This is a long but very important article. It’s a vital read for those of us who want to understand the mind blowing rot at the heart of the RCC.
Abstract: Catholic deacons, priests and bishops live in a unique psychological environment commonly referred to as the “clerical world.” A fundamental characteristic of this sub-culture is narcissism which in some clerics becomes pathological. The narcissistic component of the clerical world has a toxic effect on its spirituality.
Spirituality is an awareness of a personal relationship with a transcendent reality.
Every religious tradition allows for persons of spirituality. Spirituality is independent of doctrine and discipline. The biblical psalms are preeminent examples of this traditional expression. A prominent example of this expression is a prayer of St. Augustine recorded in his Confessions:
Late have I loved you
O Beauty ever ancient ever new.
Late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside.
And it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things that you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
Yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me.
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (J. Ryan, 1960, p. 254)
Two main sources support the development of Roman Catholic spirituality, the cult of saints and personal contact with a Catholic clergy person.
Because tradition presents a priest or bishop as a representative of God and Jesus a betrayal by them is profoundly destructive. Knowledgeable people have labeled the effects of sexual betrayal by a priest or bishop more devastating than those of incest. It is rightly called it soul murder. Our religious and clinical experience with victims of clergy abuse validates those observations and repeatedly records that the experience of abuse by clergy demolishes spirituality.
How is it possible that such a destructive dynamic can prevail in an institution of religion whose explicit purpose is to promote spiritual health? Experience with priest perpetrators demonstrates and confirms that they are a product of and participants in a culture that is rightly named narcissistic. An individual clergyman may or may not escape the toxicity of that culture.
The veneer of holiness and altruism that cloaks the institution of the Roman Catholic Church covers a clerical culture infused by excessive narcissism. The institution is not what it appears in its public pronouncements, ritual manifestations, and glorious vesture. I have seen how its self-serving elements have had a pervasive destructive influence in propagating toxic spirituality that enables and fosters sexual assault on vulnerable children and minors and yet protects and projects an image perfection and moral purity.
The literature on narcissism, personal and cultural, is nearly epidemic. That ubiquity neither lessens its importance for understanding human behavior nor its significance in the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by men publicly proclaimed to be celibate therefore sexually safe. Nor can it be discounted as an element in a culture that selects, molds, produces and protects abusers despite its protestations of selfless service to God and humanity.
The thesis is simple and clear: Clerical Culture is the context of the sexual abuse of minors witnessed in the last half-century. This is no secret. The Prime Minister of Ireland addressing his parliament on July 20, 2011 said that a recent report on the system of abuse in the Irish diocese of Cloyne (Kenney 2011); “Excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism—the narcissism that dominate the Vatican to this day.” The cause of abuse by men who sexually violate children and the vulnerable within a church context is that they are products of formation and inculcation into the clerical system. That system of abuse can be traced from top to bottom. If the culture did not operate in ways that tolerated secret sexual activity of superiors (including but not limited to child sexual abuse) and function as a web of mutually supportive secret clerical liaisons, sexual abusers of minors would find no place in the system. As one highly placed American prelate said on his return from a trip to Rome: “The organization to which I belong is rotten to the core and from the top down.”
The clerical system from earliest days in seminary training throughout illustrious church careers conspires to hide sexual tendencies behind a veil of confessional secrecy—often by confessors and rectors (bishops and superiors) who themselves are not celibately observant. Known sexual activity—even behaviors with fellow seminarians and priests—is dismissed as “growing pains” or passing phases or even as salutary educational experience. Words, pronouncements and directives not withstanding this is how the system operates.
The Catholic Church’s institutional veneer of holiness covers a clerical culture marked by excessive narcissism. This narcissism has had a pervasive influence on the toxic clerical spirituality that has enabled the sub-culture of abuse. The path to wholeness and healing for many of the abused requires the discovery of an authentic clerical-free spirituality. The process of discovery involves the painful process of liberation from the controlling bonds of the institution. Here we explore the complex effect of institutionalized toxic narcissism and the steps that can lead to freedom and a healthy spirituality.
Any responsible consideration must account for the normal and necessary condition of narcissism at the infantile level of personality development. It is self evident that most cultures go to great lengths to foster children, keep them safe as they develop a sense of self worth based on the solid experiences I am loved—I am loveable. The self-centered supports necessary to secure a firm personality are transient and give way to maturing socialization where sharing and the sense I can love develops as the child matures. Thomas Traheme rightly observes, “Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything. So that self-love is the basis of all love.” (T. Traherne, 1672).
This journey to establish a foundation of love, self-confidence and mastery can also make a child vulnerable to unscrupulous and pernicious men (and women) who pose under the guise of helpers—in the case we are considering, Catholic priests. The clerical culture that we have discovered is ominous at best and destructive and perverted at worst and has not been adequately studied and analyzed. The widespread awareness of minor abuse across the Catholic Church gives urgency to its examination. Clergy abuse is a symptom of a cultural in dysfunction, spiritual bankruptcy and is unavoidable because it is criminal behavior.
The harm done to the normal development of youngsters from the experience of sexual or physical assault by the trusted is incalculable. The psychological steps to mature loving relationships are side tracked and in many cases destroyed. The self-absorption of men steeped in clerical culture is one element in their deficient empathy and disregard for the need for children to be protected. Innumerable bishops have given witness to their disregard for the rape and torture of children in favor of the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Bishop Loris Waters gave voice to this unfathomable clerical attitude toward the effects of abuse in his statement: “Little boys heal” (L. Watters, personal communication, 1984).
Acquired Situational Narcissism
How is such a perverted attitude that values institutional image over the protection of children get established? Since the Council of Trent each diocese was commissioned to set up seminaries to insure the education and formation of priests. Part of the process of introduction and survival in these ecclesiastical enclaves involves a relinquishing to one degree or another ones self to a circumscribed, all male authority regulated, supposedly sexually abstinent group where conformity of mind and will are demanded and prized. These are “total institutions” which confer an alternative identity and security in exchange for the personal sacrifice. Little by little candidates immerse themselves in an atmosphere and function of a group that has all the right answers and is more powerful and important than any other entity.
As a man moves up in the ecclesiastical system more conformity and obedience are expected and demanded for further advancement. Obedience that binds an individual (even blindly) to authority is the ultimate test of loyalty and proof that the individual can now justly assume institutional identity. There is little psychic distinction between self and institution and thus one’s value is subsumed by identification with the power, prestige, and status of the church. Clerical dress advertises the identity and elaborate public ceremony that dignifies prelates in impressive rich robes adds to the attraction to identify with the whole church institution suffused with its power, arrogance, vanity, and inordinate self-esteem. Certain cult-like qualities imbedded in the Roman Catholic culture remain to be teased out of the system for understanding. There are some strong personalities who can escape indoctrination to one degree or another and function maturely in the system. Not enough, however, to alter the system at this critical level. A large proportion of priests leave the ministry before the twenty-fifth anniversary of their ordination. Thirty percent of two graduating classes, 1966 and 1972, from a prominent American seminary turned out to be sexual abusers of minors. In fact, between six and nine percent of U.S. priests have violated children (Author’s personal research, unpublished). The operation of the system favors the production and preservation of psychosexual immaturity and narcissistic behaviors.
Altruism in the Service of Narcissism
Clinical evaluations and long term experiences in seminaries and religious houses reveal many men who remain psychosexually immature. Often times those who look bestrise to the top of the ranks. Their works can be exemplary and they can have good reputations among clergy and lay people. When they are discovered to have double lives many people who have benefited from their good works are incredulous and rise to the defense of the offender. Elizabeth Bowen correctly observes: “Nobody can be kinder than the narcissist while you react to life in his own terms”.
The narcissist forces his colleagues and his victims to play a role assigned to him by God. The narcissist determines the agenda. Seducers are kind and disarming. Most priest child violators are not violent, but rather proceed under the cloak of care and kindness. Many can delude themselves that they are loving and helping the minor grow. The narcissism underlying their behavior is not hard to decipher when their whole history is revealed. Many of those who do not abuse minors participate in an atmosphere, climate, and operating culture that favors this kind of dichotomy and double life. Secrecy is the code and loyalty to the institution is the coin of the realm. A member violates either with great personal peril .The narcissist rewards compliance with his script and punishes any deviation from it with severe abuse. The narcissist conditions people around him using intimidation, positive and negative reinforcements and feedback, covert, or controlling abuse.
Institutional Malignant Narcissism
In 1970, Otto Kernberg coined the term “malignant narcissism“; he pointed out that the sociopath was fundamentally narcissistic and without morality. Malignant narcissism includes a sadistic element, creating, in essence, a sadistic psychopath. The revelations about the sexual abuse of minors and how the institution produces and protects clergy abusers from the highest echelons on down betray the actual social construct of the Church. Its stated goals about the welfare of children weaken and wither in preference of avoiding scandal, salvaging the reputation of superiors, maintaining power and control and saving face. Narcissism is contagious. It creates a “magical universe”, similar to a cult; within its ken special rules apply. It does not conform to external reality, but relies on the power of its construct (Cf O. Kernberg, 1975).
Sociopaths—those without empathy and conscience—flourish in the institutional atmosphere of the Roman Catholic clerical system. Obedience, not charity or justice is the guiding principal within the clerical structure. In the center of the vow cardinals take before the pope is the phrase: I vow to keep secret anything confided to me that if revealed would cause harm or scandal to the Church. The blind obedience to authority (the pope) extolled and inculcated in clerics on every level of the institution kills the development of spirituality. It distorts conscience because truth is subservient to the institutional mind that is dedicated primarily to self-preservation at all costs. A lie is not a lie if spoken according to institutional values. As Bishop John Ricard said to one of his priests who related it to me: “I only lie when I have to”. This aspect of the clerical institution becomes patently clear in a review of cardinals’ and bishops’ depositions regarding clergy abusers. The scarlet bond that unites church authorities—and all Catholic clergy by extension—holds the institution in a monarchical system that demands obedience, silence and cover up of imperfections at the expense of real protection and service. Victims of clergy narcissists often come to assimilate the narcissist’s way of thinking and his modus operandi—his methods in self-destructive ways. The narcissist seldom abandons his victims. He resides deep inside the traumatic memories, torturing the victims and well meaning disciples, like an alien snatching bodies.
The continuing exposure of the institutional system that fosters and protects child abuse by its narcissistic nature offers us an opportunity to analyze its structure and indicate a direction for a spirituality of reform.
Any spirituality of reform must free itself from the institutional bonds of fear, shame, and guilt that the narcissistically malignant institution instills with its process of control and the exercise of its power. Only willful blindness and pathological denial can allow one to overlook the reality that the symptom of clerical abuse reveals a Roman Catholic Church as dysfunctional and corrupt sexually and financially as during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Only a spirituality that confronts the institution in a fundamental way will meet the current need of Catholic Christians.
NARCISSISM PERSONIFIED IN “MOTHER BURKE”.
MOTHER BURKE AT KNOCK – NOT A FEMALE IN SIGHT!