ANNALS OF RELIGION
How the Church lost its mission.
Issue of 2002-06-17
When I was a young candidate for the priesthood at St. Patrick's College in Sydney, Australia, our family doctor said to my mother, "Tom has idealized the Church. It's going to be a great shock to him when he finds out that priests are human."
I was as romantic a seminarian as any the world over. My desire to become a priest was influenced by the fact that a pretty girl in my neighborhood, whom I had incoherently desired, had chosen to become a Dominican nun. I had some grandiose idea, perhaps, of being St. Francis to her St. Clare. Like most of my fellow-seminarians, I also had a naïve piety and considerable generosity of spirit.
There were certainly elements of vanity at work, too. Australia, in the early nineteen-fifties, was a banal, suburban place, and to be at the center of the solemn liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church was to be connected to the universal Church of all times and all places. I had learned to sing "Faith of Our Fathers" from an Irish nun in the midst of a withering Australian drought; others had learned to sing it in the snows of Minnesota and the gales of Ireland. Moreover, it was exhilarating for an Australian kid from a plain suburb to look forward to being entrusted by Christ with the power to "bind and loose" sins.
My parents were observant Catholics, but they accepted my decision with resignation and perhaps with some uneasiness about my immaturity and flights of imagination. Unlike raunchier young Australians, I was full of what could be called sexual wonderings rather than any direct sexual experience, and the sacrifice involved in undertaking priestly celibacy seemed a minor issue, particularly since I would be surrounded by other men to whom sexual abstinence was the heroic norm. In strange ways, I resembled the squeamish gangster Pinkie in Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock." To Pinkie and me, sex seemed a grasping, howling, animal thing. Had there been an independent secular counsellor to assess my case, he would have advised me to enroll at the University of Sydney and meet as many genial Protestant girls as I could.
The crisis of doubt, which came to me six years later, when I was about to be ordained, had little to do with discovering that certain priests were odd or capable of cruelty. A week in the seminary taught me that much. The crisis came from my realization that, behind the compelling mystery of Catholicism, with its foundation in the message of "Caritas Christi" (words engraved on a stone wall at St. Patrick's), lay a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.
St. Patrick's was situated on a beautiful headland above the Pacific in several faux-Gothic buildings whose Jansenist gloom belonged more to the great Irish seminary of Maynooth than to the antipodean subtropics. The main building was drafty and unheated, and tuberculosis, which had almost been vanquished among the general population, still broke out occasionally. The government required all citizens to have annual chest X-rays, but, because of the unhealthy nature of the building, had sought the rector's approval to check the seminarians biannually. The rector, a monsignor, refused. His concern was not that we might be overexposed to roentgens but that every time the X-ray trailer, with its crew of young nurses, visited the seminary there would be an increase in the number of seminarians departing for "the world."
When two of my friends contracted t.b. and needed lung surgery, the rector and the archdiocesan authorities took no responsibility. My friends' parents bore all the medical expenses, including those for long recuperations in a sanatorium. The young men were welcome to return if they recovered, but they received no gesture of sympathy, no gift, no visits from the staff of the seminary. Young men who left for reasons of mental ill health, a not uncommon occurrence, also received no help.
In time, I began to question whether my increasingly irrepressible desire for women was a sin. And what was I to make of the fact that the novels of Greene and the poetry of Auden awakened both a sense of the wider world and an increasing skepticism about the world I was in? Weeks before my ordination, after my parents had hired caterers for the celebratory feast, I had what in those days was called a nervous breakdown. Sexuality was not the overt issue—at least not in the sense that I had fallen in love with someone. After all, seminaries exist to avert such calamities. But sexuality is always there—the more assiduously repressed, the more likely to cause psychic mayhem. Obviously, this sexual pressure had something to do with what I thought of—and still half think of—as a failure to measure up. In any event, there was no possibility of going ahead with the ordination. During my final meeting with the rector, I asked him if he could give me a reference in the outside world.
"Oh," he told me grandly, "we don't give references."
Although I had willingly tried to satisfy the demands of the Church for six years, he was telling me that the institution owed me nothing. It was up to me to remake myself with the few un-useful resources I had acquired (among them an ability to speak medieval Latin). The rector's indifference to my future was not the "social justice" of which bishops spoke, and I left the meeting furious. A few weeks later, a Catholic layman of our parish gave me fifty dollars to make a start in the outside world. Not for the first time, I was struck by the openhandedness of lay Catholics—a generosity that contrasted sharply with the stinginess of their spiritual masters within the undemocratic structure of the Church.
Six years ago, St. Patrick's closed down for lack of applicants, and it is now an international school for hotel management. Yet I am astonished that all the gothic aspects of the place that I knew so many years ago seem to have been reproduced in the way that the Church has chosen to treat the most vulnerable members of its flock—the children who have been sexually assaulted by priests, and the parents who entrusted their children to the care of the predators. The proliferating reports of pedophilia among the clergy have been devastating enough; perhaps even more disturbing have been the evasive responses by such Church leaders as Cardinal Bernard Law, of Boston. For them, it has been business as usual: a pity about the few bad eggs and, of course, the victims must take take their share of the blame, too. Garry Wills, in "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit" (2000), draws attention to this mind-set in a remark made by Monsignor Robert Rehkemper, of Dallas, after the trial, in 1997, of Father Rudolph Kos, a local pastor who created an altar boys' club at which he sexually violated his disciples after plying them with alcohol and pot. Although the victims were subsequently awarded a hundred and twenty million dollars in a civil suit, and Father Kos was sent to prison, Monsignor Rehkemper thought the blame misplaced. "No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this," he told a reporter. "They more properly should have known because they're close to the kids." For good measure, he added, "I'm sure some kids were damaged, but I think the damage might have happened even without Father Kos, you see."
How small the priesthood has been made by such ossifying of charity! When Alexis de Tocqueville visited Ireland in 1835, he extolled the priests of that country for their dedication and their willingness to live on the scale of the peasants, and he noted the affection they received in return. "The Catholic priest has a small house, a much smaller dinner, five or six thousand parishioners who are dying of hunger, and share their last penny with him," he wrote. The anti-clerical Frenchman reported admiringly that one priest had told him, "The people share liberally with me the fruit of their labors, and I give them my time, my care, my whole soul. I am nothing without them, and without me they would succumb under the weight of their sorrows." This romantic stereotype of the kindly priest, so intimately bound to the people, was sustained in my boyhood by such films as "The Bells of St. Mary's" and "Boys Town." Surviving unchallenged, as it did until the nineteen-sixties, it drew a remarkable number of well-intentioned young men into the seminaries of the English-speaking world.
Nowadays, this image of the priest as the generous knight of the people has been replaced by that of a man who preys on children—"the rock spider," as convicts in Australian prisons call a pedophile. And in the Church's response to the scandal it has exposed its most dismaying side: a propensity for arrogance and coverup.
There are many reasons for the secretiveness of the Church. One is a matter of faith. For centuries, Catholic orthodoxy has trusted the Holy Spirit to guide the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" over every rapid. The source of this trust is the Pentecost, the event, reported in Acts of the Apostles, at which the Holy Spirit, after Christ's death, descended upon the disheartened followers in the form of separate, empowering "tongues of fire." Throughout history, this model of the mysterious relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit fortified ordinary Christians in periods of persecution: from the brutalities of the sixteenth-century English Reformation to the recent struggle in Poland of the Solidarity workers against their Communist oppressors—a movement that had the staunch backing of the Church, including that of the present Pope. Among Catholics, such experiences reinforced a sense that, although non-Catholics might despise them, the Church, following ineluctably its ordained path on earth, would protect them. Over time, this divine warranty generated a high-handedness in the hierarchy: many bishops felt no obligation to justify to ordinary people their decisions on matters that would, in the end, be worked out by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This assumption surfaced in an early reaction by Cardinal Law, in 1992, to news reports about priestly child abuse in his archdiocese: "By all means, we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe," he told a reporter.
The Cardinal's blinkered wrath has its roots in the history of the Church's expansion in North America. There had been Spanish Catholics in the New World as early as the fifteenth century, and French Jesuits were martyred for the faith in their missions among Native American tribes in the Great Lakes border areas. But the building of the American Catholic Church into a national institution was largely the work of the Irish immigrants who came to America, beginning in the eighteen-forties, to escape the potato famine. When Archbishop John Hughes, of New York, a former quarryman and slave supervisor, laid the foundation stone of St. Patrick's Cathedral, in 1858, he was blunt about the newly dominant strain among American Catholics: the churches that were now going up in America, he said, were "the most fitting headstones to commemorate . . . the honorable history of the Irish people," a people who had received from their English masters "the largest share of justice and the smallest share of mercy." Now, through their splendid edifices, these immigrants could "laugh to scorn" their former oppressors.
And yet many American Catholics never fully lost a fear that they could still be targets for the sort of cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast in the eighteen-fifties, which showed an apelike Irishman, whiskey bottle protruding from his back pocket, revolver at his side, shillelagh under an arm, slicing up the golden goose of the Democratic Party for the edification of a stark-eyed priest. "Catholics Need Not Apply" signs, or the spirit behind them, remained common well into the twentieth century. Even today, virtually every Irish Catholic family I know, not to mention many Catholic families of Italian, Spanish, or Eastern European ancestry, retains a memory of bigotry suffered personally, or a heroic tale of a grandfather who, after being turned down for a job because of his religion, looked the foreman in the eye, declared himself a Catholic, and said, "To hell with your job!"
Among Irish Catholics, the spirit of tribalism runs deep. I recall a Mass rock I saw some years ago on the coast of County Donegal. In Ireland, there are many such rocks, which date from penal times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Catholic majority were persecuted by the occupying British. Engraved on this boulder's flanks were the initials I.H.S., a classical monogram denoting service in the name of Jesus Christ. During Mass said by a priest on the run, sentries were posted on surrounding hills to keep an eye out for the British forces. In the little vale knelt the shoeless and ragged faithful, despised on earth but about to be exalted by receiving the Body of the Lord.
No one raised in the Irish Catholic tradition could encounter such a totemic site without feeling a sense of brotherhood with those tenacious worshippers. "Faith of our Fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword," as the famous hymn has it. Beyond the hills the dragoons were on their way—and, in the view of many Catholics, the dragoons are still on their way. Even today, the attitude in the face of villainy on the part of the Church is: "Don't do anything to make bullets for the enemy. Leave it to us to look after the problem."
An ingrained unworldliness has also informed the Church's handling of the abuse crisis. Catholics have long believed that the seven sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation (or confession), Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders—make up a comprehensive prescription for whatever ails the human spirit. By this reasoning, faith in the sacraments can overcome all that is unredeemed in us. A commonly heard aphorism during my youth was that God never sent a temptation for which he did not also send the grace to combat it. If a Catholic murderer approaches the sacrament of confession with sincere contrition, he will be given not only absolution but the superabundant grace to overcome what plagues his soul. This belief in the power of penitence seems to have applied, by extension, to a temptation of which I was thankfully ignorant when I was a seminarian—the desire to have sex with children. If the child molester repented and went on a "retreat" where he prayed to Christ, directly or by using the Immaculate Virgin as an intercessor, he was considered capable of rising above any further temptation.
A friend of mine in the American priesthood attributes this attitude to ignorantia affectata—a cultivated ignorance. How else, from a charitable point of view, is one to account for the repeated reassignments of the Boston Archdiocese's two most notoriously abusive priests, Father Paul Shanley and Father John Geoghan, in a way that allowed them to take their unholy appetites from parish to parish? Or to understand how Cardinal Law, despite years of complaints about Father Shanley's criminal behavior, could write a letter, in 1996, commending the priest for his "impressive record" in bringing "God's Word and His Love to His people . . . despite some difficult limitations"?
The Church's reliance on its capacity for dealing with all manner of human flaws helps explain an institutional suspicion of psychiatric therapy as one more symptom of faithless "modernism." By the late nineteen-fifties, priests with mental and emotional illnesses were being treated by Catholic psychiatric counsellors in hospitals run by the Church. By the nineteen-sixties, well-intentioned members of the hierarchy had established Catholic-run therapy centers to deal with molesting priests, among them the St. Luke Institute, in Maryland, and the Servants of the Paraclete, in New Mexico. These facilities seem to have taken an unduly optimistic view of the ease with which abusive tendencies could be cured. For example, in 1989, the medical director at St. Luke declared, on the basis of a study of fifty-five priest patients, "Pedophilia and ephebophilia are quite treatable, and successful treatment programs have flourished in church-affiliated institutions."
Four years later, in 1993, Cardinal John O'Connor, of New York, acknowledged, in a policy statement of new procedures to be followed in sex-abuse cases, that for years the Church had taken the view that a priest who had committed a sexual offense with a minor "had 'learned his lesson' by being caught, reported and embarrassed." Just how dangerous this view was can be seen in the opinion of a pastor who, in the early nineteen-eighties, assured a bishop in Boston that his colleague Father John Geoghan, who had been accused of molesting seven children, represented no threat to his parishioners. "Father Geoghan admits the activity but does not feel it serious nor a serious pastoral problem," the priest reported generously. Case closed.
The Church's attitude toward priests who have made public the sins of their brothers is an altogether different matter. Several years ago, Father Bruce Teague, of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, tried to bar from his Amherst parish Father Richard Lavigne, a priest who had been placed on ten-year probation for assault of a child. When Father Teague realized that Lavigne had come to his parish to try to hear the confessions of children, he complained to his bishop; after getting no response, he went to the Amherst police. The bishop, Thomas L. Dupré, reprimanded Father Teague for acquiring a trespass order against Lavigne, and the whistleblower was eventually removed from his parish.
Men who decide to leave the priesthood but remain ardent lay Catholics have also found themselves treated as outcasts. In "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality" (2001), Eugene Kennedy, an ex-priest, who is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University, in Chicago, writes that, after years of unblemished service as a priest academic, he decided to "withdraw honorably" from the priesthood in order to marry. To speed along his formal request to the Vatican for laicization, he was advised to declare either that his original decision to become a priest had been rash and insincere or that he was now suffering from psychological problems that made him unfit for clerical duty. Kennedy declined to portray himself in either fashion, and, without the Vatican's blessing, he married in 1977. After the marriage, Cardinal John Cody, of Chicago, demanded that Kennedy resign his professorship at Loyola and that he and his wife relocate to a place where he was not known. (Loyola disregarded Cody's order and kept Kennedy on the faculty.) Kennedy did not receive his "rescript" (the Vatican's official recognition of his lay status) until 1991, by which point he had been married for fourteen years. The Church, he notes, considers priests who seek dispensation to leave and marry particularly threatening because they have dared to assert their sexuality in a clergy that is, officially, asexual.
The Catholic priesthood did not begin as a celibate establishment. According to the Gospels, many of the Apostles had wives, and in St. Paul's Epistles we find such injunctions as "It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife" and a priest should be "without crime, the husband of one wife, with faithful children." It was not until the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Church came under the influence of Egyptian and Syrian ascetics, that sexual abstinence was considered to be desirable for a priest. Even so, during the early Middle Ages priests regularly married. One of Pope Leo IX's emissaries to the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople in 1054 reported disapprovingly, "Young husbands, just now exhausted from carnal lust, serve at the altar. And immediately afterward they again embrace their wives with hands that have been hallowed by the immaculate Body of Christ." A Church synod at Pavia, in 1022, had decreed that the children of priests were slaves, never to be enfranchised. In the twelfth century, the Church's Second Lateran Council declared the marriages of priests invalid, and Pope Innocent II issued an edict requiring all priests to practice celibacy, arguing that since priests "ought to be in fact and in name temples of God . . . it is unbecoming that they give themselves up to marriage and impurity." Subsequent pontiffs and Lateran Councils reinforced the edict, not simply for devotional reasons but, according to many historians, as a way of preventing the children of priests from inheriting Church property.
In more casual Church jurisdictions—in Italy, Latin America, and Africa, for example—many Roman Catholic priests have viewed the rule of celibacy only as a prohibition against formal marriage and live openly with women, often housekeepers. (Eastern Rite Catholics have always allowed their priests to marry.) In many places, these relationships remain a great, officially unnoticed challenge to the Vatican. But in Northern European and English-speaking countries the idea of priestly celibacy as a total renunciation of sex found widespread favor as a means of inspiring trust in the clergy—and as a way of filling churches. By associating himself with the purity of Christ and His Mother, the celibate priest appeared to have transcended the confused, squalid concerns of his flock. As my hard-bitten father used to say, "At least when you tell your sins to a priest, you know he's not going to blab them to his missus." And, of course, a man who had renounced sex was assumed to be entirely trustworthy in the teachings of the Saviour who had said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me."
The rule of celibacy has meant that, as with the relationship between Christ and Mary, a priest's safest relationship with an earthly female is with his mother. I must insist for my own mother's sake that she, who had looked forward to grandchildren, took little comfort in this, but for many of the seminarians' mothers the idea that they would never lose their sons to another woman was a consoling thought. (The linen bands that bind a priest's hands during his ordination ceremony are customarily put in his mother's casket after her death.)
In keeping with the presumption that a priest's mother has no sexual meaning for her son, the Church has generated doctrines of the Virgin Mary as a woman from whom all sexuality has been leached. According to the Gospels, Mary conceived Christ as a virgin, without intervention by a man. For centuries, the Church glorified the divine conception in art, music, and literature as one of its most alluring aspects. But, for Pius IX, whose papacy lasted from 1846 to 1878, it was not alluring enough. Worried by the spread of Freemasonry in Europe and by the forces of the Italian Risorgimento which meant to subsume the Papal States, he looked for special help from the Virgin, and, in 1854, declared her to have been immaculately conceived without the human stain of original sin.
To the celibate priest, women other than his earthly and heavenly mother remained dangerous creatures, a collective Eve. As sin entered the world through the first woman, it continued to do so through her daughters. At St. Patrick's College, the idea of woman as enemy embraced even the beautiful Baroness von Trapp, who came with her singing daughters and sons to Australia in the nineteen-fifties and performed at the seminary. In an unprecedented breach of tradition, the von Trapps were admitted to the chapel for High Mass, a testament to the Baroness's standing within the Church, and to the fact that she travelled with her own chaplain. As the von Trapps sang some of the Church's most famous hymns—"Panis Angelicus," "Veni Creator Spiritus"—a number of us began to loose our vocations in favor of the sunny, sumptuous womanhood we saw joined in harmony.
The rector had prepared a room in which the visitors and their chaplain could dine after the service. It was unimaginable that they should be permitted to eat with the men of the seminary. But as we proceeded in silence up the corridor to our own refectory we were delighted to hear the Baroness rejecting the idea of separate dining and demanding blithely to eat with "the boys." Having sung their Lorelei plainchant, our dazzling visitors in dirndls joined us.
For days afterward, the von Trapps were the talk of the seminary, so much so that a few seminarians declared themselves unfit for the priesthood and left. The young men who departed were not regarded as responding to something healthy in themselves; they were pitied by the rest of us—including me—as failures.
I'm told that, nearly fifty years later, that same mutedly hysterical, all-male grimness is still the norm in such places. A friend of mine, an admirable priest serving in a religious order in the Eastern United States, was recently assigned to give a series of four-day "missions" in various parishes during the Lenten season. He was struck by the overpowering sterility of rectory living, the "toxic, tomblike" atmosphere from which the voices of women and children were absent. In such a milieu, he said, a desire for physical intimacy is acute. He reported that when the occupants of these rectories get together there is still—as there was in the old days—a fearful, locker-room joshing about women, the term "bitch" coming in for frequent usage. "There's an elephant in the Church's kitchen and no one's willing to say it's there," my friend said.
When Pope John XXIII, the jovial populist, assembled the Second Vatican Council, in 1962, many South American, African, and some Northern European and North American bishops wanted to reassess the rule of celibacy. One argument they hoped to advance was the need for married clergy to supplement the thinning ranks of the priesthood. But John XXIII died in June of 1963, and by the time the issue of celibacy came up he had been succeeded by Paul VI, who, like the present Pope, intended to hold the line.
Paul VI knew that the tradition of celibacy would be under assault, and heavily reported in the press. He told the bishops that, rather than have the matter decided by media frenzy, he wanted any bishop who had anything to say on the matter to write his opinion "to the Council Presidency which will transmit them to us." What emerged was the encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" ("Priestly Celibacy"), of 1967, which reasserted sexual abstinence as an undebatable matter of practice and teaching. The Pope ignored the texts of St. Paul that seemed to acknowledge marriage as a normal state, and justified his position on the basis of another Pauline text, which says, "The unmarried man worries only about the Lord's affairs," but "the married man worries about worldly affairs, how he may please his wife." In any event, the intention of the encyclical was not to elevate one passage by Paul over another but probably, as Garry Wills has noted, to reaffirm that, in enforcing celibacy up to 1967, the Church had not been wrong—to assert that what was right in the past was necessarily right in the future. A year later, Paul VI issued the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which made explicit the Church's long-standing opposition to birth control by artificial methods.
By 1979, when the present Pope, John Paul II, visited the United States, the Vatican's positions on celibacy and birth control had created a personnel crisis: the number of young men dedicated to becoming priests had declined catastrophically, especially in the English-speaking world. (According to Charles R. Morris in his 1997 book "American Catholic," by 2005 the ratio of priests to parishioners in the United States will be half of what it was in 1966.) An obvious corrective was to drop another ban—that against the ordination of women. In 1979, when the Pope met the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in Washington, the assembly's leader, Sister Theresa Kane, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, asked the Pontiff that "half of humankind" be included "in all ministries of our Church." She was rebuffed with an observation that the Vatican has frequently invoked to explain its position on the issue of admitting women to the priesthood: women, the Pope said, were to remain humble, like Mary—and Mary was not a priest. Sister Theresa might have pointed out that Jesus was not a priest, either—nor, for that matter, were any of the Apostles—but, in accordance with the spirit that has prevailed within the Pope-centered Church of the past hundred and fifty years, she kept quiet.
As for me, failed priest and questionable Catholic, I have long since abandoned any expectation that the institutional Church will begin to listen to its people. How different, during the current crisis, is the rhetoric of the Vatican and the American cardinals from the words of John XXIII, who pressed the Second Vatican Council to make a "departure from the culture of fear and suspicion that has led to predominantly defensive choices in the government and life of the Church."
My now intermittent practice of Catholicism is more akin to that of Jews who observe the major holidays for tribal, cultural, and historic reasons. I still feel the pull to meditation and prayer inspired by the old symbols—the sanctuary lamp, the tabernacle, the Stations of the Cross. But I have been unable to find my way back to regular observance and obedience, past the strictures, the follies, and the hypocrisies of the official Church. Meanwhile, my archbishop in Sydney, George Pell, has declared that homosexuality is not an "inescapable" condition, and that only "a few" homosexuals have no choice about their sexuality. With such men in charge—men who wield their authority as an instrument of exclusion—I cannot return to the generous mystery of my boyhood faith.
Nonetheless, it is still possible to see the ideal Church at work. In Australia, the government detains asylum seekers from such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan in camps that have all the aspects of prisons, including high walls and razor wire. Most of these camps are far from settled areas, and families and individuals within their walls suffer from the climate and the uncertainty of their condition, for the Department of Immigration can take years to process their cases.
Recently, in the visitors' compound at one camp on the outskirts of Sydney, I met a middle-aged woman dressed in plain clothes and serviceable shoes who told me that she was a Sister of Mercy. She had been visiting the refugees—Muslims, Baha'i, Assyrian Christians—for years, helping them manage their immigration cases, doing errands for them when she could. She was not trying to amend a heinous world; she was not proselytizing. She was simply doing what she could to alleviate suffering. Within the unyielding structure of the Church, this woman had found an honorable task.
©Copyright 2002, The New Yorker