November bishops meeting will be key in sexual assault scandal, UP theologian says

Professor gives historical context to Church's crises

By Wes Cruse | October 24, 2018 11:05am
Michael Cameron, a UP theology professor, comments on the historical context of the Church.
Media Credit: Paula Ortiz Cazaubon / The Beacon

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, including one confirmed case involving a former University of Portland president, was only the beginning of investigations into clerical sex abuse. 

Investigations continue in eight other states. At the end of September, a former UP chaplain was named in Indiana’s sex abuse report. Coupled with the letter by Archbishop Viganò released on Aug. 22, calling for Pope Francis’ resignation, some people believe controversy threatens to tear the Church apart.

UP theology professor Michael Cameron, who specializes in historical theology, has given the problem of sex abuse and its cover up in the Church a lot of thought lately. In his view, the cover-up problem partially stems from the Church’s tendency to protect the institution.

“What we’re calling cover up, essentially, is the Church trying to maintain itself, maintain its own,” Cameron said.

Cameron also pointed to clericalism, which is the idea that clergy have greater power and authority than laity (church members who are not clergy) as a factor that has contributed to the present-day scandal. 

“There is a tension,” Cameron said. “To talk about this problem, you can’t avoid the idea of clericalism, both on the dimension of the sexual violation, but then also the rationale for cover-up.”

And Cameron said that clericalism might be rooted in the way the Catholic Church understands the distinction between clergy and laity.

“You could make a case that clericalism has some foundation in a positive Christian theology about the difference between the clergy and the faithful, even though fundamentally in the big picture, they are on the same level by way of baptism,” Cameron said.

Regardless of the exact cause behind clericalism, the attention of many Catholics, including Cameron, is on how the Church’s leaders respond to this scandal.

“The bishops’ meeting this November is going to be crucial,” Cameron said, referring to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall General Assembly. “All eyes are going to be on the bishops for what they are going to say and what they are going to do.”

Pope Francis’ response to this scandal called for solidarity with victims, prayer and fasting as acts of penance for these “atrocities.” Cameron said that Francis’ response isn’t drastically different from his predecessors’ in times of crisis.

“It’s all over the map,” Cameron said. “There are popes who come out swinging.”

Francis has refused to respond directly to Archbishop Viganò’s accusations, the second aspect of crisis facing the Church. Cameron said a friend of his sent him an article that suggested a reason for Francis’ silence. 

“(The article suggested that) Francis’ silence may be a characteristically Ignatian,” said Cameron. “There might be a strategy to the silence.”

Ignatian refers to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly called Jesuits. Jesuits are generally considered to be more liberal than other religious orders. And Francis is the first Jesuit pope in the Church’s history.

It’s been reported that the subtext of the call for Francis’ resignation is about more than the sexual abuse scandal. Rather, it’s rooted in a conflict within the hierarchy over the Pope’s more liberal and tolerant positions, on several issues, but most notably homosexuality. Cameron said the division in the Church is older than the present day crisis.

“It’s really about who has the claim on Vatican II,” Cameron said. “It wasn’t erasing the line between clergy and laity, but it was lifting up the laity, lifting up the importance of the vocation of the laity.”

Vatican I and II were councils of Church leaders that reformed Catholic faith in the context of each council’s moment in history. Vatican I lasted from 1869-1870, and Vatican II was held from 1962-1965. Vatican II is known for its substantial changes to Church practices, such as its introduction of vernacular languages to the Mass in place of Latin. 

“There are people around who have an axe to grind with Vatican II,” Cameron said. “A kind of slogan in the time before Francis was ‘reform of the reform,’ and Francis put the kibosh on that and disappointed a lot of people. Francis is more open. He’s more process-oriented. Conservatives don’t like that.”

While it appears the Church is especially divided right now, Cameron said that there have always been diverse perspectives within the Church. 

“There’s always been an undertow of, not division, but of different viewpoints,” Cameron said. “One of the aspects of the genius of Catholicism is being able to hold things in tension. There’s a Jesuit spirituality, a Dominican spirituality, a Franciscan spirituality, etc. Those are, in many ways, very different and yet they’re under one Church.” 

Cameron said the scandal in the Church has a long history that helps contextualize the current crisis. 

“The scandalous quality of the clergy, the power games, the careerism and clericalism, all that is old,” Cameron said. “All that is very old. Luther saw it when he visited Rome in 1510, long before the Reformation.”

And Cameron said scandal involving clergy has been a historical trend in the Church.

“I think about the challenges that Cyprian faced in North Africa in the mid-third century which was based around the persecutions,” Cameron said. “Cyprian was seen to run away from the persecution. He was seen as not accepting the full burden of the faith.”

Cyprian was the Bishop of Carthage in the mid-third century who experienced persecution from the Romans, who were strong opponents of Christianity.

Cameron also said certain bishops in the early 4th century were considered traitors because of their scandalous behavior.

“They had given up items from within the Church, specifically the Scriptures, handing them over to the pagans,” Cameron said. “What arises out of that is the protest movement in North Africa. They make an appeal to Constantine that the bishop who had been ordained for Carthage was illegitimate because of this scandalous surrender of the faith.”

Cameron also mentioned the scandal of the Donatists, Christians in North Africa who held that the scandals of clergy invalidated the sacraments of the Church such as baptism, Confession and the Eucharist.

“The Donatists said because these scandals were so serious it fatally crippled the function of the Church,” Cameron said. “The graces given through the sacraments were not valid because of the people.”

Cameron said Augustine’s response to this scandal was historic. Augustine was the leader of the Church in North Africa during the late 4th and early 5th century when this scandal occurred.

“Augustine said ‘no, no’ the grace of Christ comes through the minister no matter the state of the minister because it is the grace of Christ,” said Cameron. 

Cameron said that Augustine’s view implies that the power of God goes beyond the imperfections of the Church’s leaders. 

“That becomes crucial to whatever follows in other centuries,” Cameron said.”There’s a long list of scandals: popes fathering children, nepotism and the Church getting mixed up with political powers. It’s really quite amazing.”

Cameron said that the Church needs to dramatically rethink how it deals with sex abuse as it moves forward.

“This is evil. This is black. No amount of self-policing, and promises, and ‘we’ll get to it,’ and ‘we’ve got a committee’ will do. The time is passed for that. We need something radical, and it’s not just to please the people who read The New York Times. This is for the faithful.”

Wes Cruse is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at