The damning report by the Illinois AG detailing the abuse of children by leaders in the Catholic Church has provoked some of the expected responses.
Antagonists are cheering this as a victory proving what a truly terrible institution the Catholic Church (and by extension, Christianity more generally) really is.
Knee-jerk defenders of the institution will look for ways to wave away the reports, diminish their significance, or erect some kind of a firewall where ‘those people’ who did The Bad Things are a ‘them’ problem rather than an ‘us’ problem.
More honest defenders of the institution will hold up a mirror to their accusers and dare them to investigate and publish similar reports with respect to other institutions like public schools or youth athletic programs.
Teachers mistreating kids? I mean — have you even READ the news lately? How many times do we have to see headlines about teachers — the ladies too! — getting jiggy with teenage students?
The secularists (usually the left, but not always) love to take reports like this to advance their theological position at the expense of the Christian Right. (While not all Christians lean politically to the right, for rhetorical purposes, we will use this framing because the so-called ‘religious right’ is usually the one being singled out for derision.)
Let’s look at the allegations and then compare them with both Christian and Secular expectations of our world.
The Allegations of Abuse in Illinois
Rather than sugar-coat anything, let’s look the problem square in the eye.
Here is a summary. CNN says:
More than 450 adult Catholic clergymen abused nearly 2,000 children in the state of Illinois over a period of almost 90 years, according to a report released Tuesday from Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
“This report reveals names and detailed information of 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers who abused at least 1,997 children across all of the dioceses in Illinois,” Raoul wrote in a message accompanying the report.
The investigation identified 275 allegedly abusive clerics and religious brothers in the Archdiocese of Chicago, 43 in the Diocese of Belleville, 69 in Joliet, 51 in Peoria, 24 in Rockford and 32 in Springfield. Some accused abusers worked in multiple dioceses, equaling a “discrete” total of 451 accused, according to the report.
The report claims to have identified 149 individual perpetrators who were previously undisclosed by the dioceses, and that the dioceses continued to publicly disclose alleged perpetrators during the course of the investigation.
The report contains detailed accounts of alleged sexual abuse, as well as lists of the accused clergymen. It concludes with recommendations for more uniform and coordinated investigations of sexual abuse within the Illinois church, greater care for survivors, and for the dioceses to update their disclosures of alleged abusers. –CNN
It’s bad. If the report is accurate, those are 2,000 victims betrayed by those entrusted to demonstrate the love of a just and holy God in a broken world.
The secular dilemma…
There are a number of problems secularists will face in their attempts to denounce this news. We will turn our attention to just three.
The first two hinge on a conflict between a legitimate recognition of this abuse as an evil act and their rational (and objective) grounds for saying so. The last one questions their assumptions about humanity itself.
The problem of justifying secular outrage against these acts specifically
The secular left has been on an unending ‘crusade’ (pun intended) of forcing polite society to accept increasingly radical definitions of sexually normative practice.
The sexual revolution hasn’t merely paved the way for the normalizing of serial philandering and sexual partnerships incapable of producing new life, but they have continued to push the envelope with aggressive/violent sexual subcultures, strange kinks involving animals and dress-up, even the blurring of distinctions in gender itself.
Many of us have watched with increasing alarm as we are seeing steady downward pressure on both the age at which children are having their eyes opened to raw sexual realities and the age at which they participate.
We bristle at the softening of clear language in words like ‘pedophile’ to ‘Minor Attracted Persons’. We wonder: is this yet another instance of activists preparing the battle space for a future policy pivot where the age of sexual consent gets brought lower? Should we be concerned that an argument for plausible consent is being advanced even in the cases of sexualized relationships with children?
Note how angry the left (right up to the White House) became when Florida changed the law to block teachers of our lowest grades from discussing sexual topics. Notice the ‘book-burning’ rhetoric that was used when public schools moved to eliminate books with graphic verbal or visual depictions of, for example, oral and anal sexual acts.
Before secularists rage at the Catholic Church, they must first come to terms with their own defense of such books and instruction. How would they leave any moral room for them to actually object to the actions described in the report?
And should they make an appeal to some generalized understanding of universal sexual morality, we would remind them that they themselves are pushing hard to rebuild a sexual ethic of the sort that existed in Pre-Christian Greece.
There are many cultures in modern and ancient times in which consensual sex with minors was tolerated. Worse than that — people taken as a prize in war weren’t given a choice.
Shockingly ClashDaily has even written one or more articles citing Islamic scholars living today defending the morality of the sexual servitude of women taken in conflict.
So an appeal to ‘universal’ moral values won’t cut it.
Can secularists object to ANY kind of evil?
Suppose an honest secularist admits he is unable to come up with a working explanation of why the acts in that report are bad.
Christians would agree they are bad. We would even go so far as to say they are evil.
But as soon as the secularist agrees with that assessment, he’s got a problem.
What is evil? There is no pH strip you can use to determine whether something is good or evil. You can’t devise a measurement of height, length, temperature, wavelength, radioactivity, decibels, or any other objective scale.
Because morality exists in some in-between space of intuition.
Morality is bigger and far more substantive than some emotion-based relativism. If a terrorist detonated a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ in a daycare, a hospital, a festival, or a wedding, none of us would struggle to answer the question of ‘was that an evil act’?
On the other hand, philosophers seem to specialize in dreaming up ‘what-if’ thought experiments where you make life-and-choice decisions affecting the lives of others.
Morality isn’t as easy a question to answer as secularists think. Lions or bears killing people is an unfortunate hazard in life. A person killing another person is murder.
Hitting a baseball with a bat is fine. Hitting a fish with a smaller version is fine. Hitting someone’s face with that same baseball bat (or a hammer) is a crime. Why? It has something to do with the Greek word ‘Telos’, or, roughly, ‘intended purpose’.
We know what a bat is used for, and can judge if it’s used wrongly because we can compare it against the ‘right’ use. The same is true of creation.
If some sort of directive Intelligence is responsible for the world in which we live, including the life it is teeming with, we look to that Intelligence as a reference point for how well we are (or are not) living into the ‘telos’ of our own purpose.
If we are the result of ‘blind pitiless chance’, as evolutionary biologists would assert, we forfeit any idea of an absolute telos, and objective morality is lost.
Our modern notion of international human rights has no greater claim to be objectively true than some drug-running warlord who claims he can do whatever his guns and his money LET him do — including setting off the aforementioned dirty bomb.
The secularist can believe that something is evil. But he has no language to justify the existence of evil as anything but a moral preference in the sense that some people prefer bottled water to tap water.
Can Secularists explain societal good/evil?
Now we’re getting closer to the heart of the problem. You don’t need the ability to define good and evil to know there are some seriously bent people in the world doing some seriously awful things.
The trap secularists fall into is the assumption that people are basically good, and are only corrupted in response to outside forces. This was the assumption that William Golding’s novel “The Lord of the Flies” did a good job of exploring and exploding in its day.
Any such claim ignores insights gleaned about human nature from the Milgram Experiments. The best of us are capable of much worse depravity than many of us imagine, while the worst of us are capable of much greater good than we could possibly hope.
For all of that, each of us knows we’ve fallen short of moral perfection. We’ve made the wrong choice. Told the easy lie. Ignored our conscience. Let someone else take the fall for our mistake.
Intellectually consistent secularists have no easy answers for why that might be. Even chalking it up to ‘self-preservation’ doesn’t account for the meaningless lies we tell that might still tweak our conscience later.
The Christian Response to this AG Report
Full disclosure, I write this as a Christian, but not affiliated with the Roman Catholic tradition. We share creeds, scripture, many traditions, and hope in the Risen Christ for the forgiveness of sin. But I ‘have no dog in the fight’ (so to speak) of either the personalities involved or the ecclesiastical structure of their tradition.
Here’s what we know.
The acts described in that report are objectively evil.
- Any abuse of children is evil.
- Sexual abuse of children is worse.
- Sexual abuse of children by an authority figure is worse still.
- Sexual abuse of children by an authority figure who is supposed to embody the love and holiness of Christ is about as bad as it gets.
For non-religious people who might wonder what is meant by that statement, it is the spiritual equivalent of being poisoned by a doctor. Not only does it make you sick but it makes you hostile to those whose job it is to make you well.
If you don’t like the doctor metaphor, you could swap it out with getting mugged by a crooked police officer. It makes a similar point.
Christians are not blindsided by acts of evil even among faith leaders
We hate when it happens because every example of corrupt leadership (sexual, financial, or any other) is a moral stain that discredits both a holy God and His gospel in the eyes of the public. (See: Romans 2:23,24)
In many cases those of us who take our faith seriously are more bothered, upset, or indignant about these failures to live up to the Christian moral standard than the atheists. Because those of us who had nothing to do with it end up tarred with the same brush.
But, to borrow a phrase from IT help desks, the problem of corrupt leaders is a ‘known issue’:
There are examples right through scripture. No less weighty a figure than Moses’ brother, Aaron — the High Priest — fashioned a golden calf. Then, immediately after Joshua led Israel into the Promised land, we saw the Book of Judges where ‘everone did what was right in his own eyes’. Then Eli (Chief Priest) and his two sons became corrupt. (I Sam 2); as did the sons of the righteous prophet Samuel (I Chronicles 6); as the nation embraced idolatry, the leadership went with them… or perhaps even further. There were times in Israel’s history when God’s word was so entirely forgotten that when it was rediscovered the people who read it were astonished. (2 Kings 22; Neh 9). At some points in history, idol worship was practiced in the Temple itself (Ezekiel 8) and the deep moral failures of the religious leaders played a role in why Israel was sent into exile in the first place.
In the New Testament, several of the apostles gave stern warnings toward the end of the ministry to be on guard against ‘false teachers’ who would ‘creep in’. The Apostle Paul also left us a couple of letters spelling out the moral credentials that should be demanded of anyone in a leadership role.
Where does that leave us today?
No less an authority than the Apostle Peter said, ‘For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, …’ (I Peter 4)
That verse was contained in the midst of a call to holiness and accountability of both believers and unbelievers who will stand before a holy God.
We are called to address this issue the way we address all issues, including some raw and radical honesty about the nature of our problem.
There is a lot more to the problem of the church broadly than just ‘a few bad apples’. The spiritual malaise we see across the country is a symptom of the moribund condition of the Church.
Before culture can be restored, the church (across all denominations) must first rediscover itself in Christ.
The problem goes beyond a finite list of people who have crossed moral lines. This requires a call to the leadership and laity of the Church more broadly.
The Christian solution is not a novel one…
It’s a summary of Christ’s own message.
- Where crimes have been committed, police must get involved. (This should be obvious, but apparently isn’t.) Hiding a crime does more damage to both individuals and the gospel message than public embarrassment ever could.
- Whether or not crimes have been committed, the next step is to recognize the sin. Sin is not an ‘issue’, a problem, or a hangup. Sin is the knowing and active participation in an act of evil.
- With that perspective, you can begin to recognize the seriousness of the evil in your heart.
- This perspective allows you to hate your sin and call out to a Holy God for divine help to be rid of it.
- That desperate cry of repentance is where the true power of the gospel is revealed. It’s where God brings new birth and a transformed heart.
- At any point in history where the Church has lost sight of that reality, the world and culture have taken a step backward. When we remember…?
Well, in American History, we’ve called it ‘The Great Awakening’. Immediately before the ‘Great Awakening’ America’s religious character was nothing to write home about. Had God not brought about a spiritual ‘revival’, 1776 as we knew it could never have happened. John Adams himself even said as much when reflecting on the Constitution.
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” –John Adams
The abrasive message of repentance John preached 2000 years ago is still confrontational and offensive today — but it is also life-changing.
In our putrid, worldly culture that has turned away from God, this book is a must-read for every Christian.