Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Betrayal of the Innocents: Desire, Power, and the Catholic Church in Spain

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Betrayal of the Innocents: Desire, Power, and the Catholic Church in Spain

Article excerpt

Betrayal of the Innocents- Desire, Power, and the Catholic Church in Spain. By Timothy Mitchell. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1998. Pp. vii, 178. $39,95 clothbound; $16,50 paperback.)

Interpretations of the past sweeping over the centuries often make fascinating reading. But for historians moved by the traditional evidentiary canons of their craft, such grand sallies are the cause of some discomfort. This provocative study by a highly regarded social anthropologist combines the insights of his field with psychological theory and a dose of history to argue that Spanish Catholicism developed over the centuries a powerful set of values identified as authoritarian sexual repression. The imposition of these values on society, he maintains, was damaging to individuals and encouraged patterns of sexual abuse by the clergy ranging from the use of the confessional in the sixteenth century to seduce penitents to cases of clerical sexual abuse brought to light in contemporary Spain.

That such cases occurred in the distant and recent past is beyond dispute. Nor is there any doubt that the Spanish Church's traditional dark and pessimistic view of human nature in its sexual dimension verged on the obsessional, perhaps more so in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than in earlier times. To what extent this obsession was a uniquely Spanish phenomenon, as the author argues, is less certain. Similar concerns with upholding rigorous morality in sexual matters were scarcely absent from Protestant Europe until it was submerged by the powerful secularizing currents of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The thesis that the five centuries considered in some detail in this study are connected through an unchanging pattern of authoritarian sexual repression and the clerical abuse that accompanied it rests primarily on psychological arguments that may well have merit, although difficult to prove from an historical perspective. It is more difficult to see a direct historical connection between the abuse of the confessional brought to light by the Inquisition in tile sixteenth century and recent cases of sexual abuse by priests. The author appears to assume that the clergy formed an undifferentiated mass over the centuries when, in fact, it underwent as dramatic a transformation as civil society during the nineteenth century. 711-ie chaotic recruitment of priests, the vastly uneven levels of clerical education, the extraordinarily diverse social backgrounds of the clergy and the attraction of the priesthood for those inspired less by religious motives than the prospect of having a roof over one's head and food on the table in early modern Spain stand in sharp contrast to the more tightly controlled clerical caste formed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would have been useful for the legitimate indictment of abuses to have been placed in the context of the socio-economic back-grounds of priests and the particular social conditions of each period discussed.

The fact is that historians know little of the state of the lower clergy for both the early modern and modern periods. …

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