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Spirituality and the Culture of Narcissism

Narcissism Clericalism Pontifical Secret

Title: Spirituality and the Culture of Narcissism

Author: A.W. Richard Sipe, Marianne Benkert, M.D., Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.

Publisher: via BishopAccountability.Org

Date: August 30, 2013

Part one, The Clerical Sub-Culture

A.W.Richard Sipe

Abstract:  Catholic deacons, priests and bishops live in a unique psychological environment commonly referred to as the “clerical world.”  A fundamental characteristic of this sub-culture is narcissism which in some clerics becomes pathological.  The narcissistic component of the clerical world has a toxic effect on its spirituality.

Spirituality is an awareness of a personal relationship with a transcendent reality.

Every religious tradition allows for persons of spirituality. Spirituality is independent of doctrine and discipline. The biblical psalms are preeminent examples of this traditional expression. A prominent example of this expression is a prayer of St. Augustine recorded in his Confessions:

Late have I loved you

O Beauty ever ancient ever new.

Late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside.

And it was there that I searched for you.

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things that you created.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

Created things kept me from you;

Yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me.

I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (J. Ryan, 1960, p. 254)

Two main sources support the development of Roman Catholic spirituality, the cult of saints and personal contact with a Catholic clergy person.

Because tradition presents a priest or bishop as a representative of God and Jesus a betrayal by them is profoundly destructive. Knowledgeable people have labeled the effects of sexual betrayal by a priest or bishop more devastating than those of incest. It is rightly called it soul murder. Our religious and clinical experience with victims of clergy abuse validates those observations and repeatedly records that the experience of abuse by clergy demolishes spirituality.

How is it possible that such a destructive dynamic can prevail in an institution of religion whose explicit purpose is to promote spiritual health? Experience with priest perpetrators demonstrates and confirms that they are a product of and participants in a culture that is rightly named narcissistic. An individual clergyman may or may not escape the toxicity of that culture.

The veneer of holiness and altruism that cloaks the institution of the Roman Catholic Church covers a clerical culture infused by excessive narcissism. The institution is not what it appears in its public pronouncements, ritual manifestations, and glorious vesture. I have seen how its self-serving elements have had a pervasive destructive influence in propagating toxic spirituality that enables and fosters sexual assault on vulnerable children and minors and yet protects and projects an image perfection and moral purity.

The literature on narcissism, personal and cultural, is nearly epidemic. That ubiquity neither lessens its importance for understanding human behavior nor its significance in the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by men publicly proclaimed to be celibate therefore sexually safe. Nor can it be discounted as an element in a culture that selects, molds, produces and protects abusers despite its protestations of selfless service to God and humanity.

The thesis is simple and clear: Clerical Culture is the context of the sexual abuse of minors witnessed in the last half-century. This is no secret. The Prime Minister of Ireland addressing his parliament on July 20, 2011 said that a recent report on the system of abuse in the Irish diocese of Cloyne (Kenney 2011); “Excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism—the narcissism that dominate the Vatican to this day.” The cause of abuse by men who sexually violate children and the vulnerable within a church context is that they are products of formation and inculcation into the clerical system. That system of abuse can be traced from top to bottom. If the culture did not operate in ways that tolerated secret sexual activity of superiors (including but not limited to child sexual abuse) and function as a web of mutually supportive secret clerical liaisons, sexual abusers of minors would find no place in the system. As one highly placed American prelate said on his return from a trip to Rome: “The organization to which I belong is rotten to the core and from the top down.”

The clerical system from earliest days in seminary training throughout illustrious church careers conspires to hide sexual tendencies behind a veil of confessional secrecy—often by confessors and rectors (bishops and superiors) who themselves are not celibately observant. Known sexual activity—even behaviors with fellow seminarians and priests—is dismissed as “growing pains” or passing phases or even as salutary educational experience. Words, pronouncements and directives not withstanding this is how the system operates.

The Catholic Church’s institutional veneer of holiness covers a clerical culture marked by excessive narcissism.  This narcissism has had a pervasive influence on the toxic clerical spirituality that has enabled the sub-culture of abuse.  The path to wholeness and healing for many of the abused requires the discovery of an authentic clerical-free spirituality.  The process of discovery involves the painful process of liberation from the controlling bonds of the institution.  Here we explore the complex effect of institutionalized toxic narcissism and the steps that can lead to freedom and a healthy spirituality.

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