Don’t phanic!

Don’t phanic! August 17, 2018

During my extended undergraduate days at Columbia, I had friends from every region of the country, and from every continent on earth except Antarctica. One of them was Korean. Among his favorite sayings was: “Don’t phanic!”, meaning “Don’t panic!” I was never sure why he had such difficulty with the fact that ‘p’ and ‘ph’ are not homophonic in English. But it hardly mattered. For he meant to reassure, and often succeeded while amusing us in the process.

My main purpose for this blog, and its title, is the same as his was. I shall explain that first by contrast.

Most readers are likely familiar with WB Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, written right after the First World War had killed off, maimed, or otherwise traumatized an entire generation of British and European young men. It is one of the most widely alluded-to poems in English; for convenience, I quote it in full:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

With that in mind, I note that American Catholics have once again entered a season of testing–mostly, a test of faith. The “rough beast” is the ongoing scandal about sexually predatory clergy. It seems that things have been falling apart and that the center cannot hold.

The firestorm first broke in 2002 with the revelations about how pervasive and systematic the abuse had been in the Archdiocese of Boston and elsewhere. Over the next few years, the bishops met and policies were instituted to protect minors. Those policies, while not perfect, seem to have had some positive effect. But with the recent revelations about Archbishop Emeritus Theodore McCarrick, who has been expelled from the College of Cardinals and confined to a life of “prayer and penance” by Pope Francis, we now understand that the problem is not confined to lowly priests or even to the abuse of minors.

As archbishop of Washington, McCarrick assumed the role of point man for the USCCB’s handling of the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal. But it was a case of the fox being assigned to protect the henhouse. His victims seem to have included at least one minor, but his favorites were seminarians, who were not minors but over whom he had considerable power, given his successive positions in the hierarchy. And quite intentionally, the original set of policies did not cover bishops, even though a few sexual miscreants among them were forced by Rome to resign anyhow, such as Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield, Illinois. But now, in light of both the McCarrick fiasco and the damning grand-jury report about abuse and predation in six Pennsylvania dioceses, it has become painfully clear that policy will have to cover bishops too. People rightly wonder: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Not even the Pope can be counted on to get this right and follow through. There’s going to have be lay oversight.

The real problem, of course, runs much deeper than any set of policies and procedures can reach. It is spiritual: unchastity and worldliness. Those vices run wild when people don’t pray and do penance enough, and those lacks are signs that people don’t take being a disciple seriously enough. But it’s also a problem with the system. As we should have learned from Ireland and Chile, where the hierarchies have had to be thoroughly purged lest the Church lose all credibility, the incentives for the recruitment and promotion of priests are perverse. Too often they select for sexual deviancy and risk aversion, when precisely the opposites are needed if there’s to be any chance of washing the filth away.

But what most disturbs me about the whole rotten thing–even more than the trauma of victims themselves, which I experienced as a victim 50 years ago–is the stench of hypocrisy and spiritual self-deception on the part of so many bishops.

Some of the same bishops who do not hesitate to apply to laity what the Church teaches about sex, marriage, and family–as well as some who don’t even bother, because they don’t really believe it–have made it perfectly clear that, when priests or even they themselves make a mockery of those teachings by their lives, it’s been more important to them keep up appearances and preserve the old-boy network than to practice what they preach and protect the innocent. Like that of wealthy people who exploit illegal workers, drive their luxury cars like they own the road, and give a smaller proportion of their income to charity than their fellow citizens of more modest means, their ludicrous sense of entitlement has damaged their capacity for empathy. That is sheer narcissism. It the very opposite of being a shepherd.

Until there is a thorough purge of the hierarchy, conducted from the top in full awareness of the truths I have just stated, the Church will continue to lose what shreds of credibility she retains. All talk of the New Evangelization will be pointless. Pope Francis needs to make this his top priority for whatever time he has left.

But even if our collective nightmare continues for a good while longer, Catholics who so cultivate the gift of faith that the virtue thereof grows will not be permanently alienated. I was alienated from the Church for nearly a decade after my abuse. But I returned when, having double-majored in philosophy and religion, I concluded in Churchillian fashion that Catholicism is the worst worldview except for all the others. That attitude has helped me grow the virtue of faith. My faith is not in the virtue of the clergy, or even that of whoever’s pope, but in Jesus’ victory over Satan. Catholics more mature than I was might be paranoid for a while, and perhaps might even stop contributing money to chanceries and bad parishes. Perhaps they should. But they too will return if they don’t lose faith altogether.

So I want to assure my fellow Catholics, even in this season of greater outrage than usual, that the center will hold: the only center that matters. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, because the Lord founded her and has so promised. That will be the common theme of my future posts too–even the ones that tackle the most threatening or dispiriting topics.

How, after all, do we know that the Church is of divine origin? My favorite answer is a quotation from Hilaire Belloc:

“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

–Remark (undated) to William Temple, quoted in Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957), p. 383.

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