Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Monday, August 20, 2018


The Roman Catholic Church has split twice in its two millennium long run:  first in 1054, not quite a thousand years ago, when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off, and then, just half a millennium ago, when part of the church splintered into an array of Protestant sects.  Do the appalling new revelations of deep-rooted, pandemic, unending priestly sexual abuse of parishioners signal yet another existential crisis? 

It does not seem to me likely that a theatrical display of hair shirt self-flagellation will suffice this time.  These are not merely the inevitable failings of human beings called to a standard of sanctity beyond all but the handful of saints.  As a lifelong atheist, I shun the use of the term “evil,” which has a religious meaning, but what is now being exposed to view must be seen by true believers as no less than the work of Satan himself.

I can fully understand how devout Catholics can continue to pray, to atone, to believe, but I cannot see how they can bring themselves to receive Holy Communion from a parish priest who, it is more than likely, is complicit in, aware off, in denial about, if not himself a participant in, the abusive acts.

But weighing as an anchor on the Church is the enormous accumulation of property and the career ambitions and awards of a worldwide bureaucracy of cardinals, monsignors, bishops, nuncios, abbots, and deacons.

There is a solution, of course.  Let the nuns take over to cleanse Holy Mother Church.

Fat chance.


MS said...

Over the weekend, after the story broke about the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report disclosing the scope of child abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, and the cover-up by the bishops, I contemplated what sort of a person would take the spiritual vows required of a priest, including the vow of celibacy, and then proceed to engage in the kind of predatory behavior that the grand jury report divulged. One would think that a male willing to make the personal sacrifice of celibacy, in order to serve what the he regards as a higher spiritual and moral purpose, would not use that life choice as an opportunity to take advantage of children and gratify his sexual drive. Unfortunately, the lesson that this disturbing report will have for many people is that the priests who take this vow are not really sacrificing anything – they take the vow because they are probably homosexual anyway, and the priesthood, for them, is just a garden of earthly delights. This view, I am afraid, will have harmful and deleterious consequences for public opinion about the gay community generally. Medical professionals make a clinical distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia. The former does not equate to, and does not entail, the latter. But the general public does not, I believe, understand or agree with this distinction. Witness the opposition to the Boy Scouts decision to allow homosexual scout leaders. I do not believe that this opposition was based just on the theological belief that homosexuality is a sin, but on the belief that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. The scandal involving the priests will, unfortunately, just reinforce this misconception.

MS said...

Postscript to my previous comment.

After I posted my comment, I realized that there may be a fallacy in the comment with respect to the use of the word “celibacy.” (An issue, again, regarding English terminology.) The word actually has two applications. One means abstention from all sexual relations, period. The other means abstention from marriage, which, prior to recognition of gay marriage, would have meant marriage between a male and a female. I assume that the vow of celibacy that priests take (I am not Catholic) refers to the former meaning – abstention from sexual relations altogether, which would apply equally to homosexual men as to heterosexual men. So the observation that many people would regard the vow of celibacy by a priest as not a significant sacrifice if the priest was gay would be erroneous. However, I suspect that most people do not know of this distinction in the meaning of the term “celibate” and regard the oath as primarily precluding priests from being married to a female. For them, a homosexual priest who takes a vow of celibacy is not sacrificing anything. Regardless, I believe that the scandal disclosed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report will have a damaging effect on public opinion towards the gay community.

Anonymous said...

To MS:
I’m not a Catholic either, but I used to play one as a kid. I grew up in that religion: New England Irish Catholic. Jesuit high school and university. So, I know something about it, though through a glass darkly now, since I got out of its orbit by the end of the 1960s. What I was taught is that the Jesuits and all other Catholic religious orders (including priests, brothers, and nuns) took various vows—among which was a vow of chastity. That means abstinence from sexual relations—full stop. The Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (both to the Jesuit Order and to the Pope). I don’t know all the arcania connected with the vows that nuns take (or took, back then) but you can be 100% confident that chastity was/is one of them. As far as the other sense of “celibacy’ is concerned: Priests, Brothers, Nuns—none of them can marry. And the notion of a celibate (i.e., non-sexual) marriage, if I remember this correctly, is not acceptable in Catholicism. It’s considered unnatural: marriage is really all about having kids (as is, of course, sex). To break any of the vows is considered a grievous sin, much worse than reading Descartes, while his works were on the Index of Forbidden Books, or attending a forbidden movie (every month or so our parish would publish the current list of forbidden movies, on a wall in the church vestibule; we were to stay away from them, or we’d get a ticket to hell). Well, don’t take my word for it, nowadays we can look all this up on the internet.

Anonymous said...

I am a very infrequent commenter on this excellent blog and I have never posted anonymously to this blog before but anonymity will be allow me to reveal one personal thing. I hope this will still be useful.

I went to a Catholic minor Seminary (high school) that 25 years ago created national news about several instances of abuse including in the time I was there. I was not personally abused but knew several of the accused faculty as well as one of the most scarred victims. (I am proud that I provided some very minor background information to the Boston Globe Spotlight reporting team).

The one thing I can say about my own experience is the response to the abuse and any press is deeply divisive. There were was a lot of people (too many sadly) who I went to school with who were actually mad at the victims and particularly their advocates for trying to spread light on what happened. I strongly disagree with this as the victims need to be heard for many reasons but in particular so that abuse is reduced. This in line with the recent news in Pennsylvania as their "cover up" was a largely successful strategy which is only now being rethought.

I think the wider issue is with all the coverups by the Catholic Church. Here, I think ALL internal systems of justice are suspect. No institution that I know of can "police itself". The Catholic Church may have had more internal cover than most institutions so that the abuse victims go unheard for much longer.

All that said I am not sure the Catholic Church has that different a rate of abuse of minors than other institutions. I see a lot of stories (way more than stories about the Catholic Church) about physical and sexual abuse of sports coaches and sports staff. Abuse by educators is considered pretty common and does not get the mental representation that abuse by religious seems to get. We have a cultural problem that is wider than the Catholic Church (in my own casual calculus I think the per capita abuse by Mormon leaders is higher than Catholic Church).

I also do not see there being a lot of important difference in what the gender of the victims are. Catholic Priests have abused young women and men for centuries and while it may be that an increased number of victims were boys I think that would have more to do with cultural changes that would restrict priests' unsupervised access to girls in the 1970s on after.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for this very valuable comment. The evidence certainly supports the claim that abuse of this and other sorts is extremely widespread. It is a manifestation of power and unaccountability. It makes me sick at heart to reflect on the numbers of people whose lives have been scarfred, if not blighted, by abuse.

MS said...

Anonymous 1 and 2,

Thank you for your very elucidating comments.

I believe it deserves observing that, while the conduct of the priests who engaged in this execrable behavior, as well as that of the bishops who enabled them by covering up their criminal acts and transferring them to other parishes, is more than deplorable, there are many, many priests, and nuns, who do not engage in this conduct, who work tirelessly in service of their calling, and whose dedication unfortunately may be called into question by the conduct of the miscreants. As I have said, I am not Catholic, was raised in a different faith, and am in fact an atheist. But I can appreciate, and respect, the aspirations and commitment of those who are devout and who work selflessly on behalf of the needy and poor, without victimizing them. (P.S., according to Christopher Hitchens, Mother Theresa was not one of these noble people.)

Along these lines, one of my favorite movies (again, a cinema reference) is the film “Doubt,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a priest who is accused by a nun, played phenomenally by the ever astonishing Meryl Streep. Streep, the principal of the diocese’s school, accuses Hoffman of sexual misconduct with a young student. I would urge those who have not seen this movie to do so. (Dean, are you reading this?) The plot, acting and direction are outstanding. Streep’s Sister Aloysius, personifies for me the narrow-minded, dogmatic kind of judges I have encountered who believe they can infallibly determine whether a defendant is telling the truth not by the evidence, but by their demeanor. I have my own opinion regarding the guilt/innocence of Father Flynn, which is not conclusively resolved by the end of the movie. I would be curious to learn what others think. (I frequently ask people who have seen the movie what their own conclusion is on this question. Most people I have asked indicate that they believe he was guilty. I personally believe that he was innocent, underscoring the theme of the title.)

Finally, a poem of which I am particularly fond is by a Jesuit priest, “Thou Art Indeed Just Lord,” by Gerard Manly Hopkins. Hopkins is lamenting to God that his personal sacrifices seem to him to be unappreciated by God, to go unrewarded. He asks, “Why do sinners ways prosper? and why must disappointment all I endeavor end?’ He concludes the poem with the following poignant plea: “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” All of us, religious and irreligious, especially in these troubling social and political times, can empathize with Hopkins’ plea and despondency.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

There is a priest I hold in the most highest esteem: Father Tom. He passed away I think between 2006-2011. He was either St. Thomas reincarnated or the closest thing to a reincarnated St. Thomas as anyone would find. He looked and acted like the balloon house flying man in Disney's carton movie UP!. He would preach that Protestants, Muslims, and Jews were all our brothers and sisters. He was old school. In WW2 he was in Marine Corps communications. I believe he became a priest because he witnessed too much hell in the Pacific--although I don't think he saw much combat or any combat except from the ships. He would preach that he would not bless a couple's house unless they were married. He reminded me of Papa John Paul II. He gave me his special blessing in 2005 when I was going through a lot of personal hell that year. As a Catholic, I just wanted to give my testimony about a priest that was true to the Roman Catholic priesthood. He was an honorable man and I don't believe he is burning in Dante's 9 circles of hell. I believe he is at peace and greatly blessed by God right now.

(Btw, my heart goes out to all those who have been abused by anyone. I am truly sorry that you experienced so much pain in life.)

Anonymous said...

Let us remember that much of this is still in the stage of "allegations".

"All that said I am not sure the Catholic Church has that different a rate of abuse of minors than other institutions."

The research I am aware of (and I admit I have not investigated in depth) seems to show this to be the case.

Of course those who are proven to have engaged in this behavior should be removed from society and not be given the chance to do so again...but when you hear abuse reports coming out of academia, sports, etc., people don't typically also claim that the entire organization is criminal or abusive.

It makes sense that people want to hold religious institutions and holy men to a higher standard. They themselves promote the claim that they represent a higher standard. But there has also been a long history of public fascination with just the idea of sexual improprieties involving priests, nuns, and the Church.

Just saying, in this, and other matters (such as the political ones appearing on this blog lately), it is good to take sensationalized media narratives with a few grains of salt, step back, and analyze the real facts before getting swept up by the passions and tribes.

LFC said...


I don't know what "the general public" believes on some of these matters raised in your comments, and I doubt it's useful to try to generalize about that.

My view (borrowing partly from what a commenter on another blog has said) is that the abusive behavior generating these scandals (and I read some of the newspaper reportage on the Pa. grand jury) reflects a systemic problem, i.e., one built into the institution of the celibate priesthood esp. in the contemporary era.

The Church should probably rethink in a basic way the issue of celibacy, from the standpoint of its self-interest if for no other reason. The Vatican has an organization called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is usually (and doubtless correctly) seen as the guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, but which presumably has the resources to lay the groundwork for a redefinition of that orthodoxy if it is told to do that. Someone (say, the Pope) should push things in that direction.

p.s. This comment could have been longer, and originally was, but I decided to shorten it in deference to readers' time.

LFC said...

Another thing: even if the celibacy requirement were abolished, the Church would still have to do a better job of vetting, psychologically and otherwise, young men (or women, if it ever came to that) seeking to become priests than it has apparently done in recent years.

Matt 2 said...

Regarding MS's first comment, it is my understanding that the association between homosexuality and men who abuse young boys is a somewhat of a myth. Most people who abuse young boys are not attracted to adult men (therefore, not categorized as homosexual -- the gender of their victims notwithstanding). Such people are usually heterosexual (attracted to adult women) and this isn't a case of denial. Homosexual men (and heterosexual women) are generally attracted to masculine features in adult men. Young boys have not developed masculine features yet. Children (male and female) have feminine features and therefore more likely to appeal to people who are attracted to adult women than people attracted to adult men.

MS said...

Mat 2,

I hope that I am not being interpreted as having suggested that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. In fact, I think I make clear in my comment that medical professionals deny that there is any correlation. I know, however, that in the public arena, many people do believe that there is a causal connection, and it was this erroneous belief that motivated many people to oppose the Boy Scouts' revision of its policy precluding homosexuals from serving as scout leaders. The Mormon Church, for example, did not disassociate itself from the Boy Scouts because they believed that homosexuality is a sin.

s. wallerstein said...

Matt 2,

Teenage boys are often abused by priests (and by others), and they already have masculine features, so those who abuse them may have homosexual inclinations.

My son went to a Catholic school (long story), and when he was 11 or 12 and living with me, a priest began to call him regularly to invite him to special activities. I got on the phone and without addressing this character as "father" or as anything else besides "hey you", explained that I was the father and that if he wanted to invite my son anywhere, he had to consult with me first and that I hoped that I was being clear, because I could be even clearer, if he got the message.

The guy never called again of course. This was before the scandals of abuse became
well-known and since I was persona (less than) non grata among the other parents, I didn't bother to warn them. For example, before a meeting of parents and children, my son told me to "say hello to everyone", "smile" and "express no opinions at all please". I followed his instructions. I was a bit of a misfit, but at times that comes in handy as it did with the bothersome priest.

LFC said...

Pedophilia is a word used loosely, but its clinical definition is sexual attraction to individuals who have not yet gone through puberty. (A cursory online search will reveal that there are other labels for attraction to other age groups.)

mesnenor said...

The East-West Schism of 1054 was preceded by the various schisms that resulted in the separation of the Nestorian church, and the Assyrian church, and the various Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, etc.) from the branch of the church that led to the Roman Catholic church as we know it today.

Howie said...

In real life, Christianity, or Catholicism, is an immortality scam of sorts. A true Christian is admirable, and I have friends and family who are Christians and whom I love and admire- but to the heart of the Church, morality comes in a long second to Immortality. You will be forgiven of your sins because of the sacrifice of Christ, so anything goes. The Priests aren't moral exemplars but at the head of the sinner's line at the gate to Heaven- and in this life as a Broadway show put it, "anything goes."
This is a structural fault of Christianity- the tension between immortality and morality- and in the case of the accused Priests in Pennsylvania, we see clearly that sin and heaven won

Anonymous said...

So, it’s been 501 years since Luther’s world-historical stunt protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church, corruption which long-antedated Luther’s time. And the corruption has continued down into the present. How long a wake-up call does this institution need? (My sense is that it’s dead, or a zombie, and no amount of rousing will change its condition.) The upheaval of the Reformation and the subsequent religious wars among western Christians did nothing, apparently, to induce the Church to clean up its act. The modern western world got the Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman Inquisitions (the last one being the circus that nailed Galileo) and the rest of the Counter-Reformation reaction in response. Later on, the the works of Descartes, Darwin, and countless others got consigned to the flames of the Index of forbidden books. Read them, and you’re going to hell. And so on. We hear a lot about the history of this institution’s corruption today because we are largely literate and have advanced modes of communication through which the word gets around. And, of course, we have some sense for science as an epistemic authority. Without the literacy, technology, and our general scientific sense, the truth about this institution would still be in the dark, where it has always thrived. It is interesting to note that the last Sistine castrato died in 1922, and, so I’ve read, recordings of his singing are extant. Sing for the Last Supper. The current and recent crops of child abusers and their sinister colluders are the latest in the multiple long lines of creepy lifeforms who have held authority and power in the Church since long before Luther pounded on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. The door didn’t open.

Matt 2 said...

MS: Sorry, I didn't mean to attribute the view to you. I just wanted to comment on the notion that child abuse in the Catholic Church related to repressed homosexuality.

s. wallerstein: I can't find it now, but I saw something suggesting that about 70% of these men are attracted to adult women, so not all are straight but it seems like most probably are. Although there may be confusion over terminology as LFC suggests.