Unconditional Love

    May 2000

    Therapeutic Values and Chistian Values
    By Philip Jenkins

    In this excerpt from his book Pedophiles and Priests, Philip Jenkins examines the impact that the mental health community's values may have on Christian doctrine.

    A crisis of belief in traditional authority was accompanied by questions about the standards by which behavior and morality could be judged. In this sense, the clergy-abuse issue was a further engagement in the ongoing conflict between the different value systems represented by organized religion on the one hand and the orthodoxies of the therapeutic and behavioral-science professions on the other, and the impact that each had in the mainstream culture. Secular and religious responses to the abuse cases both indicate a dramatic decline in the influence and social acceptability of traditional religious ideologies. At every stage the debate shows how far contemporary religious consciousness has been transformed by the insights of psychology, despite the apparent contradiction with traditional Christian doctrinal assumptions such as the belief in the power of sin and the necessity of repentance.

    The changing concept of wrongdoing might be illustrated by imagining a priest known to have embezzled a substantial sum of money from a particular parish, but whose church superiors decide not to report the misdeed to civil authorities. Following a period of some years of retreat and self-discipline, the same individual is given a fresh start in a new parish. If known, such a decision would probably receive sympathy or even praise as a humane and generous measure, and one moreover that was closely in tune with the announced ideological goals of the church of encouraging forgiveness and redemption. It would also be justified by numerous scriptural passages commanding Christians both to forgive wrongs, "seventy times seven" if necessary, and wherever possible to avoid involving the civil authorities in internal church matters.1 In fact, it is rather the decision to exclude the lapsed priest from future service that would be denounced as an act of hypocrisy and cruelty, given the religious and ideological framework of the organization.

    The question then arises how such a hypothetical case differs from the notorious decision of a given diocese to return to ministry a man implicated in the sexual molestation of minors. An obvious answer is that this behavior differs from theft in that it is now commonly believed to reflect a compulsive or addictive personality disorder, which cannot be cured or deterred by even the most determined act of will on the part of the offender. The near-universal acceptance of this compulsive model suggests the continuing expansion of medical and deterministic interpretations of wrongdoing and the consequent reduction or revision of the concept of individual sinfulness, especially in matters of sexuality. Sin necessarily implies free will; psychological and therapeutic models are deterministic in their analysis of how character and behavior are formed by family, upbringing, and social development.

    A fundamental change of value is also apparent from the response deemed proper to a particular act of wrongdoing. Historically, Christian ethical values emphasized the free responsibility of the individual both to make moral choices and to suffer the consequences of those decisions. In most churches the assumption was that a wrong act merited punishment and perhaps required penance but did not necessarily brand the culprit for life as having the stereotypical characteristics of an offender. A man who performed a sexual act with a boy had committed an act of sodomy or pederasty but did not thereby become a pederast who was inevitably likely to reoffend, any more than a man who visited a prostitute acquire the indelible label of "lecher." Nor was an individual who became drunk necessarily an irredeemable drunkard; he or she could reform and repent. Basic to the Christian value system is a belief in the worth and potential of repentance as a decision of the individual. In the therapeutic assumption, however, an increasing number of offenses are pathologized, regarded as the outcome of circumstances determined by factors beyond the individual. As such, they require diagnosis or classification with a medical term such as alcoholic, pedophile, or ephebophile, followed by appropriate treatment procedures. . . .

    Resorting to therapeutic authorities implies respect if not full acceptance of their underlying value system no less than their methodologies, and the response to the abuse issue increases still further the influence of these assumptions within the churches. It is difficult to imagine that trend will not have doctrinal consequences in the decades to come, in areas as significant as Christology and the Trinity.

    1. Supported by texts such as Matt. 18:15-22; 1 Cor. 6:1-7. [return to text]

    This passage is reprinted from Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 162-163, 165.

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