Collect

Prayer over the Offerings for the XIXth Sunday after Trinity

O God, who by the wondrous operation of this sacrifice, dost make us partakers of thy glorious Godhead: grant, we beseech thee; that we who are taught the knowledge of thy truth, may in all our conduct walk worthily of the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Part III

[Saint] Francis wanted to call the outcast, ready to revolt, to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again. Francis didn’t succeed, and I say it with great bitterness. … Excluded as they were from the flock, all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful …

—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
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Brass tacks, then. If my evaluation of how the Catholic Church got into this mess is mostly or even largely accurate, then we can identify a few reasonable, workable ways to confront the mess and clean it up. The summary is: we have a hierarchy that feels embattled and defensive, trying to maintain its authority with its members and its prosperity and influence in the general culture; this has led to a deformed attachment to appearances, which rewards dishonesty and evasion and punishes complaint regardless of its legitimacy; and this in turn results in a clerical culture that fosters unhealthy approaches to sex and gives substantial cover to predators.

The focus of most traditional Catholics in accounting for this scandal has been upon sex (and especially homosexuality), but I think that’s mostly a red herring. It is the diseased dynamics concerning image and power that brought the scandal into being—if the hierarchy had not been trying to protect both, it would probably have dealt with the problem openly and as it was discovered, and there would have been far fewer victims. These are problems with pride and avarice, not lust.

Conversely, progressivist Catholics have long been talking about the all-male, celibate priesthood and the Church’s doctrinal stances on issues like divorce and homosexuality as contributing factors to abuse. Personally I’m a little skeptical of this, partly because there are other institutions consisting largely or entirely of celibate men—for instance, there are monastic orders among Buddhists and Hindus, as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians—which, so far as I know, don’t display the same problems that the Catholic hierarchy does. However, to the extent that factors like an all-male environment intersect with image and power issues (and I strongly suspect they do), they’d be relevant, though not necessarily in the way progressivists claim.


The thing to do, I believe, is to hack at the roots of pride and avarice, rather than plucking the flowers of lust. There are several ways this could be done, none of them mutually exclusive.

1. Impose poverty on clergy. There’s nothing wrong with having a beautiful church building, indeed there’s everything right with it: we should give God our best, materially as well as otherwise, and it’s a more creditable (and more public) use of gilding and marble than a billionaire’s private gym or a shopping mall. But chanceries, rectories, and episcopal residences could be cut down to size. A chancery office does not need chestnut panelling and Tiffany chandeliers to serve its purpose, and outside of the liturgy, bishops do not really need to appear in state. Even if they are receiving dignitaries, what could be more appropriate than requiring an official who wants to deal with the Church to deal with her in her poverty? the poverty in which her Lord entered, lived, and died in the world? An inverse relationship between ecclesiastical stature and secular prosperity would not only help rein in pride and greed, it would be deeply apostolic.

2. Introduce laity, male and female, into the official operations of the Church. Of course there is some of this already. But it can be ramped up. Sacramentally speaking, qualified laymen and laywomen could be made eligible to fulfill almost any function in the Church except for celebrating the sacraments: teaching seminarians, running hospitals and schools, serving as diocesan officials. Even the office of cardinal could be reöpened to laymen—it was not restricted to clergy until 1917, though most cardinals were in fact priests or bishops; and indeed, the ancient electoral form included the right of the laity of the diocese of Rome to confirm or reject the papal candidate whom the clergy had picked, a system which was not changed for the first seven hundred years of the Church’s existence. [1] It’s particularly important that seminarians should be formed with constant (not periodic) contact with laymen: these are the people they’re devoting their lives to serving and they should understand them.

Introducing women into these official functions seems to me like a good idea, too, up to and including appointing female cardinals. (This is a different matter from conferring Holy Orders on women, which has been pronounced theologically impossible by the Church. Celebrating the sacraments and making authoritative doctrinal definitions are the powers attached to Order, but most business the Church conducts is not directly either of these things.) This is not because women are any less fallen than men, but because, in a number of ways, they aren’t likely to make the same kinds of mistakes that men typically do. The obvious example in our current situation is that women are far less likely to be sex offenders, and, to judge from the last two or three years, less likely to ignore or minimize reports and evidence of sexual abuse. But the peculiarly feminine genius, which I don’t claim to understand very well, is one half of the human experience, and I think it’s accordingly foolish to exclude it from the human governance of the Church. She is far more than her human governors; but she is not less, nor is she immune to their faults and limitations.

3. Encourage all Catholics, and require clergy and other officials in Catholic institutions, to be thoroughly educated on sexuality. I’ve said several times that this is a power problem more than a chastity problem, but chastity is obviously involved—partly because, in both healthy and unhealthy ways, sex is easily experienced as power. [2] Now, we have the doctrines of chaste conduct, marital and celibate, pretty well outlined. We have some acquaintance with psychology and sexual development. We have the beginnings of a mystical theology of sexuality, e.g. in the work of St John Paul II. But, to be perfectly blunt, what we need is sex ed.


Dishonesty about contraceptives, ‘discreet’ silence on sexual matters, defamatory portraits of the queer and kink communities, and an alarming lack of clarity about consent, are all familiar in Catholic circles. But none of them should be, nor do they need to be. Many of them are fostered by a desire to protect the Church’s teaching; but, as Kallistos Ware pointed out in The Orthodox Church, ‘Christianity, if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry.’ 

Catholic teachers and apologists should be prepared to acknowledge that, yes, condoms work to prevent pregnancy and STDs most of the time, and our reasons for objecting to them lie elsewhere; Catholic parents and pastors should be prepared to speak frankly about things like masturbation and porn, without hiding behind euphemism or manipulating people through shame and guilt; Catholic theologians and journalists should be willing to learn about gay, trans, and kink people from their own lips, rather than repeating quack science and stereotypes and excusing their prejudicial ignorance as fidelity (as if understanding a community entailed approving of everything about it); Catholic teenagers and confessors should be able to identify the difference between genuine consent, abuse of authority, coërcion, intoxication, and predatory acts. Addressing these issues intelligently is not an obstacle to chastity. It is the subject matter of chastity. Knowledge is the natural ally of integration, and that, not abstinence just as such, is what chastity is.

4. Establish total financial transparency, at both the parochial and the diocesan levels. This is going to get some significant pushback from the hierarchy, but I think it is one hundred percent necessary to any substantial reform. Money is what allows abusers and those who cover for them to get away with what they do—rarely, I think, through direct bribery or embezzlement, though that doubtless happens, but rather because money can purchase two things that those who wish to keep shaming secrets want: privacy and lawyers. ‘Uncle Ted’s’ notorious beach house was a splendid little thing for keeping his indiscretions away from the public eye, and Cardinal Wuerl’s legal team enabled him to be transferred from Pittsburgh to the second see of the nation despite his ghastly record; privacy and lawyers may be seen operating together in the squalid behavior of the Archdiocese of Baltimore over the half-revelations of The Keepers. None of that can be dealt with unless there’s total openness about how much money is coming in and what it’s being spent on.

And when I say total, I mean total. Gross income [3] for every parish, school, hospital, diocese, and so forth; the wages of every person paid by the Church, whether salaried or hourly and irrespective of their work; every expense footed by parochial or diocesan accounts or by institutions they govern and fund, including both the amount paid and what the payment was for; every yearly surplus or deficit; and legally binding statements that the information provided is both true and complete. Websites would be the easiest way of making this information publicly available, though letters might be preferable for that very reason—I’m not certain.

5. Restore the liturgical ritual of degradation for serious offenders among the clergy. This may be the least important of the proposals I’m putting forth; but I think it would be worthwhile. Considering the sometimes liturgical character of many of the offenses the scandal is about (e.g., abuse happening in the confessional), and the publicity it has entailed, a public and liturgical response is called for. Degradation, the ritual removal of the privileges of ecclesiastical office, fulfills these requirements exactly, and helps symbolize how seriously the Church needs to take these things. I think it might help reassure the faithful, too, insofar as the liturgy is the principal business of the Church and also the context in which Catholics are most likely to deal with fellow Catholics and with the hierarchy, and placing these issues in that liturgical context is therefore an act which directly, officially addresses the majority of Catholic Christians.


Doubtless other measures would also be reasonable, and many of these things would help to heal the gravely wounded trust of the laity in the hierarchy. Still, these five points seem to me like a very good place to begin. But, remember, any effort to implement them must begin in prayer. Partly because it is going to take a lot of prayer to get the clergy to accept such a reform—I mean, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t much want to give up my possessions and stature. But also because it would (perhaps will) be very easy for these acts to become merely malicious. Few of us can quite truthfully say that we don’t enjoy seeing someone who hurt us being taken down a peg. And there is little, if anything, of heaven in that pleasure. Only God can purify our hearts and the pleasures they harbor, and guide all our deeds to a wholesome end.

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[1] It was changed in 769, through a synod convened to deal with electoral abuses and a number of disputed elections that resulted in antipopes. For the time, this was probably a wise decision, but what is wise changes according to circumstances.
[2] This is a huge topic that I am only hinting at here. A guy I dated for a little while a few years back used to say, ‘Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.’ I don’t think he was right exactly, but the maxim is, I think, more oversimplified than wrong. In particular, the pleasure of male strength (in both heterosexual and gay male sex) is an obvious way in which sex is experienced as power, as too in a different way is the compelling beauty of the female (in heterosexual and lesbian sex). Most forms of kink, like BDSM, involve much more explicit or ritualized power games. I don’t think these things are intrinsically unhealthy, although their development and expression certainly can be.
[3] Gross income, not net income. Net income is, approximately, synonymous with profits. Gross income is the total amount of money received into an account, before any deductions or payments are made from it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Excursus

‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’… I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has ever been in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes.‘Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’ 
—Shūsaku Endō, Silence
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This was another toughie to write. In my experience that’s usually a good sign—it means it’s worth bothering with.


The colossal scandal of Church corruption that’s been more and more exposed over the last few months, and the non-stop infighting among Catholics which has accompanied it, prompts a question [1]: why be a Catholic at all?

Even for someone who believes that Christ is personally present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharistic species, the Catholic Church is not the only place you can go and find that. The Eastern Orthodox Churches possess apostolic succession too, and their Eucharist is as valid as the Catholic. The Oriental Orthodox have preserved valid sacraments since their division from the main body of Christianity in the fourth century; so have the Church of the East, many Old Catholic Churches, and a few other bodies [2]. Of course, they each have their own scandals—there is no institution that doesn’t, if it’s existed for more than a few minutes. But that is not much of a case for being loyal to any institution, and certainly not a case against dissociating oneself, at least temporarily, from a body that’s embroiled not only in scandal, but in widespread refusal to address that scandal truthfully and effectively.

I’ve rehearsed my intellectual reasons for becoming and remaining a Catholic on this blog many times. I find a God the most satisfying explanation of the universe, Christ the most satisfying explanation of God, and Catholicism the most satisfying explanation of Christ. But is that enough to remain a Catholic, right now? No way. I don’t think I have ever seriously considered leaving the Church, but I know that is not because of my intellectual satisfaction with her claims. I wish I could say it’s because of a solid faith—and, hell, maybe that’s true too; faith is a supernatural gift and my understanding of it, even in myself, is bound to be limited. But really, I know it because I’m unchaste. Knowing Catholic doctrine, its assertions and hypotheses, its nuances and substructures, has never once kept me from unbuckling my belt.

Which lies athwart a quite different problem. Disobedience like mine is pretty straightforward. But what about the criticisms of the Catholic Church that paint her as homophobic, indifferent or oppressive toward women, controlling, and so on? If the Church’s doctrines are true, and if it’s pointed out that the Church also teaches us not to hate gay people or oppress women or any of that, so that those who do are really transgressing, these charges evaporate … right?

Wrong. This isn’t simply a question of people disobeying. Catholic doctrine is dangerous, and no amount of obeying it will make that not be true. The truth of an idea has nothing to do with whether that idea is dangerous. It is true, for example, that God forgives sins, no matter how grave, no matter how monotonously repeated, if we sincerely repent—which includes an intention to, but does not require success at, reforming one’s behavior. Put that truth into an abusive relationship and see what happens. It is true that people have a right to defend themselves against aggressors; put that truth into the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic and see what they do with it.

We have a duty to take thought for the consequences of not just our actions, but our ideas. The Holy Ghost guides the Church into all truth, yes, but he nowhere promises to guide her out of all implications. It is perfectly possible to be an enabler when one ought to be a prophet, without ever once saying anything untrue; and that will inevitably leave people, in a blasphemous paradox, victimized by the truth.

It’s like the water in Flint: you don’t stop needing water because it’s polluted with lead, but lead doesn’t become safe to drink because you have to drink water. Which means that the obvious thing to do is to leave Flint, at least until Elon Musk donates citywide filtration systems. So why not leave?

I won’t, that’s all. This flawed, ugly, corrupt mass of people is my mother, my home. She gives me Jesus—in spite of herself? often, but truly even then. I will do what I can to make her better, and I’ll hide from her cruelties and stupidities if I need to, but I won’t leave.
A darkness descends upon my eyes,
And as I fade into the unknown cloud,
It comes to me:
There is no place that I would rather die.
 
—from my poem 'Via Angorosa,' in the collection Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds

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[1] Not begs! ‘To beg the question’ means ‘to commit the logical fallacy of petitio principi, i.e. assuming the truth of an assertion that you want to prove as a part of your proof.’ To prompt or raise a question is not the same thing as begging it.
[2] These bodies exist principally in Asia and Europe and are little known in the US. The Church of the East was born of the Nestorian schism in 431, and at one point had sway all over central Asia: there were Nestorian Christians as far east as India, China, and Mongolia in the eighth century. Today they are mostly confined to northern Iraq and parts of western India; some entered full communion with Rome as the Chaldæan and Syro-Malabar Catholic Churches.
The Old Catholic Churches were founded in the eighteenth century through a series of disputed ecclesiastical appointments (rather like the quasi-schismatic status of the Society of St Pius X in the 1980s), and swelled in the nineteenth through Catholics who rejected the First Vatican Council’s definition of the infallibility of the Pope. There are certain divisions within the movement, and Rome recognizes only the communities of the Union of Utrecht (mostly in central Europe) to have apostolic succession. This is itself complicated by the fact that the Union of Utrecht is in full communion with the Church of England, and furthermore practices the ordination of women.
Other groups with valid (or possibly valid) Holy Orders are mostly derived, by hook or crook, from the lineage of Utrecht. These include the Polish National Catholic Church, which is seeking reunion with the Pope; the Society of St Pius V, which rejects all Popes since the death of Pius XII; the Palmarian Catholic Church, which bafflingly reveres Bl Paul VI as a martyr; and a handful of others.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Part II

‘Isn’t it a fact that, having more or less made up your mind to a spot of celibacy you are eagerly peopling the cloister with bogies? If you want to do without personal relationships, then do without them. Don’t stampede yourself into them by imagining that you’ve got to have them or qualify for a Freudian case-book.’
‘We’re not talking about me and my feelings. We’re talking about this beastly case in College.’
‘But you can’t keep your feelings out of the case. It’s no use saying vaguely that sex is at the bottom of all these phenomena—that’s about as helpful as saying that human nature is at the bottom of them. Sex isn’t a separate thing functioning away all by itself. It’s usually found attached to a person of some sort. … The two great dangers of the celibate life are a forced choice and a vacant mind. Energies bombinating in a vacuum breed chimæras.’

—Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
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So! How do we respond to these scandals prayerfully, without partisanship, concretely, publicly, and in sustainable ways? To answer that, we need to determine exactly what disease shows this particular range of symptoms: i.e., abuse, unchastity, concealment, vow-breaking and deceit, and a sense of entitlement to escape consequences. All kinds of flaws show up in all kinds of cultures; but every culture has sins and blind spots that flow from its history, and outlining that context can give us an idea of how to remedy the disease.

Now, while I have some confidence in my analysis here, it has to be considered tentative. No one can have exhaustive access to history, and I wasn’t alive during most of the period I’m going to discuss. But the construction I’ve put on the facts seems to me to be plausible in itself, and likelier than the other analyses I’ve run across (to the extent that there’s any conflict). So, rather than lace every sentence with qualifiers, I’ll treat this preface as sufficient and write as if with the assurance of a journalism undergraduate.


The Catholic Church has been losing its practical authority and prestige since about the nineteenth century, if we measure those things by the amount of influence it has in fields such as law, education, and public standards of conduct. The Reformation, coming after the pinnacle of the Church’s societal victory and during its finest period of artistic accomplishment and financial success, was only the beginning. The triumph of classical Liberalism and the rise of Marxism [1] and nationalism [2] in the nineteenth century all encroached on the influence of the Church even in those countries which had remained Catholic after the Reformation, and anti-Catholicism throve throughout the English-speaking world at the same time (exacerbated by ethnic prejudices, e.g. contempt for Irish and Italian immigrants in both England and the United States). The Industrial Revolution pulled families and clans apart into smaller and smaller units, and placed harsh demands on men, women, and children in the name of production, devouring their power to practice any religion. After eleven centuries, the Papal States were conquered and abolished in 1871. And with the dawn of psychoanalysis and sexology, sexuality began to be claimed as the proper domain of medicine and the scientific method, rather than of the theological, legal, and pastoral professions.

The middle of the twentieth century saw three events shake the Catholic Church, each in different ways. The Nazi state and the Second World War involved a large-scale persecution of Christians, and there were many Catholic casualties on both sides of the war; the Second Vatican Council allowed a dramatic revision of liturgical, disciplinary, and catechetical practices; and the Sexual Revolution transformed the ideology and norms of most Western societies with respect to moral authority, marriage and divorce, fertility and contraception, abortion, and (eventually) homosexuality. This left much of the Church feeling defensive, unsure of itself, and increasingly isolated in a libertine and chaotic culture.

A rich soil this, for sins rooted in fear, doubt, and envy—not unlike adolescence itself. A sincere Catholic, placed on the defensive about clerical authority, would easily become clericalist by way of compensation, and more so to silence interior doubts. The recently codified doctrine of infallibility would exacerbate the danger and encourage triumphalism; in the Sedevacantist heresies, we see this produced to the nth degree. Other theological ideas may have played a part, too, as that, in confecting the Eucharist, priests literally control God (a subtle inversion of the true doctrine that would turn the Mass into a kind of witchcraft). [3] 

This same defensive egotism would foster a devotion to the importance of image: if you’re smart enough, charismatic enough, morally unimpeachable enough in the eyes of others, then maybe you’ll get to keep what others are losing. If you claim infallibility, you have to look the part of impeccability. Otherwise they might not believe you—you have to make them believe you. A little reflection might have reminded us that faith is God’s gift; but while he often gives faith, he less often gives security, and prestige almost never. One has to approach other spirits for that.

And so we get a clerical culture whose idea of its own importance is swollen, and a general Catholic culture whose idea of the importance of its reputation is positively cancerous. Any criticism of the Church, any assertion that she is failing to care properly for some group of people, is labelled ‘giving scandal’ and, if possible, shown to be based in heretical ideas of what proper care consists in. Offenses on the part of individual clergy must be hushed up, and the need for hushing up becomes more urgent as offenses multiply.


But why should they be primarily sexual offenses? Well, strictly speaking, we don’t know that they were: there may be, for example, a great deal more financial corruption than we’re aware of in the hierarchy (and considering the lawyers that various Catholic dioceses and institutions are able to pay for, some would argue that there is a pretty huge misappropriation of funds going on regardless). Nonetheless there are a number of possibilities for the offenses that were and are sexual. Envy of the licentious behavior of others is one possibility, especially as celibacy went from being an unusual but ordinary state in life for all sorts of people, to being the almost exclusive preserve of Catholic priests and religious, and licentious behavior itself became increasingly public and provocative. But I seriously doubt that that’s the deciding factor here, because chastity (with its opposite) is a function of the human capacity for relationship, and sex can’t be considered entirely outside of that context. The aforementioned fragmentation of the family and Catholic reticence about discussing sex are both likelier to have a big impact: the one to exacerbate the unmet need for human connection, the other to diminish the individual’s power to understand that need.

And the Church’s teaching on homosexuality does little to correct and much to poison this culture. This is partly to be laid at the feet of the ex-gay movement, some exponents of which (like Monsignor Anatrella) were later revealed to be homosexual abusers themselves. Lip service is paid in the Catechism to the need for ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ towards LGBT people, but the status quo among Catholics does not evince much of those, for, in a culture that rewards image and is honeycombed with sexual indiscretions (because every human culture is thus honeycombed), LGBT people are the perfect scapegoat: most people can tell themselves, truthfully or at least convincingly, that they aren’t interested in their own sex, so at least they’re better than Those People. Such easy victories on the field of self-mastery are all but irresistible.

But the point here is not that this has a negative impact on gay people (though it does, and that deserves to be addressed as well). The point is, a homophobic culture is, if anything, likelier to have problems with homosexual abuse than one that isn’t. Writing specifically about the proposal to ban all gay men from enrolling in seminary, Chris Damian put it perfectly.
What do you do with that seminarian, the seminarian so prejudiced against homosexuality that he can’t even recognize his actual feelings? What do you do with that person, whose prejudices can harden into callousness as he seeks to cover over what he feels? Surely that will enter into the ways he ministers to those with same-sex-attractions, preventing true compassion, mercy, and engagement. He’s never practiced these towards himself, so he wouldn’t be able to fully practice it towards others either. One day he may be overcome by his repressed desires and begin acting out in odd ways, ways that he doesn’t understand and can’t face … Older, manipulative priests may recognize this and invite them into their lives, eventually surprising them with a carefully crafted seduction or assault. Seminarians unaware of how to relate to these desires and unable to recognize such advances (probably because they have been unable or unwilling to recognize much about sexuality generally) will be caught off guard and unable to formulate a response until it is too late. Then, once the seminarian realizes what has happened, a mixture of shame, fear, and desire to serve the Church may prevent him from being open about what happened. The manipulator will know this and will use the fear and secrecy created by a callous ban to further manipulate. … The seminarian will both be stuck in an abusive relationship and will be unable to honestly and vulnerably address great portions of his interior life.

My pastor, in his homily this past Sunday, spoke of non-Catholics embodying Catholic values (like the Catholic notion of the family being more evident among Mormons than among us) as a kind of fulfillment of the text If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. It seems to me that the stones of the New York Times, PFLAG, the APA, and Rainbow Railroad have been shouting for an awfully long while. Perhaps it is time we took notice.

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[1] Not to be confused with Socialism, of which it is a specific type. Some systems of Socialism have no conflict with Christianity, or even specifically endorse it; Marxism specifically opposes religion in general and Christianity with it.
[2] I.e., the idea that every ethnic group (in Latin natio, as in ‘native’) should form an independent state. Until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, multi-national states were quite common. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a famous example.
[3] I heard of this bizarre teaching as current in seminaries thanks to a talk given by Dr Lee Podles, a fellow parishioner of mine who wrote an enormous book titled Sacrilege on the abuse crisis, which was published in 2008. It explored the interior rot long before the findings of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury were released, and came to many of the same conclusions, if not sterner ones.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Wicked Priest

The President [of a witches’ Sabbath] was occasionally the local leader, but usually he was more; and if he were not more, yet he was felt as more … He was called the Devil; he was adored as the Devil; and, metaphysically, he may have been the Devil. —Charles Williams, Witchcraft

Father John has a generous bent:
his tipping is thirty percent;
he smiles at waiters
in cassock and gaiters,
showing teeth that are white and unshent.


Father John has a heart and a mind
for the needs of the lame and the blind.
When his eloquent voice
stirs the heart to a choice,
it is ever to service mankind.


Father John is a scholarly man:
all his sermons are preached to a plan,
to excite true devotion
and harness emotion
and save any soul that he can.


Father John is austerely correct
to discountenance schism and sect,
to adhere to the GIRM
in each rubric and term,
and the name of the Church to protect.


Father John has a most modest air.
He submits to his bishop with care,
And to laity too
When their judgment is true.
To his purity, none can compare.


Father John says the loveliest Mass:
his reverence none can surpass;
and when he confects,
his reflection he checks
in the chalice as if in a glass.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Part I

‘We agree about a lot of things,’ the priest said, idly dealing out his cards. ‘We have facts, too, we don’t try to alter—that the world’s unhappy whether you are rich or poor—unless you are a saint, and there aren’t many of those. It’s not worth bothering too much about a little pain here. There’s one belief we both of us have—that we’ll all be dead in a hundred years.’ He fumbled, trying to shuffle, and bent the cards: his hands were not steady.
‘All the same, you’re worried now about a little pain,’ the lieutenant said maliciously, watching his fingers.
‘But I’m not a saint,’ the priest said. ‘I’m not even a brave man.’ He looked up apprehensively: light was coming back: the candle was no longer necessary. It would soon be clear enough to start the long journey back. He felt a desire to go on talking, to delay even by a few minutes the decision to start. He said, ‘That’s another difference between us. It’s no good your working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward—and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same—and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.’ 
—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

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The ecclesiastical scandal of sexual abuse and official concealment have been on the minds, lips, and hearts of every practicing Catholic (and many others) for almost two months. Wrath, despair, gossip, and scapegoating pervade op-eds and Facebook statuses and homilies.

I’ve not said much so far; not as much as I’d have expected me to, anyway. I wanted to process a little, and I’m glad that I did, since some of the things I was originally intending to write, I would’ve had to retract or modify beyond recognition. But I’d like to put forward my—necessarily tentative—analysis of how we got here as a Church, and how we can get out.


Lesson number one is that we can’t get out. There is no policy, no safeguard, no system, and no group that can be trusted absolutely, because the world is fallen. Our collective forgetfulness of that fact as it applies to the clergy is a part of the reason the scandal developed as it did. We can place our trust in the God who redeems evil; we cannot trust any human being, ourselves included, never to do evil.

It may be said that that is not much of a lesson, since we knew it already. Apparently knowing something is not much good if we do not act on it: Show me your faith without works, and I shall show you my faith by my works

Secondly, there have been lots of explanations of how the scandal is the fault of laxity and heresy, or gay men in the priesthood, or clericalism, or the discipline of celibacy, or the Sexual Revolution, or Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, or lizard people from outer space (I may have dreamed this). Any, all, or none of these deeper-cause-oriented explanations may have some merit, and I’ll be going into my own moderately educated guesses on the subject later. But we must remember the straightforward fact that the persons responsible are, first of all, the abusers themselves and the people who covered for them; and that the primary victims are the victims of sexual abuse, not innocent clergy or the Church’s credibility or anything like that. This scandal, like all scandals, is first of all about people.

This highlights another facet of the problem, which thankfully I have seen a good number of commentators cottoning to: this is a problem for you and me. It can’t be adequately dealt with by episcopal chanceries, religious institutes, or bishops’ conferences. If the light which is in thee is darkness, how great is that darkness! Obviously the coöperation of the clergy will be required—a dismaying thought—and obviously we will continue to depend upon our bishops and priests, however corrupt or incompetent, for the sacraments, without which the Church can hardly subsist. This reform is going to require not only boldness, but delicacy, humility, patience, and clear-headedness. It’s going to take a long time, of which some will be discouraging and a great deal will be dull, and some people are going to give up on it.

But. I’d point to two precedents, one from the Mediæval Papacy and one from the Catholic missions in East Asia, that I think provide us with models of what our Lord the Spirit may do to effect this reform.

The late ninth to early eleventh centuries were an ugly age for the Holy See. A string of corrupt, arrogant, violent Popes reigned: for instance, Sergius III, who was credibly (though not certainly) reputed to have had two rivals to the papal throne murdered, and to have fathered the future Pope John XI on his mistress; Stephen VI, who had the corpse of one of his predecessors exhumed and ‘tried’ for ecclesiastical misconduct, a notorious farce known as the Cadaver Synod, after which the body of the deceased Pope was mutilated and thrown into the Tiber; or Benedict IX, who was twice expelled from Rome by popular revulsion at his depraved, unpriestly conduct, and eventually consented to abdicate on the condition that he be reïmbursed for the bribes by which he had originally been elected. We might well have expected that the Catholic Church would collapse under the weight of its own scandals and stains, or at least that the Papacy would.

But, from the early tenth century, a new development—favored at times even by the immoral and self-aggrandizing pontiffs—had been taking place in the Church, too. In the year 910, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, had donated a portion of his land to a group of monks who wanted to live according to a more rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict than was normal at the time. These monks founded Cluny Abbey, and the Cluniac branch of the Benedictine family of monastics soon became well-known for its purity of conduct and the vigor of its spiritual life. In Pope St Leo IX, the Cluniac Order found a more permanent ally, and a run of several reform-minded pontiffs followed, until the two movements were united in the famous St Gregory VII. From his reign forward, the Papacy and the Church experienced a revitalization that led to the founding of the Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite Orders, full reunion with the Maronite Church of Lebanon, a decisive end to secular interference in papal elections, and, indirectly, the career of St Thomas Aquinas and the composition of his Summa Theologiæ.


Hundreds of years later, during the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, the Jesuit order was founded, and St Francis Xavier carried the gospel from Europe through the Near East to India, China, and even Japan. He had the greatest hope for Catholic Christianity in Japan, and his missionary successors (principally Portuguese Jesuits) maintained the community there for decades, centered in Nagasaki. It made a lasting impact on Japanese culture; for instance, tempura is descended from the tradition of four times dedicated to fasting from meat, during which Catholics would fry seafood and vegetables in batter to make them more satisfying cuisine, which was the first exposure of the Japanese to frying—and because these four fasting periods were called in Latin the quatuor tempora, the Japanese referred to the foods that signified them as tempura. Anyway, the Christian community in Japan enjoyed peace and even a certain caché through the sixteenth century.

But in the seventeenth (for reasons we needn’t go into), the state’s outlook on Catholicism soured. The Kirishitan, as Christians were known, came to be regarded as agents of Portuguese and Spanish colonists, and Christianity was finally outlawed. The decision was accompanied, at first, by such persecutions as the Church was familiar with from history. But the Japanese daimyō were smarter than the Roman emperors, and as soon as they saw that mere martyrdom was more apt to encourage the Kirishitan than to break them, they began aiming not to kill, but to compel apostasy through torture—especially, whenever it could be obtained, the apostasy of priests. The Japanese persecutors must be given credit; they took seriously the Christian idea that sin is worse than death, and accordingly sought to procure sin rather than death, in order to suppress Christianity.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Church in Japan had no visible presence; anyone suspected of Christianity might be ordered to renounce it, particularly by trampling on a fumie, a depiction of Christ or the Virgin designed for the desecrating act of being stepped on.

But the Kakure Kirishitan, the ‘hidden Christians,’ continued. Their outward apostasy, painful though it surely was, did not extinguish the light in their hearts. Without clergy, without Scriptures, without sacraments save baptism alone, these communities in southern Japan maintained their existence for two hundred desolate years. We know this because, when Japan was reöpened under the Meiji Emperor in the nineteenth century and foreign religions were again declared legal, some of the Kakure Kirishitan met with Catholic priests, to profess their interest in seeing a Mass celebrated. It eventually came out that, not only did the Kakure Kirishitan still exist after two centuries of isolation, not only had they clung to their few precious relics—pieces of rosaries and cassocks, memories of the celibate priests—but even their rudimentary calendar commemorating Christmas and Good Friday was still correct.

The Church persists, because God never ceases to dwell among us. The creation saw him not only ordering the world by his Word, but brooding over it by his Spirit, a presence consummated in his personal appearance in the first-century puppet kingdom of Judæa: a peasant from a shabby village in the most backwards part of the Mediterranean. That is where God chose to live, in poverty and disgrace and, at length, a rushed and cruel execution.


This is the world he recklessly adores. Whatever else happens to, in, because of, the holy Catholic Church and her ministers, he will not abandon us.

But that same holy Catholic Church is, mystically, his Body: i.e., the organism by which he is normally pleased to effect his will on earth. Which means that you and I are his chosen instruments. And if we are to reform and reïnvigorate that Body, we must call for certain specific qualities in the reform.

1. Prayerful. Any change we call for from the hierarchy must be rooted in God and oriented to him. Without this, nothing else we do will matter.
2. Non-partisan. Any reform must be genuine reform, not the mere triumph of one sect or style of Catholicism over its rivals. Abuse and concealment do not map to the leanings of bishops, priests, or diocesan cultures, and strict traditionalists are no less guilty than pastoral progressives. (Heresy, to be sure, must be dealt with—but that would be true regardless of any link it had to the scandals.)
3. Concrete. Any reform must be both achievable (for instance, “Get rid of sin” would not be a practical goal as applied to the Church’s structure) and specifiable: e.g., meeting or exceeding legal standards for reporting is not concrete, but notifying the local DA of all accusations deemed credible is; disciplinary measures are not concrete, but deprived of faculties to hear confessions is.
4. Public. Whatever reforms are advocated, they must be a matter of public record and accountability. The culture of deceit that has befouled the Church is not going to go away spontaneously, and those clergy that are hiding their own wrongdoing, of whatever kind, are counting on this to just blow over. That must not happen. Rather, for every change the laity call for, there must be an accompanying means of our independently investigating whether and how it is really being implemented, and whether and how it’s working.
5. Sustainable. Every reform we demand must include a plan for maintaining its work. This may or may not mean a way of perpetuating specific policies or institutions: the key thing here is preserving a purified culture among the clergy, and every reform is a means to that end; and few means are so perfect that they will never admit of change. In any case, we need such reforms as will outlast popular attention to the scandal and the current generation of the clergy.

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