In the past two days, I received correspondence from two different Catholic priests reacting to the news that I was leaving the Roman Catholic church. One drew me closer to the church, made me more receptive to the idea that one day I might want to return. The other solidified my suspicions that members of the hierarchy use abuse tactics to secure compliance from the faithful.
The second letter was a variety of correspondence that I’ve only ever received from Catholic clergy. It’s a formal dressing down from someone who assumes a position of authority and who feels entitled to your obedience and submission to their opinion. They have certain distinctive features: a thin veneer of solicitude for your soul, a slightly menacing tone, and a detailed psychological deconstruction of how your “sins” led you to disagree with them.
Because I write a lot about sexuality and because I’m fairly liberal, it is invariably assumed that lust is among (perhaps foremost among) the sins that have led me down the garden path to hell. This is the intended “gotcha” moment where the priest accurately scries the secrets of your soul and uncovers the real ulterior motive behind your supposedly intellectual reservations.
The thing is, it’s a Barnum statement. The way that Catholic sexual morality is constructed, there is almost nobody who is able to practice it. Catholics are trained to feel deeply ashamed of this, so when they are accused of their “secret sin” it starts up a cycle of self-doubt that makes them more susceptible to authoritarian claims. I mean, what if it really does just come down to lust? What if I’m not thinking or acting in good faith, but rather trying to justify this shameful addiction to sex?
Nevermind that the “addiction” in this case is actually a natural drive which most humans have as a means of perpetuating the species. Telling someone that their natural drives are shameful and sinful is a great way to destablize their self-concept and to make them vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.
In my personal case, though, it backfires every single time. Why? Because while my orientation is primarily same-sex, I’m also borderline asexual. Going without sex doesn’t bother me particularly. I’ve studied human sexuality enough to know that if my intellectual integrity is being eroded by lust, then intellectual integrity is something that only a very small number of humans could ever hope to attain to.
I’m one of those rare exceptions where the Barnum statement falls flat because it isn’t true.
I don’t bring this up to boast. I think that my relative indifference to actually having sex — as opposed to theorizing about it, which I do enjoy — is a result of being semi-autistic. It’s not the fruit of any particular virtue on my part. The reason I mention it is to point out how this tactic works. And to reassure the people that it has worked on that nobody read their souls.
Nobody correctly identified your secret shame. You don’t need to be afraid that your ability to reason has been wholly clouded by lust, to the point where you can no longer trust yourself to think in good faith. It’s just cold reading. They told you something that is true of almost all human beings and then insinuated a spurious link between that near-universal human truth and your obligation to believe whatever they wanted to tell you about yourself and the universe. No special insight. All they have to do is assume that you have a normal human libido, and Catholic guilt will take care of the rest.
After insinuating that your mind is clouded by being human, the next step is to start talking about how the Devil has seduced you into excessive pride and self-reliance, which has caused you to abandon truth. It’s convenient: there just happens to be an invisible bogeyman that prowls the earth seeking to convince people of “lies” by exposing them to historical scholarship and rational argumentation. Whereas truth is attained solely by submitting to the authority of people who tell you that it is a sin to come to different conclusions than they have come to.
But it’s not the whole story of who the Catholic clergy are. It’s definitely not the whole story of what the Church is and what it has to offer. Yes, there are many men who are (consciously or unconsciously) drawn by the attraction of holding power over others and of being allowed to wield special authority from God. But there are others who have become priests because they want to minister to hurting people.
They want to provide pastoral care – that is, care and support for people who are dealing with the complex interplay of emotional, psychological, existential, intellectual and mystical needs that make up “spirituality.”
Here’s what that looks like.
Another priest, a man I met very briefly over a year ago at a conference, noticed at that time that I was struggling. He made no assumptions, he just reached out and asked if it would be okay for him to pray for me. And he said that if I ever wanted to talk, he was there.
Periodically, he writes and lets me know that he’s still keeping me in his prayers. He checks to see if this is wanted, or unwanted. And when he provides me with anything that is even remotely like advice, it is in response to things that I’ve chosen to disclose to him. Most of what he does is provide me with support and comfort, and guide me towards resources within the Catholic tradition that could help me with the things I’m dealing with from day to day.
This guy draws me back towards the Catholic tradition because he is able to say things that are helpful and edifying. Why? Because he bothered to ask and listen before assuming that he could judge. And you know what? Even though I’m no longer worshipping in a Catholic church I still call this priest, and others like him, “Father.” And I mean it. They are spiritual authorities who I trust because they have demonstrated that they are trustworthy.
I really think that the Catholic church in general needs to internalize this. If you claim some sort of magical authority from God – a magical authority that you possess regardless of your personal behaviour, holiness or sincerity – you will always have to rely on strong-arm tactics to secure compliance with what you teach. This works if you in fact have the might of the secular state to back you up. But if you don’t? A lot of people will eventually see through this, break free of the “mind-forged manacles” and hate you for the rest of their lives.
But there is a different kind of authority. The kind that Christ had, and the Pharisees lacked. The authority that comes from personal integrity, compassion, and love. An authority that builds trust by listening, helping, caring and binding up wounds. If you wish me to believe that you stand in persona Christi, this is the kind of authority you must project.
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