A devotion to authority that borders on insanity

Lately I’ve been watching the outpouring of revelations about sexual abuse in protestant churches, and I’ve gone back and read up on the Roman Catholic church scandals that first made the news fifteen years ago, and I’ve also taken a broader look at abuses of institutional authority in the church. Some of it has thrown me for a loop—I never realized things were this bad.

But none of it has scared me at a personal level. Looking back, my family was never in any real danger of being subject to such abuse because we always rejected the claims of other men to have fundamental authority over our lives, social or spiritual—even during some stretches when we desperately wanted to put ourselves under such authority. To be blunt, we knew people too well, and always saw that the men who claimed such authority were in no way qualified to wield it.

I try to choose my words carefully, and I try to resist bolstering my case with over-the-top characterizations. So when I describe a tendency as “bordering on insanity”, I really do mean that I think madness is on the horizon. And in what follows, this joky definition of insanity may be applicable: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

I recommend that you read these two blog posts, one by Damon Linker called The greatest threat to traditional churches isn’t liberalism — it’s the men who run them, and then this response from Rod Dreher called Can Traditional Religion Survive A Wired World? What strikes me is that neither writer entertains the possibility that the traditional church might simply be done–not even in order to weigh and then reject the idea. It is simply not possible for them that the traditional church is done, and consequently its troubles are not the evidence of irreversible terminal decay in the institution, but of external and internal threats against which she must be defended.

I won’t summarize the posts because I don’t think the stories they tell are especially new or interesting, we’ve all heard them many times In many ways. What I want to do is extract and highlight the descriptions of church authority.

… So let’s just say that if you hadn’t heard the news before you started reading this column, you would have heard about it elsewhere before long. And that is a big problem for the churches, especially the conservative churches that seek to uphold and promulgate traditionalist views of morality and doctrine. …

…. Stated simply, the problem is this … when a scandal reveals that those who preach the stringent traditionalist view of morality fall far short of the standards they publicly demand of others, it makes them look like hypocrites and the church’s teachings look like a cruel sham concocted by psychologically unbalanced clerics. ….

…. Clerical hypocrisy and corruption are, after all, nothing new. They’re as old as the church itself — because the church is run by human beings, and human beings find it extremely difficult to live up to what the church holds out as right behavior. ….

…. When a priest, bishop, pope, or pastor was accused of impropriety, sexual or otherwise, the instinct was to cover it up, for the good of the institution. ….

… our role, we were told, was to publicly defend the church, not to add fuel to the fires lit and stoked by its enemies. We needed to circle the wagons and stop making such a public fuss about ugly facts that would only do damage to the institution. ….

…. How long will the remaining parishioners keep returning to the pews when they’re confronted by a persistent drip of scandal implicating people at all levels of the institution? …

…. Once we recognize the crucially important role of publicity in driving a mass exodus from the churches, something far more troubling becomes obvious — namely, that more than anything else it is the truth, and not some external cultural or political force, that may ultimately destroy the churches. Not the indemonstrable "truth" that God doesn’t exist. But rather the ultimately undeniable truth that, despite what they might say about themselves and what many of us would fervently like to believe about them, the churches are all too human. All the way down.

… [quoting a lawyer]: ““Everything I had heard about Archbishop Nienstedt,”  led me to think that if there was ever a guy who was not going to put up with this kind of stuff, it would be him. Would you ever think that somebody with a reputation for being dogmatically pure would turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff? I was completely unprepared for it.” …

… Just this morning I received an e-mail from a faithful orthodox Catholic friend in which he mentioned that he and a Catholic seminarian friend of his have had to dramatically lower their expectations of the hierarchy in order to stay strong in the faith. …

… As a matter of guarding my own heart, I expect the worst from Orthodox bishops and clergy. … I’ve lived through what happens when you trust those in religious authority as strongly as I once did, and I cannot afford to get fooled again. …

… It turns out that “everybody knew there was something funny about the priests there,” said my friend (“everybody” being the parents). But those families stayed faithful to the Church, despite the corruption of their parish clergy. It was a different world then. …

… Here’s a perhaps more radical claim: the wide dissemination of truth may, in time, destroy the authority of all institutions. Walter Bagehot famously said about the importance of keeping the British monarchy shrouded in mystery, “We mustn’t let daylight in upon magic.” This is true for the leadership of all authoritative institutions, don’t you think? …

I have my own biases, of course, but trying to imagine myself as being open to the value of institutional authority and then reading through the above, I think I would end by asking: please tell me again why you think it is a good idea to expose yourself to this sort of danger.

But people continue to think it is a good idea, one that shouldn’t be jettisoned simply because it can be abused. Rod Dreher ends his post with this paragraph.

From a theological point of view, what all of us Christians are living through now, and will live through, could be seen as God’s judgment on His people. Purification is painful; bourgeois Pelagians in the clergy and in the laity will be burned away. Increasingly, churches whose leaders cannot withstand the scrutiny of the all-seeing eye of the Internet will not survive over time. And not just churches.

Well, I suppose. But it could also be seen as the latest in a very, very long series of proofs that men are completely incapable of wielding spiritual authority over others, and that denying it is just wishful thinking.


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