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Friday, July 08, 2016

Review: Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal by David France OR "Does Abstinence Make the Church Grow Fondlers.

This book could have provided the basis for the docudrama Spotlight (an excellent movie, by the way.) You will also, after reading it, realize how the movie barely scratched the surface of the problem and how much the reporters owed to work done by others, work that had been shown them years before and which they ignored.

It’s a very interesting book concerning the raging pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, which has spread way beyond the United States into Ireland (!), Germany , and the Netherlands. Der Spiegel ran a series awhile back linking Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) to the cover-up in Germany so it’s hard to see how anything will change in spite of Pope Francis.

France begins by tracking the biographies of several seminarians looking for early hints of their later problems. The Church, it appears, attracts a certain personality already conflicted with their sexual persona. The attitude of the Church toward celibacy just made things worse. It was treated as some holy relic. “Years later, when scandal buckled the American church, theologians would look back and see the problem inherent in this approach. By casting celibacy as a fragile rarity in a world of temptation, it placed sexual action out of the hands of the actor, [the temptation to pun here is overwhelming] condemning him (or empowering him) to fail from time to time.”

To deal with temptations, which were totally removed from seminarians, the Papacy had little to offer other than to avoid movie theaters. Pray to the Virgin Mary. Receive the Eucharist often—because celibacy may be a gift to God, but God’s gift back is the power to sustain it. Sounding a practical note, Pius promoted a technique he called “flight and alert vigilance,” and he spelled out the many ways to elude temptation The experience of one seminarian, Sprags, is instructive: Especially on matters of sexual drive, the one enormous struggle they all faced, the seminarians were left to their own devices. The subject was cordoned off like a crime scene, to be milled around and gawked at but never approached. For Spags, this had the unintended consequence of making sex sexier, a succulent and mysterious thing too deliciously outrĂ© to mention. Matters relating to reproduction and marriage in moral theology textbooks, for instance, were rendered in Latin, as though in some sort of secret code to be pored over intensely. Spags had never once masturbated. This required a great struggle of the will and prayer, but temperance always triumphed. He wondered if this meant he was especially headstrong, or just a lot less hormonally charged than his peers. He would never know—the closest Spags ever came to discussing it came during his annual evaluations, at which point his spiritual director would frankly inquire, “Any issues with celibacy?” Honestly, Spags answered, “None.”

As the historian Garry Wills wrote in Papal Sin, “The more the assembled members [a lay conclave] looked at the inherited ‘wisdom’ of the Church, the more they saw the questionable roots from which it grew—the fear and hatred of sex, the feeling that pleasure in it is a biological bribe to guarantee the race’s perpetuation, that any use of pleasure beyond that purpose is shameful. This was not a view derived from scripture or from Christ, but from Seneca and Augustine.”

After a while the litany of constant evil gets a bit overwhelming.

The Cover-up

As we all learned from Watergate, the initial problem is never as damaging as the cover-up that follows. So it has been with the Catholic Church. Critics and supporters divide into two camps, it seems after reading reviews and other books, those who think what happened with priests is simply a reflection of the 6% problem in society in general, and those who believe the celibate culture of the church tends to attract persons struggling with their sexuality coupled with a hierarchical structure that distributes power to its priestly class.

Both groups tend to miss the point. It’s the cover-up that’s a much larger and costly (exceeding $3 Billion) problem. Had the hierarchy recognized (heaven knows they had plenty of evidence) that some priests had a problem with kids and got them help (instead of just praying about the issue) and moved them to a monastery or some function removed from children and then got help for the molested kids, they would have been celebrated as a caring and well-functioning institution. Instead, they buried their collective heads in the scripture, suppressed those trying to warn them, hid documents, bought off victims, used their institutional power to prevent investigations, and generally hoped everything would go away.

Father John McNeill’s book The Church and the Homosexual dealt with some of the issue related to chastity and its impact on homosexuals as opposed to heterosexuals in an environment that demanded chastity. “This is not an equivalent demand for a heterosexual priest and a homosexual priest. Most people miss that, they seem to deal with the fact that chastity would be the same thing for both groups. But a heterosexual priest’s sexual desire to reach out to a woman is considered good in itself. And always a valid choice if they chose to leave the priesthood. Whereas the homosexual priest is taught that his desire to reach out to another male is evil. And never an option. Therefore it’s not a question of sacrificing a good as it is for a heterosexual, it’s repressing an evil desire. The church wants gay priests to interiorize homophobia and self-hatred and this leads to all sorts of neurotic stuff.” Father McNeill was expelled from the Jesuits by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict.)

This is not an issue unique to the United States. Investigations have surfaced in almost every country revealing a conspiratorial pattern of abuse and cover-up. (The example in Africa of priests forcing nuns to service them out of fear of HIV is especially egregious.) Those who are doubtful need only to read the Irish Murphy Report (available online in its entirety), which shows a pattern of institutional neglect, abuse, and cover-up on the part of the Catholic Church. The standard defense of the church that I have heard repeatedly is that the number of priests who were pedophiles is no larger a percentage than in the general population. That may indeed be true; the difference being that the church made a deliberate and concerted effort to hide their predations and continued to put children in harm's way. For that alone, the church deserves to be dismantled.

Additional reading: (an extraordinary resource for additional citations.)

For information about how the money was manipulated by the church in the settlements, see Render unto Rome the Secret Life of the Catholic Church by Jason Berry
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