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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Getting medieval

Visiting some medieval sites tonight I came upon this video lecture (below) by Dyan Elliott, a professor of medieval history at Northwestern, on the medieval roots of the church's present sexual abuse scandal.

I found the talk really interesting, if chilling. One can see the genesis of today's sex abuse situation in the early church and increasingly in the church of the high middle ages. The question that kept coming up even back then was, when a priest or monk would commit a sin, whether it was better to expose the sin to all or to keep it secret ... always the choice made was secrecy, to tell no one because it would cause a scandal, and the public good and the welfare of the victim always lost the battle in favor of protecting the reputation of the church. It's incredible how Machiavellian the theological arguments for this policy became over time, with frequent reference back to Augustine. At the very end of the lecture, Professor Elliott says ...

Is it worse to sin out in the open or in secret? This is one of the more intriguing questions that Peter Abelard [of Heloise and Abelard fame] raised in his work Sic et Non around 1120. He proceeds to assemble a wide array of authorities, one set urging the sinfulness of publishing one's sins, the other condemning the hypocrisy of concealed sin. Now Abelard envisages Sic et Non as a kind of exercise book for his students - it was their task to reconcile these conflicting sources, not his. Of course, Abelard was a true master of the interior who knew a thing or two about scandal. Yet I doubt even he could have answered so impossible a question. It is a scandal that the church had the hubris to believe it could.




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