catholic child sex abuse clergy disgust religious scholar orsi
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I had never seen the word “disgust” characterized as positive.

Now I have, and it’s a powerful hypothesis.

catholic child sex abuse clergy disgust religious scholar orsi
Cardinal George Pell, once the third most powerful prelate in the Vatican and the top Catholic official in Australia, was convicted in a Melbourne court of child sexual abuse in early 2019. (Kerry Meyers, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0)

Eminent Northwestern University theologian and religious scholar Robert A. Orsi used that uniquely visceral word — passionately and with laser precision — 49 times in his 5,600-word article (“The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust”) in the spring/summer issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

It is fair to describe the long essay as a fierce, but not raging, indictment of Catholicism in particular, and supernatural religion in general.

That he is an important religion scholar of long standing in the United States, his opinion in my view matters more than others’ in the rarified world of religious criticism by believers.

In a heartfelt mea culpa for his attack on the faith that raised, nourished and sustained him throughout his life and that of his Italian ancestors, Orsi wrote:

“[T]he long perspective of human history, religion has done more harm than good and that the good it does is inextricable from the harm. Please don’t think that what I have said so far and will go on to say are the sentiments of a cranky hater of religion of the sort that characterizes the inevitably short-lived but much-touted public performances of atheism in the United States. If you know my work, you know this is not me.”

But, still, he is indeed supremely disgusted by religion in the modern world.

“I am disgusted with Catholicism and, by extension, with all religion,” wrote Orsi, who is a renowned expert on Catholic scholarship. “What I want to offer here is a phenomenology of the disgust of a scholar of religion, of its dangers, but also of what I have come to see not only as the inevitability of disgust in the life of a scholar of religion, but more, its usefulness on many levels, emotional, psychological, existential, and intellectual.”

His disgust seems most focused on the Catholic Church’s long and dispiritingly sordid priestly pedophilia scandal, and its purposeful global enabling and cover-up by the ecclesiastical elite. But he also rails rationally against America’s conservative Protestant evangelicals.

Perhaps some of you are disgusted, for instance, by how cravenly evangelicals have embraced political corruption in the United States today in order to advance the allegedly Christian agenda of ostracizing and harassing young LGBTQ people, curtailing women’s reproductive rights and basic health care, and reviving a toxic white Christian nationalism. I know, I know, not all evangelicals, just like not all priests, not all bishops, not all congregations … but I am not talking about these other ones today, and anyway this is just another way of avoiding the question, and the disgust.”

But his “disgust,” which he describes as “a distinctly Catholic emotion,” is the same either way.

Orsi voices a wariness of faith’s inevitable patina of goodness in the eyes of the faithful and faithless alike, and he warns that it acts like an opiate to critical thinking about religion and its human costs.

“This is not to deny that religions have done and continue to do good things,” he wrote. “But that I even have to utter such a correction — and that we scholars of religion feel compelled to do so, always, right after we speak what we all agree is a simple truth — shows the power of the idea that, in the end, religions are essentially good. It is so powerful and deeply embedded that rarely do we — who ought to know better — pause to stare into the depths of the truth that religions have, over time, done more harm than good before we scramble up toward the warm sunlight of good religion.”

I totally agree. The calming balm religion seems to provide for so many people does not exonerate its manifold atrocities throughout human history.

But Orsi’s most emphatic condemnation is reserved for the particular sins of the Catholic Church in its history.

“My disgust with Catholicism has been growing for a long time,” he wrote. “For the past ten years or so, I have been immersed in the sheer horror of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. ‘The sexual abuse crisis’ refers to the sexual violation of Catholics by their priests, first of all, and, second, to the protection of these priests by their bishops and religious superiors, who were quite often themselves involved in illicit sexual activities. The word ‘crisis’ for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if what is meant by ‘crisis’ includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up.”

Indeed, he says the ‘crisis’ is ‘normal.’

“What I understand now is that the dark and troubled landscape of modern Catholic sexuality, and therefore of modern Catholicism itself, has been the normal, everyday life of modern Catholicism. This is not a crisis. It is the modern Catholic normal, finally disclosed for all to see clearly.”

He concludes that “disgust” is an important catalyst for protective activism.

“Do you think this is easy for me?” he asked rhetorically of his condemnation of Catholicism. “I needed to tell you what brought me to this horrible place. It is a defamation of the demand for justice by victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse and of its cover-up by Catholic authorities to attribute it to some passing reflex of modern anti-Catholic prejudice. It is also a defamation of my disgust.”

Such vast immorality is a poisoned dagger in the heart of the very human capacity to embody and honor goodness. A mortal corruption of humanist grace.

In a real sense, therefore, “disgust” may be far too kind a word here.

(See James A. Haught’s recent post on Orsi’s article in his Daylight Atheism blog.)


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...