Suffer the little children

The Roman catholic church is in crisis. As we write, all 13 cardinals who control the US church are gathered in Rome for an unprecedented emergency summit chaired by pope John Paul II. Only one issue is on the agenda - the sexual abuse of children by priests. A trickle of highly publicised cases over recent years has within the last few months become a torrent that threatens to engulf the church, as more and more victims (afflicted, as is usual in such cases, not just by shame, but by a paradoxical sense of guilt) break the silence that they have maintained for years, sometimes decades, and seek legal redress for the suffering to which they were subjected. The projected cost to the church is estimated at some £700 million - a hefty sum, one might think, but it is interesting to note that the American church's annual income from property investment alone amounts to around £5 billion. So much for the virtue of poverty. The real cost, obviously, is not financial. What is at stake is nothing less than the church's moral authority and its credibility in the eyes of the 64 million Roman catholics in the US. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). But for America's paedophile priests, just as for those throughout the world, there were no millstones; no punishment at all. Under instructions to bishops from the curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, absolute secrecy was maintained, lest such cases gave rise to scandal among the faithful. The offenders were quietly shunted from diocese to diocese, in the vain hope that their 'problem' could be corrected by prayer and penance. By the time Fr David Holley, originally from the Boston diocese, was finally tried in 1993 and sentenced to 275 years in a federal penitentiary, he had abused literally hundreds of children in five different areas of the country. His fellow Bostonian, Fr John Geoghan, got off lightly with a mere 10 years in jail for abusing 130 children over a period of decades. The archdiocese of Boston is at the centre of the current controversy, with pressure on its primate, Bernard cardinal Law, to step down for his part in maintaining a long conspiracy of silence on the extent and gravity of the abuse. If he is obliged in the coming days to fall on his mitre, he will represent a fittingly powerful scapegoat for the sins of his brethren. Though Boston is not the most populous diocese in the country, the wealth and the political power of the church here is legendary. Of course, the scandal is not restricted to the United States, nor has it caught only humble parish clergy in its train. A lifelong friend of the pope himself, his grace Josef Paetz, the archbishop of Poznan in Poland, has been accused of the serial abuse of seminarians. In Ireland, his lordship the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, has been forced to resign for his handling of the case of Fr Sean Fortune, who committed suicide while on remand for the abuse of dozens of boys. The archbishop of Dublin, Desmond cardinal Connell, is under intense pressure to resign on similar grounds and has finally acceded to the demand that the church should cooperate with an official enquiry headed by senator George Birmingham. Small wonder that in the 'priest-ridden' Ireland of popular imagination, mass attendances have plummeted and there is a crisis of vocations so deep that the country may be obliged to import priests from the third world in order to make up the shortfall. Predictably, many commentators have blamed the problem of priestly paedophilia on celibacy, the commitment which every priest must make to lead a life without any form of sexual gratification. Although, from a Marxist point of view, such a mandatory commitment (as distinct from a considered and conscious free personal choice) is essentially anti-human, denying to the individual an essential component of his/her personality, something that makes a rounded human being, the assumed connection drawn between celibacy and the sexual abuse of children is irrational and superficial. Statistically, the great majority of cases of reported child sexual abuse occur within the context of the family. Does this mean that living in a family involves a predisposition to paedophilia? Obviously not. Likewise, perhaps the majority of paedophile cases that reach public attention involve the abuse of children by homosexual men. Does this mean that gays are in some way predisposed to abuse young boys? Again, of course not. Such a suggestion is a staple of the worst kind of homophobic propaganda. Paedophiles are paedophiles, whether they are married or not and whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. The root cause of the Roman catholic church's particular problem is to be found at a deeper level, in its basic attitude to sexuality per se, a position that derives from the neo-Platonism that so vigorously informs the epistles of St Paul, reinforced by the teachings of the fathers of the church, especially St Augustine of Hippo, and enshrined centuries later in the neo-Aristotelian natural law moral theology of St Thomas Aquinas, which remains the basis of the present pope's approach to all questions involving sex. Divine providence bestowed upon us the act of sexual intercourse as a means of reproducing the human species. That is its only purpose. Hence, anything which interferes with the natural law of human reproduction - contraception, for example - is intrinsically sinful and grounds for damnation. Any form of sexual activity outside marriage is a mortal sin. Even within marriage, any sexual act that does not facilitate reproduction is likewise damnable. Needless to say, homosexual and lesbian sex acts are 'intrinsically evil', though the pope has been kind enough to tell us that the orientation is not so, in itself - you must, however, struggle manfully/womanfully against this 'perversion' and do nothing about it in your actual life. If you think this doctrine is just a sick joke, then talk to someone who was brought up as a catholic or read the works of James Joyce. According to the orthodox Roman catholic view, the body is nothing more than a fleshly integument for the soul, and constitutes a source of innumerable (especially sexual) temptations; it is something that must be doggedly subdued and mortified as a potentially lethal obstacle to salvation. Clearly, this dualism fragments the human personality. One part of us, the 'soul', is made to signify the whole, or to represent the 'higher' part of our nature, whose role it is to control, through reason and will, the 'lower' part. It is a lie against our humanity. A human being is an organism and, in a phrase of Feuerbach, endorsed by Marx must see and understand himself organically from the standpoint of sensuousness (der Standpunkt der Sinnlichkeit): "Whereas the old philosophy started by saying, 'I am an abstract and merely a thinking being, to whose essence the body does not belong', the new philosophy, on the other hand, begins by saying, 'I am a real sensuous being and, indeed, the body in its totality is my ego, my essence itself" (L Feuerbach Principles of the philosophy of the future, translated M Vogel, London 1986, p54). What religion calls the soul - notionally immortal, spiritual and implanted by god at the moment of conception - is in reality (like god himself) a creation of the human imagination, a projection or alienation of our self-consciousness. To split ourselves up into separate compartments in this way is a purely theoretical act, an illusion which is refuted by the experience of living. Every act of our everyday lives shows us that we are organic, objective beings. The word is much misused, but it is in the writings of Marx that we find a truly holistic account of the human situation, in which the body is rehabilitated, reintegrated into a new account of what it means to be a fully human being. For us as Marxists, human sexuality in all its diversity and complexity, rooted in the materiality of the human condition as it exists, above and outside the imaginary world of so-called 'natural', let alone 'divine', law, is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human being. Some see this as no more than a sort of crude laissez faire approach. We have, for example, argued in favour of abolishing the age of consent. Does this constitute a 'paedophile's charter', as some have mistakenly assumed? Certainly not. The protection of children from all kinds of abuse, sexual or otherwise, must be a priority for any society. Maurice Bernal