Liturgy, Liturgical Studies, and the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests

I was struck, as soon as I started typing the title, by how hard it is to think through the intersections between the categories listed above: the liturgy – liturgical studies – and the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.  Yet think one must (as well as pray and act, obviously).  One reason for the need to think, deeply and self-critically, is a very basic one: every Catholic priest, including those who abuse minors, has presided as an ordained minister at liturgical celebrations.  A priest presides at worship most visibly and publicly, at celebrations of the sacraments.  Given this basic fact, it would be hard to draw a sharp, impenetrable line between presiding over liturgical celebrations and abusive practices of priests.  Indeed, we know from accounts of abuse that sacramental celebrations (e.g., confession), liturgical spaces (e.g., the church or sacristy), and ritual relationships (esp. between priest and altar server) were fertile grounds for abusive practices.

Is there more to be thought through and said?  I was glad to find someone who has done just that recently, and has done so both with impeccable credentials for the task at hand as well as thoughtful engagement.  I am referring to an essay just published by Andreas Odenthal in the German Catholic journal of liturgical studies, Liturgisches Jahrbuch 69:1 (2019): 3-19.  Because the essay is in German, and there is no abstract in English, I thought I would provide a glimpse at the essay here.  

Some background first:  Andreas Odenthal is professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic-theological faculty at the University of Bonn, Germany.  He is an ordained Catholic priest, and a trained psychoanalyst.  Odenthal’s liturgical interests range broadly, from a dissertation on a medieval liturgical manuscript to his recent major work of framing a notion of “ritual experience” in conversation between theology and psychoanalysis [Rituelle Erfahrung: Praktisch-theologische Konturen des christlichen Gottesdienstes, Kohlhammer, 2019)].

Now to the recent essay, titled “Liturgie und Liturgiewissenschaft im Kontext der Missbrauchsdebatte.”  Odenthal begin with a profoundly troubling story, not of contemporary sexual abuse of a minor by a priest, but a late Victorian text written by John Francis Bloxam, a story that was for some time attributed to Oscar Wilde.  Titled “The Priest and the Acolyte,” the story focusses on a priest who falls in love with his altar server and ends up killing both the boy and himself in a nightly Mass.  Odenthal deftly highlights underlying elements in the story that contribute to the abuse of minors, both then and now: the clear power differentials between priest-presider and acolyte and between adult and child; the interpretive power the priest yields in terms of conceiving of his desire for the boy as God-given, denying all cultural, religious, and legal boundaries set on a sexual encounter with a child.  The story ends in a Mass that leads to death, not life – although the deaths of the priest and the acolyte are highly aestheticized, even romanticized by John Francis Bloxam.  Odenthal is aware of that authorial coding, and goes in a totally different direction.  He identified in Bloxam’s story not only the abuse and murder of a child but also the traumatizing of what a Mass is to be.  For Odenthal, liturgy must above all be a space of freedom into which human beings enter ritually, for the sake of life.  Two dangers lurk for Odenthal in this claim:  first, the fact that a liturgy that itself can nurture (or even produce?) trauma, and second, that a liturgical celebration itself can be wounded, or traumatized.  This latter feature, Odenthal illustrates with the help of some examples, including a look back at the last Mass celebrated by Bloxam’s priest and acolyte, in which the role of presider and abuser fuse dramatically.  Rather than opening up a space of freedom, this Mass in the night leads only to death.  In this, violence is also done to what a celebration of the eucharist should be: a space of hope, and a gesturing toward resurrection and fullness of life.    

In a final move in this essay, Odenthal asks what kind of “therapy” and healing might be available for traumatizing and/or traumatized liturgies.  He notes rightly that abuse does not begin (or end) with sexual abuse but that there are larger realities of “abusive milieus.”  And such abusive milieus can include liturgical ones. There are, no doubt, other ways to think through intersections between liturgy, liturgical studies, and the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests than the ones sketched in this essay.  But I for one am grateful to Andreas Odenthal for charting one possible path of reflection, and, importantly, for calling all involves in the practice and the study of liturgy to vigilance and attentiveness.

One comment

  1. and another German scholar of liturgy, also Catholic, has just weighed in on the subject, see Benedikt Kranemann, in: Herder-Korrespondenz 5 (2019): 13-16. Geared to a broader Catholic audience, Kranemann, who is professor of liturgical studies at the University of Erfurt, writes as a person who sits in the pews (rather than as a priest). And he offers a number of very specific and thought-provoking examples of how to un-do some of the damages liturgical celebrations can do, particularly re visions of priestly privileges.

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