Catholic universities not doing enough to address sex abuse crisis

By Massimo Faggioli, 27 April 2019


The Church has failed in yet another way in dealing with the phenomenon

The separation between Church management (the hierarchy) and its research and development department (theologians) is one of the most serious problems facing the Catholic Church.

Thomas Reese, the former editor-in-chief (1998-2005) of the Jesuit magazine Americaidentified this problem back in 1996 in his book, Inside the Vatican.

And although the book was published two pontificates ago, Reese’s premise remains true. In fact, the situation is even worse now than it was nearly 25 years ago.

One of the effects of the latest phase of the Catholic abuse crisis, which started in 2018, is that it has offered us some historical perspective on the Church’s management-research dichotomy.

The sexual abuse crisis has been long in the making. It became public in the mid-1980s and its turning point was 2001-2002 in the United States. This opened the eyes of many to what had happened in that North American country and what was bound to happen in other countries as well.

Abusive priests, negligent bishops

The modern history of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has also solidified a certain ecclesiological narrative: namely, we are dealing with a systemic crisis caused by abusive priests and catastrophically mishandled by the episcopal hierarchy.

This narrative is true and now impossible to undo. But it’s only part of the truth.

Unpopular as it may be to say this, the Church has failed in yet another way in dealing with the phenomenon. It concerns its intellectual and academic sectors; that is, the research and development people or theologians.

If one looks at the history of major catastrophes in complex organisations, such as public health crises or industrial collapses, failure analysis determines the responsibility of policy makers and managers.

But it also looks at the research departments. Fixing a crisis requires policy breakthroughs, but also change in research.

The Catholic Church is currently going through a crisis that in just a few months has produced the spectacular fall from grace of four cardinals in four different countries — George Pell in Australia, Philippe Barbarin in France, Donald Wuerl in the United States and Ricardo Ezzati in Chile.

The role of the theological intelligentsia

We have fixed our gaze on the hierarchy, and rightly so. But no one is looking at the role of the research department in resolving this crisis — that is, the theological intelligentsia found in our Catholic (and pontifical) universities and academies worldwide, including those in the theology and religious studies departments of these institutions.

However, things have begun to move in this sector. Several Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, for example, have begun sponsoring initiatives to make sense of the abuse crisis. Most of these have been in the form of public debates or high-profile lectures.

But these public panels will not be able to change the terms of the conversation or make an intellectual contribution to it, which is something that universities must be able to provide. An exception seems to be the recent decision by the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) to launch a series of long-term research projects on the crisis.

Still, no major Catholic center or institute has endeavoured to systematically investigate the different aspects of the abuse crisis and how it affects all theological disciplines: Scripture and tradition, history, liturgy, ecclesiology, sacraments, and soteriology.

The only one that comes close is the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, directed by Father Hans Zollner, SJ. Otherwise, it’s hard to identify on the world map a think-tank of experts fully engaged in the study of the crisis.

Lack of collective theological analysis

This is not to say that theologians have made no contribution at all. Individually, some have produced important writings on the topic. But, so far, there has been no systemic, organised effort by Catholic theologians to think about the sexual abuse crisis.

When the magnitude of crisis began to be made public, it could and should have sparked a vast theological re-thinking, in a way similar to when new sources became available to tackle key intellectual issues for the life of the Church.

That’s what happened in 1998 when the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office and the Congregation of the Index of forbidden books.

Important universities undertook major studies of the newly available material that, in turn, produced collections of monograph and dictionaries, which provide authoritative and scholarly answers to long-standing historical questions.

But this has not happened since the eruption of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. While Catholic theologians keep saying that the crisis represents an existential challenge in the life of the Church, it has not done much to change the institutional approach to their profession, at least as academic theologians.

There are many reasons for this. But it is not due to the laziness or lack of awareness of individual scholars. Rather, it is part of an institutional development typical of the post-Vatican II period.

Impact of abuse crisis on theological research

The tensions between the magisterium and theologians, beginning with the dissent around the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, have produced a mutual alienation.

They have also left theologians with reasonable fears concerning their academic freedom. And it is within this paradigm that academic theology continues to operate.

This means that the sexual abuse crisis has not yet been that big of a shock on this particular sector of the Church, which is now going through another kind of existential crisis.

It concerns the tendency of Church-affiliated universities to keep calling themselves Catholic even though they have reduced to a minimum the number of required courses in theology.

There are also reasons that have to do with the historical origins of academic theology. Today the vast majority of Catholic theologians are lay men and women, but until fairly recently it was a male- and clergy-dominated profession.

Old habits die hard, and clericalism is found not only among the clergy. Historically in the Western world, the privileges of academics and of Catholic clergy have a lot in common and they imitated one another.

For example, setting the retirement age for bishops at 75, was first proposed during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and implemented a few years later by Paul VI. It was drawn from the European university system.

There are other parallels.

The model of episcopal careers jumping from a small diocese to a bigger and wealthier one is not totally different from the careers of academic theologians.

In ancient times, the bishop was described as wedded to his diocese. Academic theologians (like myself) are now professionals in the market of higher education. We are no longer Christians with a particular charism who are committed to an ecclesial community, which is what a Catholic university is.

Pressures facing academic theology

Academic theology is facing a number of pressures that come from the Church, Catholic colleges and universities and, most of all, from market forces in higher education.

Given how the evaluation system of faculty works (at least in the United States), it is understandable that young theologians are reluctant to engage in a field of research such as the abuse crisis, which is really a minefield for reasons that span from the methodological to the political (Church politics and secular politics).

It is less understandable that established theologians and administrators of Catholic institutions of higher education have not yet made the abuse crisis an institutional and scholarly priority.

The crisis has revealed a tragic vacuum in the Church’s understanding of the abuse phenomenon, its causes and consequences. Nature abhors a vacuum, and this vacuum is now being filled by others.

For example, there is a historiographical work that cannot be outsourced to the criminal justice system, the news media or journalists.

The Church needs more than “the rough draft of history” which news journalism provides. The gap between journalism and Church tradition is wider than the gap between the Church’s tradition and its history.

It is not possible to offer a theological evaluation of a crisis in the tradition of the Church without doing the historiographical work of its context. There is work being done on abuse in Church history and in other fields.

But if Catholic scholars continue to address this crisis individually, in the context of the overspecialisation in academia which stops researchers and students from seeing the larger picture of the scientific problems, they will make little impact on the understanding of the crisis in global Catholicism.

Catholic theologians must step up

This is clearly the Church’s biggest crisis in our lifetime. Academic Catholic theology must unleash a wave of long-term, coordinated and systematic research projects that can help the Church face the sexual abuse crisis. It must prepare tools for the thinking of the Church: not just for the sake of prevention, but also to find the courage to correct the theological errors that have contributed to sexual abuse.

Given the global history and geography of the crisis, Catholic universities in English-speaking countries have a special role to play.

If they fail to do so, then perhaps the technocrats are right when they say that Catholic theology in the academia is a relic of the past. It is merely protecting old privileges and deserves to die — or at least be marginalised by modern-day higher education.

By Massimo Faggioli, reproduced with his permission and La Croix International.


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