The ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church has left many good Catholics shaken, and like many I have tried to understand how this has happened. Obviously, homosexuality in the clergy plays a role, and the all-male nature of the priesthood provides opportunities for such abuse. But here I want to explore the larger historical forces that allowed abuse to flourish in the Church, which at least for me makes it somewhat more explicable in human terms, the supernatural nature of evil notwithstanding.
Perhaps the most insightful explanation I have encountered comes from the Canadian philosopher John Lamont, whose article “Tyranny and Sexual Abuse in the Church: a Jesuit Tragedy,” identifies a warped idea of obedience which has influenced priestly formation since the 16th century. According to Lamont, a voluntarist conception of obedience, which made the will of a superior the necessary criteria for obedience, made its way into Jesuit training manuals and spread through post-Tridentine seminaries. This conception of obedience, he writes, departed from St. Thomas Aquinas’ of obedience according to law, whose source is in the nature of the good.
According to Lamont, this new tyrannical idea of obedience inculcates a crippling dependence on those who internalize it, such that they can no longer critically assess the actions of those in authority. He cites statements from popular training manuals for priests which defined obedience as surrender of one’s entire faculty of willing to their superior. Lamont argues that once clergy internalized this idea, it made appeals to any other authority null and void. This explains why canon law was no bar to sexual abuse, even though it provided remedies for it.