In 1790, most of the world was congratulating France for what seemed like a successfully completed revolution. The hated King had been brought to heel, and change had swept through an oppressed nation, offering hope for a brighter future under better government.
Newspapers, then coming into their own, proclaimed the dawn of a new era of peace and prosperity while proto-pundits compared the change of rule to England's Glorious Revolution of 1688.
One observer however, English statesman Edmund Burke, wasn't fooled by the triumphant images produced by revolutionary PR teams; he saw gathering clouds for the darkest storm yet. His first clue that the Revolution had yet to run its course? The sustained hostile attacks on the Catholic clergy.
After the National Assembly diminished the authority of Louis XVI in 1789, anti-monarchical literature dwindled, but fierce accusations against Catholic clergy for misdeeds past and present increased. Isolated cases of clerical immorality were magnified to make depravity appear endemic to the entire priesthood (ironically, in an age where sexual libertinism was running rampant). The French propagandists labored night and day, dredging the past for old scandals whether decades or even centuries distant.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, Burke, a Protestant, asked the French, "From the general style of late publications of all sorts, one would be led to believe that your clergy in France were a sort of monsters, a horrible composition of superstition, ignorance, sloth, fraud, avarice and tyranny. But is this true?"
What would Edmund Burke make of the headlines of the past few weeks, as stories of a clerical sex abuser in Germany a quarter century ago, made front page headlines and top TV stories in US news? What would he think of the insistent attempts to tie this sex abuser to the Roman pontiff himself through the most tenuous of links?
In 1790, Burke answered his own question with these words: "It is not with much credulity I listen to any when they speak evil of those whom they are going to plunder. I rather suspect that vices are feigned or exaggerated when profit is looked for in their punishment." As he wrote these words, the French revolutionaries were readying for the mass confiscation of Church lands.
As the present sales of church property to pay settlements swell the coffers of contingent-fee lawyers and real estate speculators, one has to credit Burke for a profound and historical sense of human nature.
The salacious reporting on clerical sex abuse ( as if it were limited to only Roman Catholic clergy) has been given a prominence greater than the massacres of Christians happening right now in India and Iraq. Moreover, the term "clerical sex abuse" is often misleadingly equated with "pedophilia" to whip up even more public outrage. It doesn't take the political acumen of an Edmund Burke to wonder why the Catholic Church has been singled out for this treatment.
While no one denies the wrongdoing and the harm caused by a small minority of priests, their misconduct has been used to undermine the reputations of the overwhelming majority of clergy who live holy quiet lives in their parishes, tending to their flocks. These good men have been smeared with the same poisonous ink.
The brutal reality is that there are an estimated 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse in the United States today. Of these, between 40 and 60 percent were abused by a family member (for the most part uncles, cousins, stepfathers and live-in boyfriends). Carol Shakeshaft and Audrey Cohan have produced a study showing that 5 percent were molested by school teachers, while the New York Times published a survey showing that fewer than 2% of the offenders were Catholic priests. But to read the papers, it would seem that Catholic clergy hold a monopoly in child molestation.
Burke's explanation for the furious anti-clericalism of yore could have been written today: The denigration of the clergy was "to teach them [the people] to persecute their own pastors....by raising a disgust and horror of the clergy."
If Burke were alive today, he would perhaps discern another motive behind the selective assaults on Catholic clergy, besides designs on Church property: namely to destroy the credibility of a powerful moral voice in public debate. The most recent example concerns the heated battle over the health care reform bill. The vocal opposition of the United States Bishops' conference (particularly in regard to tax-payer -funded abortion) has proved especially annoying to the proponents of the legislation. As the final vote approaches, the clerical sex abuse drumbeat has risen to a frenzy.
The record number of participants in January's Pro-Life March; Bishop Tobin's rebuke to Rep. Patrick Kennedy for his pro-abortion positions; and the success of the marriage movement in the United States, indicate that the voice of the bishops is indeed resonating with people. To silence the moral voice of the Church, the preferred option has been to discredit its ministers.
Within three years of Burke's Reflections, his dire predictions proved accurate. The Reign of Terror descended in 1793, bringing hundreds of priests to the guillotine, and forcing the rest to swear oaths of loyalty to the State over the Church. To Burke it was clear that the anti clerical campaign of 1790 was "only to be temporary and preparatory to the utter abolition.... of the Christian religion," by " bringing its ministers into universal contempt."
One hopes Americans will have the good sense to change course long before we reach that point.