Historical context is confusing

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Did y’all want to know what I think about the Catholic Church and the newly-current news? No? Right, then. Carry on. It’s not my church, and it’s not really my news, and I don’t have any particular insight. Move along.

I am going to write my thoughts up anyway, just on the off-chance that some Gentle Reader has not heard this rant already and wants to spend a few minutes helping me rethink my attitudes. I don’t think I’ve written up this notion before here in this Tohu Bohu, but I’ve been thinking it for twenty years or so, now, and it has seemed to be missing from the bulk of the reporting and thinkpieces, and it also seems to me to be an important part of understanding the pattern of behavior within the Catholic church. At the thing that is missing is this: there’s a centuries-long history of anti-clericalism, specifically expressed in baseless accusations of sexual perversion by the clergy.

That is, for, oh, eight hundred years or so? There have been wild allegations of priests, and eventually monks and nuns, engaging in horrific orgiastic rituals. In the post-Reformation, allegations of a pederastic Catholic priesthood—that Popery and pederasty were essentially the same thing—were a standard part of Protestantism on the ground level. Great works of Western Literature carry that idea forward into the 19th and 20th centuries. I don’t know how much anti-Catholic prejudice there is in the world right now, or even in this country, but I suspect that the Church is well aware of whatever there is, and more than that, puts it in its historical context. And that context is that vicious anti-Catholic prejudice was usually expressed in baseless allegations of priests engaging in sexual abuse.

I was reminded of this the other day by an essay called An Encouraging Story About Falsehood by Robert B. Clarke and Steven Lubet, an excellent essay by the way, but things in it remind me of how many Jews take for granted that any allegation of a child dying at the hands of Israeli forces is rooted in the Blood Libel. As if (a) there have not been children actually dying at the hands of Israeli forces, and (b) no other group or nation had ever been held responsible for the death of a child outside of such a tradition of racial/cultural prejudice. It just isn't possible for many of us to respond to even the most specific and credible allegations outside the context of the Blood Libel. Similarly, I don't think it was possible for the Popes of the last decades, or their main advisors, or the top of the Vatican heirarchy, to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by priests outside that context of centuries-long slander.

Now, there was a thread by Erin Bartram a couple of days ago that did talk in great measure about that point, and with more real understanding of the history of Catholicism in America specifically. And her take on the issue is not so much that the institution’s reactions were based in that history (tho’ I suspect she would agree) as that people outside the institution were reacting to the news based on that history. That is—our understanding of Catholicism, the Catholic hierarchy and specifically the priesthood in the US is tied up with, as she put it, a long-standing association in America between Catholicism and criminal sexuality. And it’s a different question—the question not being why did this particular institution cover up sexual crimes and allow them to continue but why do we react to this particular institution’s cover-ups and complicity different from all the other institutions’. And, in fact, the truth is that institutional leaders seem to need very little special historical context in order to cover-up sexual crimes and allow them to continue. Schools, athletic programs, families. As a friend of mine once said: there isn’t really a taboo against child molestation, there’s just a taboo against talking about it. I mean, I hope that’s a wild exaggeration, but certainly institutions generally have tended to punish victims rather than perpetrators. So there’s that.

And yet… there’s yet another take that I found troubling. This one comes from Anil Dash, who said in another Twitter thread that he can’t imagine being free of the group judgment that allows other Christians (and indeed other Catholics) not to fear retaliation for their institutions creat[ing] a supply chain for child predation. And that, for instance, the President has not been asked, as a Christian, to denounce his co-religionists. Or that people aren’t vandalizing Christian graveyards or churches and assaulting people in the streets because they look somehow Christian. And, you know, that’s an excellent point. I mean, overstated, sure, but still true—us in our various minorities are often called on to explain, defend or denounce our institutions, even when we bear no responsibility for them. Often enough that we live with that fear he describes—when I hear something about a Jew misbehaving, or a Jewish institution that has enabled or covered up for that misbehavior, I think oh, that’s bad for Jews. I don’t know to what extent Catholics feel that way about these things. And of course Protestants don’t feel that Catholics might make them look bad, even when non-Christians can’t quite make out the differences between Christians, who all seem to use a solar calendar, right?

So, where am I now? Do I feel that (a) there really is something about the historical context of the Catholic Church that led to them, particularly, closing ranks to protect abusers at the cost of incalculable harm to thousands of people? Or do I perhaps feel that (ii) the Catholic Church is not particularly special in this regard, but has been singled out by the wider society out of lingering historical anti-clericalism and hypocritical sanctimony? Or do I perhaps feel that (3) the Catholic Church and ordinary Catholics are being protected from a group judgment that would, of course, be unfair and unjust, but would be expected nonetheless for most minority groups? Or are these all true simultaneously and somehow reconcilable… I mean, I think it’s all very, very complicated. You know?

So I dunno, really. But I will say that I think that—like Jews and the Blood Libel—it’s important to keep in mind that all of the current stuff happens in a historical context of virulent prejudice. That context is probably (again like Jews and the Blood Libel) a lot more vibrant and obvious and indeed inescapable to the members of the historically persecuted minority than to those outside it. And (again, like etc) that context may feed the reactions of people outside the minority even when they aren’t particularly aware of it. And also (and again) people in other historically persecuted minorities may perceive that particular minority not as being persecuted but as being privileged, and with some accuracy, despite the historical context of virulent and so on, and its ongoing and inescapable and so forth.

And… that combination may be worth keeping in mind in other contexts, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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