Priests receiving ordination. Wikimedia Commons

Real Hope Lies in an Unbreakable Bond

The sins of priests and religious, the dispute over celibacy, the exaggeration of the number of cases, and the pathological aspect. Psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna explains the gravity of the attack on the Church...
Paola Bergamini

The sins of priests and religious, the dispute over celibacy, the exaggeration of the number of cases, and the pathological aspect. Psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna explains the gravity of the attack on the Church, an attempt to weaken the outlook on the meaning of man, who only in caritas has a bond that saves him from his evil.

“I believe deeply in the healing power of Christ’s self-sacrificing love,” Benedict XVI wrote in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland on March 19th, concerning the sexual abuse committed by priests and religious, long undervalued by part of the Irish hierarchy, at the cost of young people. These are the words of a father who knows that only the merciful love of the one Father can give hope and forgive what for men is humanly incomprehensible and unforgivable.

The facts have leapt out on pages of newspapers all over the world: crimes of pedophilia committed by priests and religious in Ireland, in Germany and, earlier, in the United States. The revelation of these acts, which were firmly condemned by the Pope, aroused a whole series of attacks by journalists and intellectuals on celibacy and religious orders but, more radically, against the Church. In his letter, addressing young people, the Pope writes precisely about the Church: “We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” Over the past months, many people have felt the “duty” to say what the Church is, how it is ruined, and what it should do, forgetting the thousands of religious who, every day, in all corners of the world, are quietly dedicating their lives to the needy, only out of love for Christ and the Church. The Pope repeats once again, with all the sorrow for what has happened and indicating the way to go, that only in the Church is Christ present.

A few days before the letter was released, we met with Professor Eugenio Borgna, formerly Chief Consultant in Psychiatry at the Maggiore Hospital in Novara, and author of many books. He discussed the recent events and, more generally, the presence of the Church in contemporary society.

Pedophilia is certainly one of the most evil crimes that can be committed, and it is all the more shocking when committed by religious people. What was your first reaction?
First of all, that the phenomenon is more limited numerically than it appears. It is normal that, given the reaction in the media, there should have been great emphasis on the fact itself, accompanied by allegations of possible abuses, borne on the wave of what I would call “illusions of the memory,” deformations of the memory. We are speaking of things that happened up to 30 years ago. I don’t want to imply by this that the deviation does not exist. It does and it is not infrequent. The priests who committed these crimes may have been moved by pathological factors, like any other man, and the Church has condemned them drastically. In this climate, the media tend to indicate the priesthood as one of the sources of this terrible aggressive experience, but I don’t think it is really possible to link these two experiences of life–celibacy and the insurgence of these facts.

Yet some of the attitudes expressed on celibacy and pedophilia seem to exemplify an open hostility, an attack upon the Church.
The Church today is the only institution that defends values that worldliness rejects. It defends life to the end, it presents itself as the bearer, the witness of a continuous challenge of all that cannot be ethically based on values that others accept. To strike at the Church means to weaken what has always been and goes on being its extraordinary and unique power to defend absolute values that go far beyond human productivity: the safeguarding of life, respect for death. The Church is the bearer of the horizons of meaning and of life, irreconcilable with those who have a positivistic conception of life that excludes true freedom, and excludes the presence of that spiritual dimension that is part of life and that comes into conflict with secularist ideology. Catching the Church in difficulty, in horrible kinds of behavior, offers the opportunity for affirming that it is no longer credible, that it cannot be a teacher of life.

Not only. Its educational dimension is challenged. The abuses took place in boarding schools.
Of course. These facts are interpreted as evidence that the Church is incapable of educating. In this way is attacked one of the great indisputable realities: that the Church lives teaching with a passion, an emotional participation, an assistance, that appears more intense, exclusive, and total. For the Church, education is the premise for which faith, hope, and charity are lived concretely and are historically inserted into today’s world.

I am thinking not only of schools, but parish youth centers, charitable works. The primary evangelical dimension of the Church is under attack.
It’s a severe blow to the possibility that the young generations live a Christianity that is more and more relevant, alive, and dynamic. Rediscovery of the astounding relevance of the Gospel for today is one of the tasks that every education should have, whether secular or Catholic. The passion for teaching is one of the major threads of the Gospel. Think of the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not only a psychological–human revolution, but an anthropological–existential revolution. So it is always relevant because it takes into account human frailty and the great psychological resources in us. It is the concept of caritas, stressed by Benedict XVI–the love of God. When this is denied, we become prisoners of that individualism that is spreading in so many ambits and that refuses a Church that indicates means of development, reflection, and contemplation that go beyond the immediate realization of our impulses–including the sexual–tied to immediate pleasure.

This element of individualism as refusal of caritas is interesting.
Individualism is opposed to any form of solidarity not only in the sociological sense, but even human solidarity that implies respect, astounded admiration, the necessary search for all forms of help for those who are weakest and need help, need not to be transfixed by the logic of productivity, one of the false reasons on which the world turns. The more we have caritas in us, the more we become able to understand those who go wrong, those who suffer. Caritas gives hope, the passion of hope. This is not inside you, but is given to you.

In what sense?
Hope is either Christian hope or it is reduced to mere optimism, as Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical. Hope creates relationship: I hope for you. It is the epiphany of “us,” of the neighbor. Let’s go back to Christ’s judgment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the basis of all ethics and bioethics. There are human facts that are indelible: infinite happiness, and even the sense of guilt that are part of everyday life, but are trodden on by optimism. Hope is a relationship capable of opening up, of widening. Optimism lasts only a moment; hope gives meaning to action. Christian hope permits us not to absolutize things, even evil itself.