by guest writer William M. Shea
We 21st century Catholics seem to have reached the bottom of the ecclesiastical barrel. The bottom in this past century, in my view, was reached between 1933 and 1945 when the bishops of Germany, France and Italy did little to support justice for the Jews of Europe and next to nothing to oppose a madman’s war in which seventy million people died. The Church even blessed his Panzers.
Now, in a new century with the clerical abuse crisis we have reached another bottom of the ecclesiastical barrel. Even Luther and Calvin, who thought they knew the score on the “Romish” church, would gape at what the Catholic clergy (high and low) of the second half of the twentieth century wrought across the globe: a flash-flood of child rape and the seduction of young men by older clerics. Who would have thought? Not me!
Up to my middle years I was convinced that crimes of clerics were a thing of the darkest of ages, fit for mockery around the camp fires of pilgrims. I thought we had a string of great popes and honest, talented and standup bishops, and I basked in the glow of a morally superior Church, especially at that apogee of episcopal leadership at the Great Council (1962-65).
These days I have to explain to myself and others how I remain a Catholic. Must I defend what I love?
The moral facts about The Church (i.e. the clerical leadership) seem clear enough. The question is what to do about it. Options open to ordinary Catholics are not many. Thirty million American Catholics remain churchgoers. Another twenty million retain their Catholic ‘union cards’ but attend Mass far less often. In the United States twenty million more in the past few decades made their decision, ripped up the ‘union card,’ and left the Catholic Church. I expect that over the next decade millions more will follow. Please note: I do not mourn those who leave because they are not Christian believers; I do mourn deeply those who leave because they are Christian believers and can’t stand it anymore.
I do not intend to be unkind, unjust or hyperbolic, but this is what the situation looks like to an interested Catholic who reads secular and Catholic papers and magazines and even an occasional book on the sexual corruption of the clergy: negligent and evasive popes have, over the past six decades, installed negligent and evasive bishops who have in turn ordained priests with disturbing and even brutal sexual interests, and then protected them when they raped children and young men and women.
I am tired, too, but leaving is not my choice as long as I can find a parish where the gospel is proclaimed, the sacraments are worthily celebrated, the preaching is orthodox and insightful, the Scriptures are seen as the measure of a Christian life, the perverts have been hospitalized or jailed, and the pastor can put up with my odd opinions about The Church. I never had a difficulty finding such a church over the past forty years though I think many have.
So what’s the problem? Celibacy? No! Dishonesty, cowardice, class loyalty, conformity and sexual sin in the churches and among the leadership, are as old as the church itself and as wide spread. No Christian denomination is impervious to the reign of Satan. The problem we face now is not as much about sex primarily, even deviant sex. Clericalism (caste power) is what we have to worry about: namely, about being in rather than out, in power and in control of the property, loyal only to the boss and the rest of the boys – the material and cultural implications of the clerical beneficium. Clericalism infests a social caste and has been foisted upon what was in its origins and early life, and what it wishes to be even now, a genuine salvific human community of communities interlocked in the love of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis is the near perfect witness to this.
Celibacy is a gift of God and should not be subject to a law. Clericalism is a worldly phenomenon and has nothing to do with the Christian gospel; in fact, clericalism is antithetical to the gospel. Sexual aberration and sins of the flesh are a constant in the world and in the church to be fought endlessly. The Catholic system of governance, however, with its intrinsic bent toward power is corrupt and corrupting, and has been, on and off, since its outset. The emperor Constantine immeasurably increased the probability of a corrupt episcopacy by making the bishops of the church a new species of imperial civil servants.
It’s a wonder that the churches survived The Church for the past fifteen hundred years. The church is not in anyway exempt from the effects of original and personal sin that inflict the capitalist or socialist worlds around us. The Johannine “World,” that sin-laden world, penetrates the church, and especially, it lately seems, the Roman Catholic Church. Just as the church is in the world, the “World” is in the church. Read Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation.
The nearly two millennia long clerical premise was wrong. There shouldn’t be a sacred caste in the Christian churches. ‘Christendom’ became our premise and ideal – a world in which there is one just society linked to the one true church, the clergy setting the cultural and moral standards, in which the cultural and the material property belonged to them and from the heights of which they could pronounce on the morality of their ‘sheep.’
No, the kink in the clerical moral life is not celibacy, and of this I am reasonably certain. For celibacy does not make pedophiles and ephebophiles, though those sorts may be attracted to it since celibacy does in fact mean that a man doesn’t have to deal seriously with an adult woman. Dropping celibacy may help to dampen the instinct of priests and bishops toward philandering but not eliminate it for marriage doesn’t eliminate it for married folk. Married pedophile priests would likely abuse their own sons and daughters as well as the sons and daughters of others. As long as the hormones flow The Church, celibate or not, will have fornicators and adulterers among the clergy.
There was nothing in the priesthood, absent a maturity I never reached, to help me keep control of my affectional life – but nothing in it either to make me lose control of it. So let’s be clear about this (as the politicians say): the celibacy rule is tough on priests but far from impossible. The rule may be dumb, even cynical (I think it is) but most priests are able to live with it simply because they like and value what they do as priests. But neither the rule nor the practice of celibacy is the or even a cause of the rape of children. Sex with a woman is not the cure for pedophilia. Celibacy isn’t the problem, so let’s stop the whining. Clericalism is the problem, and that’s far more complicated.
image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal-nephew#/media/File:Tizian_068.jpg