In a recent article in the America Magazine blog
, Austen Ivereigh makes an interesting association with the recent crisis facing the Church and the theories of René Girard. For those unfamiliar with Girard’s literary and anthropological theories, he identifies a universal constant in all culture, a pattern of behavior called the scapegoat mechanism. This mechanism is employed when tensions within a culture threaten the cohesiveness of the society leading to the attempt to restore order by assigning blame for the crisis on a particular individual or group. The channeling of this dysfunction is mediated by impulsive accusation until an appropriate scapegoat has been identified. The chosen scapegoat, which Girard calls the “surrogate victim”, also provides a reason for circumstances that seem to defy any reasonable explanation. The convergence of the society on this victim has the effect of restoring a common interest and purpose and the stability of the culture is seemingly restored.
Further, the scapegoat mechanism, because of its perceived and at times apparent effectiveness at restoring unity to a fractured society, is given divine sanction by the culture. The violence that accompanies the scapegoating mechanism is justified, not simply because it frequently works, but because it is purported to be what God wants- the condition for the possibility of not only social relationships but humanity’s relationship with God. Finally, it is not only the divine sanction that assures the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism, but that a culture is absolutely convinced that the surrogate victim is guilty, and therefore deserving of punishment. However, whether or not the scapegoat is actually guilty is not as important as that the people believe that he is.
Ivereigh’s insight in regards to the current situation, particularly in regards to the Catholic Church in general and the Holy Father in particular, is that it may represent a contemporary display of Girard’s theory in actual fact. If I understand Ivereigh’s premise correctly, the cultural energy currently being expended in regards to the Church and its real failures to protect minors from sexual abuse by some members of the clergy is fueled by a phenomenon that is not just peculiar to the Church, but endemic to the culture, a horror that is made even more terrifying when one considers that most victims of sexual abuse have suffered at the hands of a family member. This reality exerts tremendous culture pressure, most of which remains buried or unconscious. In Ivereigh’s Giradian assessment, the Church, and now Pope Benedict, has been the recipient of so much opprobrium because a culture needs a scapegoat by which to restore order in the midst of the effects of a destructive scandal that is not simply a problem in the Church, but in the culture as well.
Is such an assessment correct? Ivereigh offers a qualified yes, acknowledging that such an application of Girard’s theory to the current situation should not blind us to the fact that real crimes were committed and that the victims in this crisis are those who were sexually abused. I agree. However, dubious reporting on the Holy Father’s alleged involvement in cover-ups, the insinuation of conspiracy, rhetoric that asserts itself in generalities and seems to make all priests into potential threats and the entire hierarchical structure of the Church willfully malicious-- all this seems to be a manifestation of the accusatory impulses that lead to scapegoating. It feeds on longstanding cultural prejudices against the Catholic Church, and it seems to say that if all involved are not guilty, they should be, and the sooner judgment falls hard on the apparently guilty, the closer the culture is to resolution in regards to this issue and the restoration of order. It is not just the Church, but also the culture that is being deceived if this mindset takes hold.
One of the dangers in all of this is that it serves as a distraction and forces the Church into a defensive posture which inhibits its ability and effectiveness in dealing with a very real scandal that must be resolved if the mission of the Church is to move forward. The response of high ranking members of the curia recently is an example of this as their rhetoric seems to be to more concerned with identifying the Church and Pope Benedict as a victim of unfair characterizations, rather than articulating clearly and specifically what the Church and the Holy Father have done, are doing right now and will do in the future to assure that children are safe from harm. I think that it is true that the Church and the Holy Father are being treated unfairly and that reporting on this issue has generated in public consciousness a perception about the Church and the Pope that is false. However, should this be the principle concern of the Church’s leadership at this point or should their focus remain on the horrifying reality that people have suffered terribly and that the reason for this is because of the actions of some priests and some bishops? The alienation of anyone from Christ and his Church is a matter that has eternal consequences and demands our undivided attention and immediate action. Further, when the Church goes on the defensive in regards to this issue, extreme prudence is necessary. Without such prudence these attempts can backfire, making it seem that we are participating in our own version of the accusatory impulse and assigning our own scapegoats. The better response is what Pope Benedict did during his recent visit to Malta by meeting personally with victims, meetings that we all hope will be coupled with concrete action to make the universal Church much more effective in its approach to this issue.
Another insight from René Girard that might be helpful is his most provocative thesis: the supposed divine sanction that has been used to justify the scapegoating mechanism has been rejected by divine revelation itself. God reveals himself in the Gospels to be a God of the victims- He acts on their behalf, not for those who perpetrate or perpetuate the scapegoat mechanism. This happens in the death of the Lord Jesus in which the hidden mechanisms of scapegoating are revealed and rendered ineffectual. Since the God of Christian faith is a God of the victims, the Church is radically positioned in its mission to be not only a witness against the cultural machinations that lead to scapegoating violence, but an advocate of those who are the victims of all forms of violence. It has become apparent in regards to many of the survivors of sexual abuse that some of those entrusted to leadership in the Church did not fulfill this mission, and in this failure, the Church has become a source of scandal to its own faithful and to the world. The danger in this is not simply that because of the real crimes and failures of some priests and bishops that the Church itself becomes a scapegoat, but that the Church and the culture might be distracted by the desire for scapegoats and fail to hear the pleas of all the victims of sexual abuse and in doing so ignore the voice of the God of the victims.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.