Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why we should continue to bring up the Roman Catholic sex scandals

If you were to study the history of Vatican II, you would see that there were two primary factions present: those who might be called the “traditionalists”, and those who might be called “the progressives”. At Vatican II, Rome didn’t solve the “unity” problem between these two groups on the strength of its doctrines. It papered over the problems with what amounted to a form of equivocation.

Rome has a history of pressing the unsavory use of language to its advantage (consider the tactic of mental reservation, which is really only an institutionally-sanctioned form of lying). Many of these recent scandals we are seeing really are only the fruit of its practice.

We are aware of the criticisms of the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statements, which relied on equivocation of terms in order to demonstrate some form of agreement. In the case of Vatican II, (and in the “Spirit of Vatican II”), Rome used equivocation and amphiboly to paper over the differences between the “traditionalists” and the “progressives”. The Protestant theologian David Wells, in his brief 1972 book “Revolution in Rome” commented on one particular example:

One kind of interpretive problem, then, which an analyst of the (Vatican II) documents faces concerns the existence of those passages which are so brilliantly ambiguous as to be capable of serving the interest of both parties. The statement on biblical inerrancy best illustrates this problem. The council affirmed:

“since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” (Dei Verbum 11).

This statement, over which there was a considerable tussle both in private and in public, seems at first sight to affirm Rome’s traditional stance on this matter. For this reason, conservatives in the Council agreed to it, and some Protestants subsequently have been led to think that Catholicism’s historic stance on this matter is unaltered….

But is this really the case? A careful scrutiny of the Council’s statement shows that it can be interpreted in an entirely different way, one which a majority of Catholic scholars are now following. In perhaps the most lucid account of the Council’s theology, B.C. Butler, explains how. The council obviously spoke of the Bible “teaching without error”, but the significance of this phrase, he argues, depends on the view of “the truth” which Scripture is said to teach without error. ‘Here the word “truth” is qualified by a statement of the finality or purpose of inspiration; it is a question of truth relevant to God’s saving purpose summed up in Christ. The point he is making is that many truths of science and history have no part to play in our salvation. “For instance” he says, “the date of the appearance of the human species in natural history is not formally relevant to our salvation; the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection is formally relevant.”

The illustration in the first half of Butler’s sentence is so obvious that the reader is disarmed against the thrust of the second half. The council’s statement, he argues, guarantees as inerrant only those truths necessary for our salvation. The meaning of the passage, therefore, turns on the question of how much we need to know with certainty to be saved. Apparently there is room for discussion on this point. Butler has limited the inerrant statements of Scripture to those which bear on the saving actions of God which were summed up in Christ, but Gregory Baum has trimmed this core even further. To be saved, he says, we need to know exceedingly little; exceedingly little, then, is inerrantly taught in scripture (Wells, p. 29-32).

It should be said that the whole of Vatican II was pervaded by this “Spirit”. And coming out of this “Spirit” were highly liberal individuals such as, in the words of Carl Trueman, “the Kungs, Rahners, Schillebeeckxs and the journalists at the National Catholic Reporter”. Roman Catholic epologists in our day automatically exclude these individuals from even being Catholic, but as Trueman says, “They all claim to be good Roman Catholics and find their unity around the Office of the Pope, after all. Let us not exclude them on the dubious grounds that they do not support our own preconceived conclusions of how papal authority should work.”

Well, this faux “unity” is now coming home to roost for the Roman hierarchy.

To be sure, the doctrinal questions are at the heart of everything. And these sexual abuse scandals are something of a side show. James Swan at Beggars All has raised the question of just how useful it is to bring up the various scandals. And Luther himself said “Life is bad among us as among the papists. Hence, we do not fight and damn [the Roman Catholics] because of their bad lives …. I do not consider myself to be pious. But when it comes to whether one teaches correctly about the word of God, there I take my stand and fight. That is my calling. To contest doctrine has never happened until now. Others have fought over life; but to take on doctrine—that is to grab the goose by the neck! …” (Cited by Steven Ozment,”The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe”, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 198), pgs 315-316).

But today, Roman Catholicism is more than just the sum of its doctrines.

For many Roman Catholics, so much of it really isn’t about “the doctrines” or doctrinal arguments any more. It’s cultural. It’s an ethos. We are frequently asked, “given the doctrinal difficulties that Rome faces, what is it that allures smart people to convert to Rome?” I’m convinced that at least part of the attraction is the ethos of Rome.

Vatican II was largely about something I’ll call “the glories of the church”. Showing off “the splendor of unity”. For most Roman Catholics today, John Paul II was something like a kindly grandfather. He spent years of his life talking not about theology, but something called “marriage and family”, which, in good part, was a defense of Humanae Vitae and related issues of sexuality. And the ethos may be characterized as saying “it’s good to be Roman Catholic. I can live my life according to these rules, and feel good about myself.”

If you have ever been to a Friday fish fry, or heard your co-workers sitting around talking about “what they’re giving up for Lent”, well, that’s what “cultural” Roman Catholicism becomes in its local communities. It’s all about “good food, friends from the neighborhood, and fellowship at a place we can trust”. It is largely cultural.

Thus, this “sexual abuse scandal”, which occurred under the watch of the grandfatherly John Paul II really undermines all the good feelings that lots of people had about that time and era. There’s a real “yuck” factor with the sexual abuse scandal. But further to that, the sexual abuse stories aren’t even about the sexual abuse. They’re about the cover-up. They’re about the criminal behavior of the bishops and church administrators. And when we bring up these scandals, (and the daily newspaper makes that easy to do), the question becomes, “are these the individuals you want to trust with your soul?” A further (doctrinal) question might be, does God really promise to give special guidance to “the Church”, an organization like this one, which is simultaneously “leading the flock” and engaging in criminal behavior?

Historically, Rome has showed itself off to the world as an unyielding edifice, a shelter against the storms. The problem with that, is that only “The name of the LORD is a fortified tower” (Proverbs 18:10). Even the mighty Vatican is going to crumble some day.

And Jesus was right: we can discern a tree from its fruit. And so now, in pointing to the feminist nuns who are now in battle with the Bishops, [who are what they are “in the Spirit of Vatican II”] to the huge percentage of priests and bishops (estimates range from 20% to 50%) who are said to be gay, we may legitimately say, “Here is your infallible Church in action”.

There is rampant sexual scandal in the Roman Church, all through Church history. At a minimum, bringing all this up will give us the opportunity to ask Roman Catholics (as I have done) to articulate again the specific doctrines which say, yes, “even though these are the most wicked people in the world, Christ still promises to protect them from erring doctrinally”. That is a very lame argument, when you look at it, and I don’t think many people have the stomach for it.

The Internet and the speed of modern communications is genuinely shining a light on the difficulties that Rome’s ancient method of manipulation. Words really do mean things. Rome’s “we are the masters of the word” attitude has come into clear view, with bishops, who after all created “the Spirit of Vatican II”, now chastising the feminist nuns that their own practice of equivocation initially fostered. It is coming home, full circle.

In reality, Rome’s Vatican II solution was a cowardly solution. It was a failure to stand on principle, and these sex abuse cover-ups and this situation with the nuns that is the fruit of that flight from principle.

Rome’s epologists love to talk trash about “scholarship”. Pay no attention to the truth, or to the facts. What Rome has always said is really what it has always been”. Bringing up these modern-day failures of Rome’s ancient method is an exceptional way of undermining the veracity of what Rome has to say.

No, it’s not a primary “argument”. But it is a cultural factor that strips away some of the shine of the “cultural” reasons for becoming, or remaining, Roman Catholic. 


  1. Earlier in his work, Wells had commented on the presence of “progressives” at Vatican II:

    Present-day Catholicism, on its progressive side, is teaching many of the ideas which the liberal Protestants espoused in the last century. Though progressive Catholics are largely unaware of their liberal Protestant stepbrothers, the family resemblance is nevertheless there. Since these ideas have only come into vogue in Catholicism in the last two decades, they appear brilliantly fresh and innovative. To a Protestant, whether he approves or disapproves of them, they are old hat. The Protestant’s greater acquaintance with these ideas and his longer reflection on them can give him an edge in analyzing contemporary Catholic thought (pg 8).

    I’ve often thought that someday, if I had the time, it would be a worthwhile exercise to work through the works of Ritschl, for example, and trace these “fresh and innovative” comparisons with Vatican II. But I don’t think I’m going to do that any time soon.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Crude: I got the figure from Sipe.

  4. "But further to that, the sexual abuse stories aren’t even about the sexual abuse. They’re about the cover-up. They’re about the criminal behavior of the bishops and church administrators."

    I hope Archbishop Dolan cleans up house.

  5. I hope Archbishop Dolan cleans up house.

    He is a *Cardinal* now (woo hoo!).

    I am not hopeful in any event.

  6. Crude: I got the figure from Sipe.

    And Sipe got the figure out of his backside, and from asking someone else to give a ballpark estimate. It's a worthless figure.

    I repeat: I have no doubt that there's a chunk of men with same-sex attractive in the church. The figures are baloney.

    And if they're not baloney, then you have to take my neatly censored 'estimate' of the triablogue admin as an estimate as well.

  7. Crude, your objections are noted and rejected as baseless.

  8. Okay, Crude may be a mindless mind-slave of Rome but what is the point of the admin deleting his comment but leaving replies to his comment standing? I would have liked the opportunity to read and assess Crude's idolatrous heresies for myself, in the exercise of my own - what's that phrase again? - private judgment.

    (PS: Same mutandis mutatis re LVKA and his Eastern Orthodox errors.)

  9. Tom, he was basically insulting to my co-bloggers. My own ability to "moderate" is probably less refined than is that of some of the others here.