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A deeper clerical problem than sex.

The continuing revelations of sexual misconduct among U.S. priests and bishops have led some to conclude that celibacy is more of a burden than a gift and should be abolished. This conclusion would be appropriate, to some extent, if the problem were just sexual in nature. But there is a deeper cause of this sexual predation that has nothing to do with sexuality.

The dirty little secret that has led a number of priests to ignore their vows and calling is that they do not believe in hell or even in a life after death.

This is not to say that any particular priest accused of a sexual crime and named in news reports lacks a belief in the afterlife. But among the clergy in general, there are enough who have ceased to believe in the existence of God or the doctrine of rewards and punishments or the resurrection of the body or the immorality of the human soul (singly or in combination) that the clerical culture carries this disbelief as part of its atmosphere, somewhat like smog over Los Angeles.

It is not that priests deliberately opt for heterodoxy. The problem is similar to that of the "underdeveloped priests" whom Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler described more than 20 years ago in The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1972): "It is surprising to find in this group of men a general inability to articulate a deep level of personal religious faith. What is presumed to be central in their lives is found to be peripheral and frequently superficial. Underdeveloped priests have not questioned or worked through for themselves an integrated and sustaining theology or philosophy of life in general" (page 11).

There is statistical evidence to support that contention. Down the years, the Gallup survey has continued to register a high degree of belief in heaven among the American population. But in the late 1970s, a team of Denver researchers conducted personal interviews on death with 276 clergy from 14 denominations (10 percent were Catholic priests).

The research director, Dr. Bernard Spilka, professor of psychology at the University of Denver, identified a surprising finding: "We have some Catholic priests who literally have no belief whatsoever in an afterlife of reward" (see Cliff Yudell, "Are Clergy Afraid to Die Too?" in U.S. Catholic, November 1978).

Theologian Hans Kung, in his book Eternal Life? (King answers yes but note the interrogative), claims that the question, "Do you believe in eternal life?" embarrasses "even theologians."

Preacher Gerald W. Paul commented 10 years ago: "I often say at a funeral, "Not many believe today in a life beyond death.' No one has ever challenged my statement" (The Christian Ministry, March 1984).

Part of the difficulty here is that it seems psychologically possible for some to believe in God and not in life after death. In a national religious magazine a few years ago, a committed layman described his spiritual ordeal as he watched at the deathbed of his young wife dying of heart disease in her early 30s.

He described his dialogue with God: "Is there really life after death? We [he and his wife] have discussed it before and honestly admitted to each other that we just don't know... I don't know! But I believe you are a loving God, and I can accept it either way, life after death or not."

Such an attitude resembles, of course, the religious outlook of the bulk of the Hebrew scriptures, which did not begin to entertain the possibility of life after death until late in the history of their composition, some two centuries before Christ. Covenant and community supported ethical conduct.

In similar fashion, down through the centuries, both Pascal's "wager" (PensCes, 3,234) and the tenets of secular humanism have provided a foundation for moral living without recourse to the existence of God or of an afterlife.

Today, however, for those arrested in the early stages of moral development, the lifting of the ultimate sanctions (the reward of heaven or the punishment of hell) would seem to vitiate any moral code: If there is no punishment for being bad, why be good-- since being bad is more fun? (Which turns Pascal's bet on its head!)

In regard to the existence of hell, Jerry L. Walls, in Hell: The Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press, (1992), cites statistics indicating that between one-third and one-half of Roman Catholics in the United States do not believe in hell. He quotes a 1981 survey of theology faculties in which more than one-third of Roman Catholic theologians denied the doctrine of hell, and he cites the contention of Arthur Mann (as relayed by theologian Martin Marty) "that the disappearance of hell from the Catholic imagination may be the most neglected and most important event after Vatican II" (pages 2,3,8 and notes).

Toward the end of his career, the late theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar was forced (by public debate, not by Rome) to retract a theological "suggestion" he had made in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (Ignatius Press, 1988) that hell did indeed exist but that an all-loving God would abolish it at the end of human history (this doctrin of "universalism" is found in some of the nearly church fathers).

Kennedy and Heckler contend that the priesthood is tailor-made for the underdeveloped personality. The underdevoloped priest, they say, can maintain positions of prestige and security and can proctect their powers from being tested by the competition of the world. "The priesthood for many of these underdevelopd men is a vocational choice that allows them to continue in life without really needing to develop. It offers them a setting in which they can survive without growing" (Psychological Investigation, page 12).

Couple the heterodox atmosphere described above with this type of personality (which obviously includes the element of psychosexual immaturity) and the stage is set for the kind of pervasive sexual scandals we have been experiencing.

This situation is not new in thej history of the church. Several medieval and Renaissance popes, famous for their sexual escapades, were agnostics or even atheists. We have direct testimony concerning the attitudes of Boniface VIII (Benedetto Caetani, who reigned 1294-1303), the most notorious of 13th century popes.

After his death, the Italian allies of his archenemy, Philip IV of France, prepared to try Boniface (in absentia, as it were). The trial was aborted but the written testimonies survive in archives. Although historians rightly treat this evidence with some suspicion, Robert Brentano concludes, "The figure who emerges from the evidence, its Boniface, is bizarre but believable... consistent in style with the otherwise known Boniface at the extreme edges of his behavior" (Rome Before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome; Basic Books, 1974).

Witness after witness testified to Boniface's public denial of Mary's virginity, Christ's real presence, the immortality of the human soul and the sinfulness of sodomy.

Brentano relays the testimony of a 17-year-old shoemaker who attempted to deliver some shoes to then-Cardinal Caetani. The prelate ushered the youth into a bedroom and attempted to seduce him. When the young man resisted, the cardinal argued, "It is no more sin than to rub your hands together." (One can imagine our contemporary, sexually active clerics using similar words with their victims.)

Brentano calls Boniface "immensely sad" and concludes, "He is encased in the most extreme version of the trappings of a great religion, but it is not, it seems, his religion. And those trappings were suffocating."

It may give us some satisfaction to know that bishops are finally issuing guideliness on sexual abuse and setting up mechanisms for reporting incidents of it, that vocational standards will be tightened or that seminary formation will be more nuanced. But the scandal will not quickly disappear for two reasons.

First, there seems to be a considerable lag time between the actual incidents of abuse and the public accusations, sometimes as much as two decades or more (in a few cases, the accused priest has been dead for several years). Youthful victims reach middle age before they finally summon the courage to go public with their stories. Given that, one can imagine that some younger sexual victims from the 1980s will not emerge until after the turn of the century. The drumbeat will continue.

Second, the heterodox opinions described here will continue to hold sway among a percentage of American priests (and laity, too) with the effect of unmoralizing the Christian faith to a greater or lesser extent, thus rendering ethical standards and conduct more difficult to maintain.

This influence is maggnified by the lack of any warrant in the surrounding culture for the existence of God and of an afterlife.

German theologian Helmut Thielicke tells a story two medieval monks discussing death. They promised one another that whoever died first would return the next night and, in reply to the question Qualiter? ("What's is like?"), answer either Taliter ("Just as we thought") or Aliter ("Different than we imagined"). Finally, one of the monks died. The next evening he appeared as a ghost to his brother monk, who asked anxiously, "Qualiter? To which came the answer, "Totaliter aliter!" ("Totally different!").

A goodly number of priests and laity today would find that story merely quaint.

William Freburger is editor of Celebration
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Title Annotation:disbelief in life after death
Author:Freburger, William J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 16, 1993
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