Children, Priests, and Scandal in Church

Here’s the story: on his way to the ambo (pulpit) to give his homily (sermon), the presiding priest detoured to approach “a family with several small children under the age of four who were sitting near the front of the church.” In view of the congregation, and within hearing of people seated nearby,

[H]e chastised the parents, telling them that it was inappropriate for their children to be eating, drinking, and playing with toys during mass. Even though they were well-behaved (a parishioner sitting within earshot of this exchange had not even noticed the children’s activity until the pastor descended to condemn them), he said the children were “distracting” him.

A blogger posted about the situation, horrified by the antithesis between the priest’s behavior and Jesus’ injunction to “let the little children come.”

People commented, agreeing with her. People commented, defending the priest. Scandal and factionalism ensued.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I mean something very particular by scandal. It is a technical term in mimetic theory describing the fascination induced by moral outrage and righteous indignation.

Factionalism arises when two (or more) sides each rally around a defining pattern of identity, pointing at the other side as the source of all the problems, and laying claim to the legitimate identity of the larger group: ie, scapegoating the other side, urging their literal, ritual, or rhetorical expulsion. Factionalism divides people into good people and bad people, right people and wrong people, insiders and outsiders. It too is laced with scandal; scandal, in fact, perpetuates factionalism.

A central concept in mimetic theory, and mimetic theology, is the scapegoat mechanism: the means by which humans bond together and experience unity over against somebody else, an identified scapegoat who is blamed as the source of problems. A moral imperative in mimetic theology is to stand with the victim in such cases, resisting the scapegoat mechanism.

Katie Grimes, the blogger who wrote about the situation, was attempting to do just that: although she doesn’t appear to have been thinking in terms of mimetic theory, she perceived the family as a wounded victim. In a comment, she writes:

I wrote this post in the hopes that it would find its way to Rachel, whom I did not know and could figure out no way to track down. I also wrote it so that it would inspire our parish to rally around Rachel and heal the wound inflicted upon her.

And she succeeded, at least in her first goal: Rachel, who had commented earlier in the thread, came across the post by accident. She writes:

I am SO very grateful that you were kind enough to come to our defense as we were humiliated in front of the entire church. I am deeply saddened and hurt by what happened, and have had a hard time even beginning to overcome it. I can see the point of snacks and toys being distracting in church…I get it….point taken (won’t EVER make that mistake again)….but to publicly humiliate us?? It could have been handled much differently with a much better outcome. Thank you SO much for defending us. We left early because we just couldn’t bear the humiliation, so we didn’t realize we had supporters out there. I have felt so alone and horrible, and I have felt like a horrible mother for the past 2 days. It hurt and it’s going to take a while to get over. I’m trying to handle it as “Christian-like” as I can, but it has been difficult. So THANK YOU again for coming to our defense!

Notice that her family was, effectively, expelled from the church in this incident: not by force or by command, but by shame. Notice, too, that she acknowledges some poor judgment on her part.

One of the very useful concepts in mimetic theory is that of structural innocence. The scapegoat mechanism gets its power by the bonding effect: all-of-us righteous insiders over against the expelled scapegoat. This bonding effect can occur even if the scapegoat actually has done something wrong. That is, if we’re all buzzed on self-righteous bonding over against somebody else, that person may be both morally culpable and structurally innocent. (This can often be observed in internet pile-ons.)

And, of course, moral culpability does not equate to “bad person.” Actions are bad, not people; and many conflicts entail some fault on both sides.

One of the insights I’ve gained from writing my thesis is that scandal blocks empathy. Likewise, empathy can de-tune our desires from scandal and tune them, instead, to love of neighbor.

So let’s take a deep breath, and practice some empathy, here:

– Empathy for parents of small children: who are hurried and tired and stressed, who are worried that their children will disturb others, who bring themselves to Mass, as well as their children, and would like to be able to listen and to pray.

– Empathy for small children: who are physiologically limited in their capacity to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention to anything, and especially to grownups talking with complicated words that go on and on and on.

– Empathy for priests: who are overworked and underappreciated, who need to prepare a sermon every week, and preach and preside at Mass no matter how they feel that day, that moment, who often face criticism from somebody no matter what they do or say.

– Empathy for those who, when they experienced or read about this incident, witnessed a stand for reverence in church: whose spiritual life is grounded in the transcendent, who perhaps are particularly susceptible to distraction, who wistfully remember a time when children were not brought to church unless they could sit quietly, or perhaps recall being required to sit quietly as children without any books or toys.

– Empathy for those who, when they experienced or read about this incident, witnessed shaming, humiliation, or abuse of power: who have seen such things before, perhaps been the victim of such things before, and had no way to speak up, speak out, or defend themselves or others.

I titled this post provocatively, not primarily as clickbait, but because the sex abuse scandal is the untended and pervasive wound in the Catholic church. Everything we do, say, or encounter that involves priests and children, that involves power and silencing, happens in its shadow.

We know, now, that priests abused children and teens; that victims were silenced, both socially and legally; that bishops covered up, were complicit, lied, sinned, by what they have done and by what they have failed to do, through their fault, through their fault, through their most grievous fault.

And it went on for years, and years.

So we’re all a little sensitized when it comes to priests, and power, and silencing. When it comes to a situation that looks to some like a priest abusing his power, with no recourse for his victim.

And we know, too, that many, many priests are not abusers, and yet have suffered suspicion and insult, both outside and inside the church. So we can be a little sensitized about what looks to some like unjust criticism of priests, too.

It’s a very narrow way, the way we’re called to walk: to name injustice without perpetrating it, to stand with victims without scapegoating abusers, to speak truth to power without succumbing to scandal and factionalism, to live as peacemakers. It’s even harder in the absence of viable ecclesial structures of dialogue and reconciliation. It requires discernment and empathy, prayer and patience, the gifts of the Spirit: faith, and hope, and love.

I do invite you to go read the post, and all the comments, and reflect on the dynamics that you see there. Notice which “side” you feel pulled towards; practice empathy for everyone involved; reflect on what acts or structures of reconciliation might help to heal the situation, or what acts or structures might have been helpful prior interventions. (However, I respectfully suggest that you refrain from commenting there, especially if you feel strongly impelled to defend one position or another, unless you have a new constructive suggestion towards reconciliation to offer.) I’m particularly interested in ecclesial structures for dialogue and reconciliation, so I’d be interested in any such ideas here.

And remember to pray for Rachel and her family, pray for the priest, pray for the parish.

Humor, too, helps us resist scandal, so I’ll end this post with a little story from my own parish: a few weeks ago. I was sitting in about the fourth row, before Mass, when a family walked in, led by a boy who looked to be about 10 years old. He stopped at the end of the front row, and enthusiastically suggested that they should sit here.

His mother looked at her son, looked at the pew, looked at the ambo immediately behind her, looked at the boy again, and said, “Oh, you have to be an angel if you want to sit here!”

The boy nodded vigorously, looking determinedly angelic, and the family took their seats.

A few minutes later, he stood up. Saying “Well, maybe we should sit further back after all,” he led the family towards the rear of the church — clearly to the relief of his parents. 🙂

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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1 Response to Children, Priests, and Scandal in Church

  1. Katie Grimes says:

    I love this, thank you!

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