2 Feb 2011

Catholic theology explains why popes and priests dedicated to goodness could be so perverse and abusive

The Irish Times - January 11, 2011

In old theology, suffering, knowledge and power were inseparable

by MARY CONDREN | Opinion

RITE AND REASON: POPE BENEDICT’S recent comments regarding paedophilia, alongside the recent Murphy report, leave one breathless. How can those who dedicate their lives to goodness hold such views and protect those who act upon perverse impulses? Could theology have any role to play?

When the fourth-century Augustine (later Bishop of Hippo and saint) was brutally beaten in school, he showed his parents his “stripes”. They laughed: what else could a schoolchild expect?

Suffering, knowledge and power were inseparable: the young Augustine’s body (like that of many others) was being brutalised for the sake of the new Christian empire.

The adult Augustine’s Confessions, widely regarded as a Christian classic, are filled with self-loathing and shame. He (and many others) developed sophisticated theologies of atonement, suffering, grace and redemption.

The brutalised body on the cross rather than the innocent child in the manger, or Jesus, the radical incarnation of mercy and love, became the dominant icon of Christianity. The sadistic and sacrificial manner of Jesus’s death, rather than his gracious, benevolent and merciful life, became the dominant narrative.

In the new Christian empire, Jesus had become effectively the “poison container” for humanity.

Love and violence became indistinguishable and the film The Passion of the Christ, with its thin dividing line between spirituality and pornography, is vital testament to this lethal connection. Such theologies have devastating effects on child-rearing practices.

Psychotherapists know that early childhood experiences predispose us for a lifetime of either happiness or hurt.

Those working with post- traumatic stress disorder/illness know that bodily violence has crippling effects over a lifetime – psychic or physical illness and malignant shame.

Abused persons, often in desperate searches for narratives of meaning, seek frameworks to understand their suffering, preferably those that promise to effect their healing.

Shamed individuals take badness upon themselves to preserve the goodness of authority, thinking it is better “to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than a saint in a world rule by the devil” (Ronald Fairbairn).

However, their identities as “sinners” take on lethal implications.

They may associate love with suffering and sacrifice. They may look for shortcuts to healing by adopting an idealised self.

Holy Orders or religious vows can, in some cases, provide an instant identity; holy garments can cover despised bodies; holy rituals can channel bodily shame. The body is, supposedly, miraculously healed.

However, bodies have languages of their own that refuse to be silenced. Inner conflicts demand care in other, often dysfunctional ways. Abused persons may become either exploders or imploders.

Exploders externalise trauma through rage or exploitative sexual activity. They seek to use children, their own or others, as “poison containers” (Lloyd deMause) for their unresolved issues and physically or sexually abuse them as a form of “relief”.

Where Aids is rampant, victims seek virgins or innocent children, believing that their purity or innocence can magically “cure” them. Having deposited their “poison”, they often then kill their victims.

Imploders internalise trauma in the form of masochism, illness and addiction. Seemingly altruistic individuals can end up taking care from rather than giving care to those most in need.

Without communities of accountability, serious intervention, self-development, and healthy theologies, the pendulum can swing between the exploder and the imploder and the cycle of victimisation remains in place.

Enlightened therapists who understand the far-reaching effects of child abuse urge that we return to our poison containers, our bodies, seeking self-love and healing (Peter Levine).

Enlightened theologians examine theologies not only for their internal logic or truth status but also for the effects of truth: the healthiness or otherwise of theological stories.

They urge that we develop theologies of redemptive love rather than redemptive violence, especially in the light of the legacies of child abuse and religiously inspired political violence.

Yet, Vatican agencies today silence those who challenge poison container or scapegoating theologies. Furthermore, they threaten to defrock those priests whose silencing is revealed to the media.

Many theologies were formulated when humanity had few tools to understand how bodily trauma and brutal child- rearing practices fed the vicious cycle of shame and served the demands of empire – religious or political.

Toxic narratives lead to toxic outcomes. The time for such ignorance has long since passed.

Mary Condren Th.D teaches at the centre for gender and women’s studies in Trinity College Dublin, and is director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion.


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