By IAN BURUMA
IN his remarkable apology to the Catholics of Ireland (most of that country’s population), Pope Benedict XVI explained why he thought sinful priests were tempted to commit sexual acts with children.
It was because of “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society”.
“Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.”
As we know, the abuse of children by Catholic priests did not just occur in Ireland, but in many other countries too, something the Pope preferred not to dwell upon.
And Ireland is not the only place where social transformation and secularisation have challenged religious values.
When the Pope blamed the sexual transgressions on these challenges, he may have been at least partly right, but not for the reasons he believes.
In more traditional days, not so very long ago, when God reigned supreme and most people still turned to their priests (or ministers, rabbis, etc) for moral guidance, sexual behaviour was often dictated by power.
Christians may have believed in sin. The values espoused by the church were paid their due deference.
But hypocrisy gave privileged people, including priests, a certain leeway.
Wealthy men had mistresses, professors had affairs with students, and even the lowly village priest, a man of social and spiritual power, if not of great wealth, often enjoyed the sexual favours of a woman conveniently at hand to take care of his domestic needs.
Such practices were accepted as facts of life, as they still are in many poor and southern countries, which might explain why the exposure of priestly abuse has taken place mostly in the north, where social change has been more rapid.
This made the notion of celibacy, a perhaps noble, but for most people impossible ideal, bearable.
After all, in Renaissance Italy, even the Popes had children.
The life of women under such traditional arrangements tended to be tightly circumscribed.
Except in small, libertine aristocratic circles, where women were able to take on extra-marital lovers too, the woman’s role was to be a mother and domestic caretaker.
And the rights of children in most traditional societies, before the changes the Pope deplores came about, barely existed. Adults ruled supreme.
To Pope Benedict, as well as other conservatives, the social and sexual revolutions of the mid-20th century may look like an orgy of libertinism.
And to some, sometimes, it was: the hedonism of gay life in Amsterdam or San Francisco, the sexual habits in some hippie communes and the almost feudal erotic privileges of rock stars.
But this was hardly for everyone.
The real changes, in such countries as Ireland, Germany or the US, concerned the status of women and children.
It was no longer all right for men to have mistresses, teachers to have affairs with students, or priests to enjoy the favours of their chambermaids.
People became less tolerant of hypocrisy.
In a way, the social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s brought about a new form of puritanism.
Especially in the US, a man can lose his job for making an “inappropriate” sexual remark, marriages collapse because of a one-night stand and any form of sex with children is an absolute taboo.
Perhaps, because so many other taboos have fallen, the taboo on sex with children is guarded with almost fanatical zeal.
Even fantasising about it, in the form of pornographic cartoons, is illegal in certain countries. To be sure, the exploitation of children, whether sexual or otherwise, is deplorable, if only because children rarely have the power to resist. – Project Syndicate
*Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College. His latest book Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, has just been published by Princeton University Press