In our search for possible factors within the Catholic system that might have had some bearing on the incidence of sexual abuse and the poor way it was handling, we turn now to the question of belief and, more specifically, how we think of Jesus Christ.
As a window on that question, we will look briefly at the Christological heresy of Docetism.That heresy has been highly significant in misshaping the Christian vision and culture ingeneral and the Catholic vision and culture in particular.
Docetism, from the Greek dokein meaning “to seem”, rejects the humanity of Jesus. According to this heresy, Jesus only seemed to be a human, his body being some kind of phantasm.
Denial of – or at least failure to embrace – the enfleshing of God in Jesus of Nazareth, is notjust an academic matter. In fact, it is probably a fair guess that, at a theoretical level, most ifnot all Catholics would totally reject Docetism. The true importance of Docetism lies in itsimplicit presence in the way we think and behave.
As a practical matter it becomes obvious when we ask the simple question: Why would wehave difficulty in accepting Jesus Christ as human? What is it about the enfleshing of the Sonof God that so troubles us?
The reality of our enfleshing leads inevitably to the experience of ourselves as sexual beings. It was hard to avoid the sense, as a young man growing up in the Catholic Church of the 1950s for example, that there was something “bad” about sex. A “moral problem” was typically assumed to be a problem with sex. This way of thinking led to a terrible ambivalence, where there is a preoccupation with sex as something we ought not be preoccupied with. It is like saying to someone: “Don’t think of the Harbour Bridge!” The normal, healthy experience of being in the flesh – of being subject to hormones and body chemistry – tragically was not a factor in this thinking. It goes some way to explaining why sexuality became an area of obsessive-compulsive behaviours for many and an avenue for the immature to explore and vent some of their childish fantasies.
When human beings get caught in a radical and (largely) unconscious conflict, it takes a toll.It takes energy to deal with such conflicts. It can leave people joyless and even depressed. Itcan generate chronic anger and rigidity. Perhaps more alarmingly, it can lead to compensatory behaviours. The more gross and obvious of these compensatory behaviours are manifest in bodily actions, such as inappropriate eating, inappropriate drinking and inappropriate sexual activity. However, some may find compensation in more subtle ways, in “success” for example, and the trappings of power the system offers.
I do not think it is a great distance from Docetism to inappropriate sexual behaviours or theinappropriate use of power and control within the Catholic Church. If Docetism is a relevantpart of the sexual abuse issue – and I believe it is – then one part of our response to the sexualabuse issue is an urgent reframing of our Christological vision, particularly at the practical and pastoral level.