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Without any touching

· ​A serious wound ·

Sandro Botticelli “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (1495-1500, detail)

Touch – as we are taught on the one hand by the commentaries on the Gospels and on the other by psychoanalysis – which occupies a crucial place in Gospel evangelical teaching is an essential factor of our way of knowing the truth and of communicating with others. It is a hidden but most powerful sense that involves the deepest aspects of the human psyche. The fact that for priests and religious touch has become an impracticable form of contact with children and women for some years now as a result of the abuses scandal not only constitutes a new form of etiquette and a form of elementary prudence to avoid (even unfounded) suspicion but is also a real mutilation of relational life and of the apostolate in the Christian community. At a time in history when the Church is going through a serious crisis regarding her capacity for transmitting the Gospel message, the heart of the Christian message, the impossibility of giving a caress to a child or of shaking the hand of a woman who is grieving or upset is a serious wound. By denying the possibility of using touch as a form of communication it becomes almost impossible to understand the ability of the person involved to face the reciprocity of the relationship and the intimacy and identity of the other person – essentially the profound reality of a human relationship.

It cannot of course be denied that it is a question of a deserved mutilation, but nevertheless it is still a mutilation.

Returning to the freedom to bestow a caress, to take someone by the hand, to put an arm round a shoulder – charity also consists of this – some way out of the abuses scandal needs to be found.

Every gesture has become suspect because the simple, good and affectionate meaning of so many gestures has been used not to reassure or encourage someone but to violate the intimacy of a child or a woman, that is, of someone weak.

Pope Francis has given the strongest and most radical interpretation of this crisis: it is not, he says, a question of falling into the temptations of the flesh, of sexual sins, but rather of an abuse of power, an abuse that is born from a perverted interpretation of the priestly role, arising from an evil which he has called clericalization.

Although one can remedy a sin of the flesh with individual conversion, the abuse of power, clericalism, demands instead a deeper change, a complete revision of the Catholic culture and of the training of future priests, it requires a return to the origins of the Gospel message which always speaks of service and not of power. Thus it should be easily understood that Francis’ argument gives rise to great opposition, and that the complex ecclesiastical structure still puts up a great resistance to his discourse, to his request for radical purification.

We see this above all if we look at one of the two components of the group of victims of the abuses, women. Whereas for minors the admission and consequent condemnation are obligatory, since they start from a recognized transgression of the penal code, for women the topic is more complex and touches on the very heart of the Pope’s analysis, power.

In the transformation of the laws established in the Western countries, sexual violence against women and against minors is always closely connected. Let us take the Italian example: the Rocco Code, in force until 1996, penalized every kind of sexual violence – against women and against minors – as a “crime against public morals and public decency”. That is, it protected a collective good rather than the victims who disappeared as if they too were guilty of infringing a moral law.

In 1996, thanks to pressure from the feminist movement, a new law was at last passed according to which rape became a crime against the person, who is entitled to sexual inviolability. Consequently the new legislation establishes that sexual activity must be the result of a free individual decision, because this is one of the rights proper to the individual. Sexual freedom as a personal freedom thus rises to the rank of a primary good and rape therefore becomes a crime against the person.

Individual protection is also extended to minors, that is, to those under 14 years of age. Earlier – and this to some extent also applied to women – it was crucial for the purpose of establishing the gravity of the crime to evaluate the minor’s conduct in life and only those considered as “incorrupt minors” were protected. Now, with the new law, all minors are protected because the value of the person is protected; so much so indeed that the minor is protected even against his or her own will.

But the situation of women remains quite ambiguous. Within in the ecclesiastical institution in particular centuries of culture focused on the idea of a woman as a dangerous temptress lead people to classify these acts of violence, even if they have been reported, as sexual transgressions freely committed by both parties. It is here that Pope Francis’ analysis once again comes to our aid: if a finger is pointed at power and clericalism, the abuses against women religious take on another aspect and can at last be recognized for what they are, that is, acts of bullying arrogance in which touch becomes a violation of personal intimacy. The difference in power and the difficulty of denouncing such acts because of fear – with good reason – of retaliation aimed not only at the religious herself but also at the order to which she belongs explain the silence which has shrouded this bullying arrogance for years.

Recent history also reveals this: towards the end of the 1990s two religious, Sr Maura O’Donohue and Sr Marie McDonald, had the courage to present precise and substantiated reports, in-depth investigations and analyses of the situations most exposed to this type of bullying arrogance. Their denunciations were met with silence and it is well known that silence de facto contributes to giving security to rapists, who become ever surer of their own impunity.

During the past year many newspapers have lifted the veil from this tragedy and many women religious, in the Third World but also in the developed countries, have begun to speak out and make denunciations; they know they have the right to be respected, and know that the condition of women, in the Church too, must change. And they know that to bring about this transformation it is not enough to appoint a few women to serve on commissions. If eyes continue to be closed to this scandal – rendered even more serious by the fact that the abuse of women entails procreation and is thus at the root of the scandal of imposed abortions and of the children not recognized by priests – the condition of oppression of women in the Church will never change.

The perspective in which Pope Francis has framed the problem of abuse is therefore the right one. It intersects with another of his requests to the Church: that the role which belongs to women should be recognized. In fact it is on this obvious lack of recognition of women that is grafted the culture of abuses which makes possible a massive practice of bullying arrogance unworthy of any Christian. A denunciation of this situation has recently come from Cardinal Marx, with an intervention published in our January issue and it has been reaffirmed in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano by Cardinal Ouellet: with regard to the female question “the failure to acknowledge the ‘transformation that has occurred in society’ and the ‘progress’ of the last 50 years represents a ‘failure’ for the Church, which is already ‘late’ on this horizon”.

Hence it is a question of touch. To face these matters with the necessary tact, but also with the courage which Pope Francis asks of us.

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 19, 2020