffered a stroke, however, some people feel argue that he has made similar comments prior to his stroke.  (I have not been able to verify this, partly because I have not had time to listen to the recording in question.  It could simply be a nasty rumor.)   People blasted the reporter and the National Catholic Register for publishing the article and the comments because they caused scandal.  They praised Fr. Benedict Groeschel as a living saint among us, and even argued that he was right that even children could seduce, or attempt to seduce, adults.

I was outraged by their reactions for several reasons.  I was enraged by the general consensus that, even if Fr. Benedict Groeschel did say what he said, then Catholic “newspapers” and the like should work to hush up the statements in order to protect his other accomplishments, because his comments are unimportant.  I could not disagree with this sentiment more.  Fr. Benedict Groeschel was used by the Archdiocese of New York City to council and work with priests who were accused of pedophilia.  If Fr. Benedict Groeschel operated under the assumption that many priests were victims of aggressive youth, then there are possibly priests still serving in New York City, priests who may be in a position to molest children.  To the devout Catholics posting on various Catholic websites, the motivation to protect children from abuse is simply not enough to warrant besmirching the name of a “living saint.”

As horrible as their reaction was, I am glad I forced myself to read their comments.  I gained a crucial, essential, and horrifying revelation about lay Catholics from reading them.  Back in 2002, when I was 18, the news of the sex abuse scandal broke out with a vengeance.  I was not yet Catholic at that point of my life, and I was somewhat shocked and baffled at how so many leaders could be complicit in such a large cover up.  At that time, I attributed it to the celibacy among the priesthood, though shortly after that I was forced to reevaluate this knee jerk reaction.  (I discovered that my friend had been molested by her non-celibate father.)   Most non-Catholics attribute the sex abuse scandal to celibacy among priests.  Most devout Catholics attribute the sex abuse scandal to the corruption of the bishops.   But what if both these answers were wrong, or at least incomplete? 

Reading these responses, ten years after the sex abuse scandal, I realized that both these answers are, for lack of a better term, clerical.  By this I mean they focus too much on the priests, and not enough on the laity.   Indeed, the laity do not exist at all in these explanations, except as the young victims.   It does not even attempt to imagine how the family members and friends would have reacted to victims who told their stories, and some of them must have tried to tell someone.  After reading the comments on the internet, I realized that I had a fairly good idea of how the laity (or at least a large portion of them,) would have responded.  I can imagine more than one friend or family member quoting an apparition of Mary warning, “Never criticize a priest!”  The disturbing part about these comments is that these comments were ten years after the worst of the sex scandal broke, ten years after Catholics have (or should have, anyway,) learned their lesson.  How much worse it must have been all those years ago!  How many victims were silenced by family members and friends, how many family members chose not to call the police because they did not want to besmirch good and holy men, because they did not want to cause scandal, because they believed that the dignity of the priestly vocation made priests above the law, and because they believed that the victim willed the encounter?  We will never know, but the number must be fairly substantial.

The even scarier part of these quotes is that I realized that there is nothing stopping this from happening again.  The Catholic dioceses  across the country have employed many different tactics and programs to try to combat child sexual abuse, but these programs will likely fail, or at least not be as successful as they should be, if a sizable portion of the Catholic laity continue to stand in opposition to exposing and prosecuting the perpetrators.   It is also likely to fail because Catholics, both progressive and conservative (I hate those terms!) are too busy passing the blame for the sex abuse scandal to others, and never bother to accept that this could not have happened without the consent of the laity.

Lastly, I would like to end where I began, with the quotes above.   Is this action on the part of the laity impious religion, or irreligious piety?  It is tempting to say the first, because laity who object to the exposure of priests are preferring friends to truth, or rather, actively prefer deception and lies to the truth.  It is easy to promote exposing priests that are too conservative or too liberal for our personal tastes, but it is difficult to expose a priest that is popular, or a friend.  However, as Aristotle said, piety demands that we must favor truth (as well as justice) over personal ties.

However, I think that, in many ways, this action is irreligious piety.  For those who do not know, this quote comes from Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s early plays.  My friend used to call it “young, angry Shakespeare,” since the play is a bloodbath, an expression of horrific, vengeful rage.  At the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus tells Tamara, the queen of the Goths, that the Roman gods require a sacrifice in thanksgiving for his victory over her people.  As a result, he is going to sacrifice her son.  Tamara begs him to show mercy on her and her son, but Titus refuses, and Tamara’s son is killed.

For decades, Catholic boys were offered up because the gods demanded a sacrifice.  What is most disturbing is that, in some cases, their mothers were not pleading for them, as Tamara, but perhaps joined Titus in offering their sons, declaring that the gods demand a sacrifice.  Even worse, many Catholic mothers stand ready to make the same sacrifice today.

O cruel, irreligious piety.

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