One of the more curious aspects of the fallout from the recent revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is the emergence of a certain language of emotion. For instance, Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, wants his flock to know that when he took his recent vacation his “time away for R&R was clouded by the challenges we are facing right now in our diocese.“ He found that his mind was “preoccupied” and his heart was “troubled.” He had feelings. We know that he cares, we know that he takes these “challenges” seriously, because of the feelings he had — even at the beach.
The idea that underlies this kind of communication is made quite explicit in this interview with Fr. Hans Zollner, “a member of the Vatican Commission against paedophilia and president of the Child Protection Centre established at the Pontifical Gregorian University.” The key moment comes when Zollner is asked if the Church is doing enough to protect children and to respond to its past failures to protect them. Zollner’s response: “If we talk about these cases and remain shocked, it means we are taking them seriously.” He goes on in the usual vacuously bureaucratic way to describe the scheduling of “meetings and workshops,” but really the whole substance of his response is this: What matters is how we the clergy feel.
Were your children abused? Well, just look at how “shocked” I am. There. Better now?
When conservative and traditionalist Catholics talk about changes in the Church since Vatican II, one of their most constant themes is the near-disappearance of Confession, of the sacrament of Penance. You can find plenty of commentary on this phenomenon not just in Catholic venues — here and here, for instance — but also in Slate and the Washington Post. (That last piece, from 2007, is about a big push for a return to Confession in the Archdiocese of Washington by its then-newly-appointed archbishop, Donald Wuerl.) There are many speculations about why confession has fallen into such disfavor, but I won’t get into those here, because I have a different point to make.
One could argue that the really key thing about the historical, now almost lost, understanding of penance is this: it’s not something you feel, it’s something you do. There’s an excellent moral realism in this emphasis. Feelings come and go; feelings can be manufactured or pretended-to. But actions — you either do those or you don’t. You say your paternosters or you don’t say them. You wear sackcloth and pour ashes on your head, or not. You take the road to Canossa or you stay home.
Now, to be sure, these actions can be taken for impure reasons. Maybe you wear the sackcloth because you want people to see how holy you are; maybe you kneel before the Pope because you want to keep your crown. But you’re putting yourself to trouble, maybe to some really significant trouble. Moreover, as Bertolt Brecht noted, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” There are costs to acts of penance, some known, some unknown and unanticipated.
The declaration of feeling, by contrast, is cost-free. Nothing is easier than to say that one’s heart was troubled at the beach, or that one is shocked — shocked! — by further revelations of abuse. Which is why so many Christians are begging the bishops to do something, something that enacts penitence, or at least grief. But the most the bishops, who themselves seem wholly unaware of the enacted grammar of penance, are willing to do is to speak of their feelings.
Oh wait, they also schedule workshops. My bad. Complaint retracted.