“Seven days that shook the Vatican”

Current Affairs / Religion

As you may have intuited, I’ve been traveling throughout much of the month of June. Most of the time I was with my daughter and some of it with my daughter and wife as we looked at colleges for our rising High School senior child. We found three exciting prospects for a young lady who’s thinking about a dual major in physics and political science with a minor in music.

I took my iPad with me for most of the trip and was able to keep up on the goings on in the Anglican Universe but there was no easy way for me to write anything substantive, and besides it was supposed to be a vacation.

But now I’m back, and starting to get caught up on all the interesting, shiny links to stories that I forwarded to myself during my traveling. I’ll get to those over the next couple of weeks. But first…

A friend forwarded this note to me just this morning. It’s from a longish article in the National Catholic Reporter about the long-term implications to the Roman Catholic Church from the seven days of horrific revelations of sexual misconduct by clergy and bishops last month. The writer, John L Allen, Jr. describes the week’s revelations of coverups as “seven days that shook the Vatican”.

“Yet I’m inclined to think the past week does mean something, and here’s my first-blush stab at expressing it: Collectively, I think these events both symbolize and advance the collapse of Catholicism as a culture-shaping majority in the West. When the dust settles, policy-makers in the church, particularly in the Vatican, will be ever more committed to what social theorists call ‘identity politics,’ a traditional defense mechanism relied upon by minorities when facing what they perceive as a hostile cultural majority.

While there are an almost infinite number of ways of defining a ‘minority,’ one widely invoked model says it has four characteristics:

  • Suffering discrimination and subordination
  • Physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group
  • A shared sense of collective identity and common burdens
  • Socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not

A growing swath of Catholics in the West, particularly in the church’s leadership class, believes that all these markers now apply to the Catholic church, and the events of the past week will strongly reinforce those impressions.”

The full article is here.

I’m starting a course tonight here at the Cathedral in Phoenix on the writings of Rene Girard, using his book “The Scapegoat” as my primary text. When I read these words of Allen’s about the reaction of the Roman Church to the tensions of the moment, I was immediately reminded of Girard’s descriptions of the phenomenon that tend to arise as the scapegoating mechanism engages within social systems. It’s the second one in particular that I found surprising when I first read it, and now see it again in Allen’s piece. (It makes me think that Allen is working out of a Girardian read of the situation actually.)

Girard uses Greek mythology to illustrate his point referencing both the physical deformities of Oedipus and of Hercules to show how the mechanism works. Allen certainly isn’t talking about physical deformities of the same sort as Girard illustrates, but the principle is the same. Think of the “raghead” moniker that American troops have given to arab military types, or the jokes about the nose of the jews in the Second World War – or even the lisp of gay men in our own days. All characteristics that a group feeling it is being persecuted emphasizes in groups it will define as “other” and, if things run according to form, eventually persecute as a scapegoat.

It’s rather sobering, scary even, to see the mechanism once you know what to look for. We see it in a similar stage right now in Arizona as the Latino people in the community are being marked as somehow responsible for the economic collapse of the state and the attendant depression we’re in at the moment.

The only happy note is that perhaps recognition of what is happening will keep us all from walking the road to its bitter end. Perhaps not. It may just be that the recognition and ultimate defanging of the scapegoat mechanism will hasten a final confrontation that has no real resolution short of Our Lord’s return. At least that’s what Girard seems to be expecting in his final books.

More I think as I work through the books tonight with a group of friends.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. carol Horton says

    or the escalation of domestic violence against women in times of war and other economic other social stress.

  2. This is really interesting, Fr. Nick. I hope you’ll post about your course from time to time; I’m very interested in Girard, too, and would love to see what comes of your discussions.

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