Progressive Pieties, Islamist Terrorism and the Catholic Church: A Study in False Equivalence

I am often left feeling bemused when I read progressives’ attempts to make sense of Islamist terrorism. Previously, the trope that impoverishment and anomie caused people to perpetrate terroristic acts was in vogue. Whilst this explanation was never entirely bereft of merit – the lives of many young men who yielded themselves to such murderous rage have been marked by social or economic dislocation – it dramatically underplayed the formative role of ideas and ideology as legitimating forces of politico-religious violence. Moreover, the many examples of comfortable, seemingly well-connected and well-resourced individuals engaging in terrorism undercuts the thesis that poverty or marginalisation are the primary drivers: Osama Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire, whilst the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is a trained surgeon from a prosperous Egyptian family. Such profiles extend to the so-called “foot soldiers” of radical Islam. The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had been studying for his PhD in Germany at the time of his heinous act, whilst the infamous “Jihadi John” – grisly poster boy for Islamic State – was a young British man who’d attended Westminster University. Poor and wretched souls (economically speaking) they were not.

Thankfully, one doesn’t hear this alleged explanation bandied about with quite the same confidence. Even many on the Left have begun to recognize that there may be a causal connection between certain conceptions of Islam and terroristic violence after all. They have subsequently retired the older view that putatively religious acts of terrorism were nothing more than a proxy for merely social, political or economic grievances. Labor’s Anne Aly, for example, has rubbished the idea that economic deprivation, say, can do the heavy lifting in this regard – an opinion that is all the more significant, given that she herself is a Muslim.

But the passage of time has not necessarily seen a vast improvement in progressive approaches to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism: having quietly abandoned one means of obfuscation, some on the Left have enthusiastically adopted another. One might call it the idea of religious equivalence, or the notion that all religions may, with equal likelihood, fuel acts of violent extremism (whether political or not). Even if some forms of, say, terrorism have their roots in Islamic doctrine, so the progressive might concede, it is equally true that other religions – Catholicism, for example – can justify such acts with comparable ease. Thus, one witnesses otherwise intelligent and well-travelled individuals claiming that terrorism perpetrated by the IRA and Protestant Loyalists during the Northern Irish “Troubles” was religious violence – on par, say, with the macabre theatrics of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, who self-consciously drape their acts in theological language. I won’t delve into why such a claim is wildly mistaken; others have ably accomplished that task. I merely point to it as yet another progressive attempt to deflect criticisms of (radical) Islam as an ideological incubator for violence and wanton bloodshed.

Child Molestation as a Form of Catholic Extremism?

Not so long ago, the former Premier of NSW (and self-identified Catholic), Kristina Keneally, penned a piece for The Guardian Australia, which included a species of the foregoing argument. Hers, however, contained a novel twist.

In her article, Keneally does not cite alleged examples of Catholic-inspired terrorism to argue that her own religious tradition is just as prone to corruption. Instead, she suggests that child molestation, rampant within the church for so many years, was actually a form of “Catholic extremism” – a distortion of teaching that was nevertheless discernibly Catholic, like the supposedly debauched interpretations of the Koran that mark out Islamic radicals. Keneally’s main point seems to be that certain (read: conservative) expressions of Catholicism were in some sense responsible for permitting the horrors of child sexual abuse, fostering these abhorrent acts. For her, the phrase “institutional sexual abuse” is too “bland”, too anodyne, to describe what she believes is indelibly linked to various elements of Catholic dogma. The supremacy of the Church’s authority, a belief that God was providentially protecting it from scandal, or the efficacy of prayer in securing moral transformation: these things, Keneally avers, have led inexorably to the destruction of scores of young lives. Indeed, she writes:

The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualized and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.”    

In Keneally’s eyes, child sexual abuse is a manifestation of “radical Catholic ideology”, just as the burning of Christians or the mass rape of women from minority religions is a manifestation of radical Islamist ideology.

Keneally’s is certainly a creative approach to a knotty problem. However, her analysis suffers from several critical defects, which prove fatal to her argument. Most obviously, it is quite wrong to equate child molestation within the Catholic Church and, say, Islamist terrorism as twin exemplars of some wider phenomenon we might call religious extremism. Radical Islamic terrorists explicitly justify their actions by releasing written tracts replete with references to the Koran and the example of Mohammed. For example, after ISIS-affiliated terrorists massacred scores of revelers in Paris entertainment districts in November 2015, the organization released a celebratory post about the carnage, quoting from the Koran to explain the reason for the attack. The quote is drawn from Sura 59:2: “Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers”.

Other statements, whether disseminated by ISIS or some other extremist outfit, are laced with similar theological legitimations. The purveyors of such violence are convinced that what they are doing is a form of religious fidelity, warranted – even demanded – by their sacred texts. Mark Durie, an expert in Islamic theology, comments that “ISIS fighters are taught that non-Muslims, referred to as mushrikin (‘pagans’) or kuffar (‘infidels’), deserve death simply by virtue of their disbelief in Islam.  For ISIS, killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, ‘fight and kill the mushrikin wherever you find them’, and Sura 9:29, ‘fight (i.e. to kill) the People of the Book’”. And in a widely-cited article on ISIS for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has written about that group’s consistent efforts to couch their actions in the language of apocalyptic jihad. Radical Islamists, far from being reticent about their motives, seem proud to stand on a theological system that is drawn directly from Islam’s foundational traditions.

By contrast, there are no biblical texts, church traditions, theological commentaries, sermons, homilies or papal encyclicals justifying child sexual abuse or enjoining the faithful to engage in it. No priests charged with sexual offences have, to my knowledge, cited any sacred writings to rationalise their crimes. This is not merely a case of there being no such attempts to sacralize child abuse; the very structure of the Christian religion renders the possibility that someone would do so illogical. The alleged parallel swiftly dissolves when one compares Mohammed and Jesus, both of whom act as moral paradigms for their respective followers. Unlike the life of Islam’s founder – which seems to offer ample warrant for war-like activity among the putative soldiers of Islam – Christ’s life offers no such grounds for the molestation of children. Where one set of macabre and notorious acts appears to be explicitly justified by adherence to a religious creed, the other represents a grievous betrayal of that religion’s overriding ethos and vision.

What of Keneally’s claim that certain elements of Catholic dogma have, in corrupted form, helped sustain the practice of child sexual abuse amongst the clergy over the years? To the extent that this is true, it still falls far short of anything remotely resembling a distinctively Catholic form of extremist violence. Take the alleged relationship between Catholic ecclesiology and the entrenchment of child molestation. Large, labyrinthine organizations may make the exposure and prosecution of such crimes difficult, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about this. As the historian and commentator, Gerard Henderson, has helpfully pointed out, the current Royal Commission into these matters found that proportionally, child sexual abuse has been more common in the Uniting Church – the structure of which is far more diffuse – than in the Church of Rome. This is certainly revealing, for it suggests that a strongly hierarchical organization is not unusually susceptible to this kind of wickedness; if anything, the data points in the other direction. Here is what Henderson has written about the matter (bracketed annotations are mine):

“[There were] 2504 incidents or allegations [of child sexual abuse] between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017 [i.e., over a 40-year period]. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015 [over 65 years]. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church.”

It’s also worth pointing out that other large institutions, both religious and secular, have sought to protect perpetrators in an effort to preserve the “greater good” (often window-dressing for naked self-interest and reputational advancement). The BBC is a good example – all the more so, as it is a non-religious, non-sectarian entity. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012, it was alleged that the BBC had protected other stars accused of sexual abuse, whilst serious institutional failings allowed perpetrators to ply their evil trade with impunity. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired an inquiry into the whole sordid saga, said that a “macho culture” prevailed at the broadcaster, which fostered rampant sexism and sexual harassment. She went on to indict the BBC for the institutionalised fear that many experienced, such that they felt unable to speak out. Finally, she excoriated those who were more concerned about individual and corporate reputations than they were about sexual predation. The point is that a tawdry and desperate attempt to cling to the laurels of an institution’s moral authority – at times leading to the craven abandonment of the victims of abuse – isn’t unique to religious bodies. Acquiescing to the supposed demands of the “greater good” cannot be given a peculiarly religious or theological gloss, for the very reason that this phenomenon – grubby though it certainly may be – is something common to every sector of humanity.

The contention that warped conceptions of prayer saw church institutions fail to act against suspected child molesters is also flawed. It may well be true in an individualised or historical sense, but what does this tell us about the purported link between Catholic doctrine and child sexual abuse? Keneally is simply unsuccessful in substantiating the broader claim that such practices are instances of a species of so-called Catholic “extremism” – i.e., that there exists a necessary link between the one and the other. I’m sure there were some Catholic faithful who, as a result of their belief in the power of prayer, did not respond adequately to accounts of abuse. But praying for the transformation of sinners – even those guilty of the most heinous of sins – is logically consistent with labouring for justice on behalf of victims, and bringing perpetrators to account. Prayer itself is a morally neutral mechanism. Assuming its efficacy, it may be used to try and secure either just or iniquitous aims. In that sense, it is like a car: a tool, which can be used ethically or unethically. More than that, an authentically Christian view of prayer must include the conviction that one’s supplications are directed towards a righteous God, who cares for the poor and watches over the vulnerable. The Book of Psalms brims with images of a deity who welcomes and listens to those who practice righteousness (Ps 15), who rescues the poor (Ps 35:10) and vindicates them (Ps 113:7). For the follower of Jesus, such prayers are often accompanied by acts that seek to secure relief for the oppressed – again, as a consequence of authentic faith. To be saturated in the Christian scriptures, then, is to pray with a fervent desire for justice to be accomplished – the very antithesis of the (unnamed) individuals Keneally cites as evidence for “radical” Catholicism.

The ongoing comparison with Islamic extremism illuminates the point. Whereas prayer that implicitly permits inaction in the face of abuse is a violation of Christian petitionary principles, terroristic violence in the name of Islam would seem to bear the imprimatur of sacred Koranic texts. Again, it may be helpful to refer to the justifications Islamists themselves have offered for their barbarism, as cited above. There is nothing morally neutral about those statements, for they seem clearly to enjoin the killing of non-Muslims as a direct manifestation of religious devotion. Similarly, there appears to be little room for saying that radical Islamists are guilty of distortion, since the texts in question are bracing in their clarity. To that extent, at least, there is a clear – one might even say necessary – causal connection between acts perpetrated by the likes of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the theological ideas they regard as their touchstone.

Towards the end of her piece, Keneally expresses obvious pessimism about the future. Her fear is that such crimes may still find conducive environments within the Catholic Church, as seminaries become “more orthodox and traditional”. Keneally implies that the underlying and sustaining cause – that nefarious wizard behind the curtain – of all that we have witnessed is none other than moral and religious conservatism. Her concern that the problem of child abuse within Catholic institutions may not abate ultimately rests on the assumption that conservatism and/or religious traditionalism provide settings that enable, harbour or conceal such offending. Unfortunately for Keneally, this jars with the historical evidence. The relatively widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church is once again instructive. The UC has long adopted a “low” form of ecclesiology, where the autonomy of the local church and its members is highly prized. Moreover, it has embraced female ministers, knows nothing of compulsory clerical celibacy, and has long championed the rights of same-sex attracted people (up to and including support for same-sex marriage). Indeed, the values and outlook of the UC tend to resemble modern progressive culture, such that in many areas, the boundary marking out the Church’s distinct identity has all but vanished. These convictions witness to a relatively liberal institution – one which nevertheless proved to be even more vulnerable to high rates of child sexual abuse than the Catholic Church.

What’s more, the recent experiences of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne suggest that moral and religious conservatism has been no more a barrier to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse than its liberal counterpart, and may have gone further in trying to arrest it. Under the archbishopric of Frank Little, clergy guilty or suspected of sexual abuse were often moved from parish to parish, shielded from scrutiny. By contrast, Little’s comparatively conservative successor – a man by the name of George Pell – established the so-called “Melbourne Response” in 1996 (soon after he became archbishop) with the co-operation of Victoria Police. The aim of the programme was to provide assistance to abuse survivors, which included the co-ordination of compensation packages. It was by no means perfect, and a fair amount of legitimate criticism can be levelled at it. But the “Melbourne Response” was one of the first initiatives of its kind to try and systematically address a problem that had beset the Church for many decades. Thus, the unfolding direction of historical events (at least in Melbourne) was precisely the reverse of what Keneally seems to assume.

Conclusion

Trying to have an honest conversation about these matters is sometimes difficult. I certainly understand the impulse to avoid offence, or to deflect criticism of a particular religious group because of fears concerning abuse and societal ostracism (even if they are exaggerated). But when those impulses lead a person to blunder into a thicket of false analogies, muddled analysis and historical ignorance, broader discussions regarding the causes of terrorism are hardly well-served. Kristina Keneally has tried to persuade us with what she sees as piercing honesty, allegedly exposing child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for the degenerate religiosity it is. Degenerate? Most certainly. Religious? Well, no. Despite its pretensions to insightful – even subversive – analysis, her article exemplifies all the calumnies I have just mentioned. Ultimately, it serves as a testament to the overriding influence that a rigid progressive orthodoxy can exercise upon intellectual honesty and clarity of thought.

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