Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The Troubles

Now that I've watched and listened to - on the TV, of course - and read about - in the major conservative magazines, their internet outlets, and the world of weblogs - all the reaction to the priestly debauching of our young people, I thought it was time to have my say since everyone else has. I thought I might say it before the issue was forgotten and went away, before, as invariably happens in this country, the thrill is gone. Amid the surprise and dismay, the indignation and outrage, the frantic scrambling for explanations and solutions, as though America and especially its Catholics had entered a collective state of shock, I experienced none of these things with quite the intensity I was seeing in others. Not even outrage? More like disgust, really, as the details emerged, but even that along with the outrage was muted, for I carried them with me always, slumbering somewhat, active in hibernation, but there, for I had been waiting a long time for these details to step out of the shadows. When the scandal erupted, some twenty years after my acceptance into the Church, what passed through my mind was that the boil, swollen with bacterial excess, had finally burst. It had not been lanced, because the physicians charged with the care of the body, fearing screams of malpractice from their litigious patients, had withdrawn from practice. As to the outrage, I had simply decided around 1990 no longer to nurture it because it wasted too much energy in a futile cause. Henceforth, I would cultivate my own garden, where fertility still seemed possible: prayer, faith, family.

I am not a daily follower of Church affairs; unlike some of the webloggers who seem familiar with various controversies from Los Angeles to New York to Boston to West Palm, I hardly know what's going on in my own parish. I do not say that this remoteness of disposition is noble or virtuous; it might even be sinful. But after ten years, in the fervency following my conversion, of keeping up with things in the Catholic Press, of reading worthy tomes like Monsignor Kelly's Battle for the American Church and James Hitchcock's Catholicism and Modernity, of writing many letters to editors, teaching religious ed (briefly) to teenagers who could not recite the commandments, and working in the parish soup kitchen, I understood that victory in the culture war inside the Catholic Church, mirroring the same war in the culture at large, was impossible if the generals had abandoned the field. But isn't it near heresy to claim, of the Church against whom the gates of hell shall not prevail, that the cause is futile? Don't misunderstand: I know that the Church will survive all its ages however corrupt, that it will remain after the molesters of boys have receded and their princely protectors returned to dust. Meanwhile, in the battle in the trenches, the besieged faithful look to the horizon for a sign of hope, a mounted warrior, sword held high, who will enter the fray. But I do not think that this generation will be given such a sign.

My first intimate acquaintance with Catholicism came when I made the dangerous decision to marry one, a Catholic, that is. (I did not convert for her sake. That was a journey that took seven more years to accomplish.) We took marriage instruction from an extremely likeable diocesan priest, always in collar, an excellent sense of humor, his Irish brogue still in effect, who informed the couples before him that use of birth control was acceptable if we felt we couldn't afford children, but that once we could we had to stop. This was the only point of variance I recall in his teaching, and it struck me as tantamount to saying that poor people ought not to have children. But I was not of the fold and so held my peace. With the Irish priest presiding, I married my Catholic girl and, following his advice, lived in sin with her for a number of years. I learned sometime later that he had doffed his collar and gone off to get married.

The pastor at the time was also an Irishman, without the brogue, who was well-respected for his fine speaking voice and his ability to "reach out" to students (this was a campus parish). The substance of these overtures I don't recall; suffice it to say that one day he held an open-air mass on campus, distributing communion to all comers, Catholic or not, and, in the scandalous wake, was asked by his bishop to please not do that anymore. He eventually shed his priestly garb, took a position with the university teaching some area of history, and went off to get married.

A new crew came in headed by a young pastor in his thirties who came to be well-liked for his timidity. He attempted to mediate all disputes, and as a result nothing was ever resolved. He was later promoted to diocesan headquarters, the cathedral in St. Augustine. He was joined by a Franciscan who frequently wore his cowl and sandals or, when not, was always in collar, and this was the man who brought me into the Church on the cusp of two pontificates, those of John Paul the first and second. He was a gregarious man, likeable and dedicated. He gave me instruction for three months and then quietly brought me in during a weekday evening mass. This was back when you could still do this one-on-one, before the advent of the yearlong, time-frittering group induction ritual known as RCIA, back when souls could still be saved one at a time. During my instruction, I had been bothered by the Franciscan's inability to answer all questions to my satisfaction; I was looking for black and white, while he seemed to appreciate the grey of certain areas.

Still, he was not inconsistent with the Irish priest of my marriage instruction, seemed fervent, especially in defense of the unborn, and as far as I know he has not run off to get married. But he was a priest of an order and was eventually transferred out to be replaced by a priest of another order, the Jesuits. This man was in his sixties, balding, with silver hair above his ears, and often wore a black robe that flared into a skirt at his waist. His preaching brought a thunderbolt of change, mesmerizing at once not through technique, but content. Of a sudden, the students in the congregation were being told that the reasoning behind all they'd been hearing of late - that purity is impossible, that waiting until marriage is unendurable, that, once married, contraception is a matter of conscience - was "diabolical garbage." He used words like that. I didn't think it would sit well with this younger crowd, but the line to shake his hand on the way out was quite long, and very patient. In short order he took over the Catholic inquiry classes which had fallen on hard times. Attendance swelled. He formed a sodality of Our Lady and the girls flocked to it, single college girls and married women. They prayed a lot, discussed doctrine, studied Church history, did good works, and went on retreats and pilgrimages. My wife thanked God for sending him to us. Without consulting me, she got off the contraception after hearing from Father that its widespread acceptance was the single most devastating blow to the moral lives of Christians in the history of their existence.

I came to know him as well, making in the course of our acquaintance some troublesome discoveries, such as that the Franciscan should have confessed me before tendering communion, and that the catechism he had brought me in on was somewhat less than orthodox. Put together by Father Richard McBrien of recent, scandal-related TV appearances (always in collar for credibility's sake), the book presented the Church's teaching on a point of doctrine, then set beside it the more recent thoughts of theologians with a different take on the issues, as though the two carried equal weight. So I had to go buy Father Hardon's The Catholic Catechism and study the whole body of doctrine all over again. But I found what I was looking for and that lovely shade of grey dissipated like morning fog. And, having never been to confession in my life, I had to make it, the whole catalogue of pernicious deeds ("as best you can remember," he said), and I will say only that examining the mirror of your entire life is not painless. He then recruited me to teach that religious ed class for which I had no qualification other than that I knew more than the students. The teachers were all volunteers. One was a college girl who was very enthusiastic about the need for sex ed : the understanding that premarital sex might truly be an act of love "under certain circumstances", that abortion might be acceptable "under certain circumstances," and that contraception was not merely a necessity but a virtue. (It's always contraception, isn't it? For it makes all things possible.) I went to my Jesuit and said I wanted out. "No," he replied, "you can't give up the fight." So I went to the thirtyish pastor and complained. He asked if we couldn't work it out amongst ourselves. So I went to the old, rotund, always-out-of-habit Dominican nun who was in charge of catechesis and convinced her not to let the girl teach in this area. I had an ally, a doctor of pediatrics whose teenaged daughter would be in the class and who was not going to hear these things.

So the Jesuit, who, if he made too much noise would have been considered an outlaw in his own order, for he held a doctorate in Latin American history, spoke Spanish fluently, and had published in many journals, was able to get a few things done. Every now and then he tossed me an old seminary text or some other work he no longer needed, "because," he said, "I know you'll read it." He was, for a while, my miracle priest. You might think he was the mounted warrior we look for on the horizon. But there was a limitation - he had no power to slay the dragon. He could poke at its hindquarters, and annoy its sleep, without ever penetrating the armored hide. He had made a difference in the lives of individual souls ("it is enough"), but the beast of dissent, apathy, complacency and cowardice was well alive and heaving its way through all the corridors of faith.

The ineffectual but well-liked thirtyish pastor was promoted. And so yet another crew came in, young guys, completed products of the revolution in the seminaries, guys who never wore their collars off property, who socialized a lot, were huggy with the girls, who moved out of the rectory and into a house, and who never spoke of sin. The Dominican nun became somehow irrelevant and disappeared. Our Jesuit was adept at reading the signs of the times and, after what was for us a two year idyll, requested of his superior a transfer. He had only been in transition anyway. Everything is always in transition; everything changes but, we wondered, why can't the good remain? The transfer was granted. He threw his few belongings into his little sedan (consistent, by my lights, with his vow of poverty), bade us farewell, and headed for Virginia and semi-retirement at Chistendom College.

The ladies' sodality, his proudest achievement, fell apart. Presided over by one of the young priests in street clothes, the meetings became social gatherings, gabfests. Gutted of spiritual depth, the thing disintegrated. The ladies and girls went their separate ways, retaining some of their zeal, I hope, but no longer giving free rein to it in one room beneath their guide's benevolent gaze. I remember stopping by once (before his departure) to pick up my wife. The meeting was at the cookies and punch stage, allowed at the very end. The room was a chorus of conversing females, the atmosphere indefinable, but almost as though the outside world hardly existed. The priest leaned toward me and whispered, "Do you see the beauty of celibacy?" Some changed parishes, as did my wife and I. One girl, an enthusiastic combatant in the war for orthodoxy, became a habited nun in a rather strict order that required of her not argument, but prayer, good works on behalf of the elderly, and a great deal of solitude. She became Sister Clara, the spiritual child of this man who lingered for a while on his journey to give us a drink of water.

This is one grunt-in-the-pew's experience in one parish a long time ago. There's more to tell of it, and of others, but not time enough. And to what purpose? I imagine these little dramas, and worse, play out in parishes all over the country all the time. Have things gotten any better, or at least no worse? In my more than twenty years of professing this faith, I have heard two, precisely two, priests even mention the word 'contraception' and only one, our Jesuit miracle, attempt from the pulpit a vigorous and prolonged defense of Humanae Vitae. I seldom hear the word 'sin' except in scripture and liturgical readings, in recitations of creeds and confessions, and from the pulpit never in relation to something specific, unless it is an admonition to reconcile with people you have trouble forgiving for some perceived wrong. My lasting impression is of the dolorous mediocrity of our clergy, and the consequent apathy and moral relativism of "the faithful." I don't expect a silver-tongued Cardinal Manning in every pulpit, but I do expect a journeyman's attempt at speaking the plain truth. I have sensed the goodness in many of these priests, but even the good ones can't say what they need to. But have things changed for the better, or at least gotten no worse? Actually, they've stayed pretty much the same, and when things stay the same they're really getting worse. Spiritual aridity does not just go away; it becomes entrenched, a habit of long standing. There is always activity beneath the surface, and the boil, I knew, was festering.

John Paul II has been the Pope during my life in the Church, and I have always instinctively loved him because of that. It appeared at first that great changes might be in store, for he was an experienced warrior, having done battle with, and prevailed over, the demon of communism. There were faint tokens of hope here and there: Hans Küng was declared no longer to be a Catholic theologian (to which my Jesuit responded, "Thanks be to God."); the same treatment was accorded Charles Curran at Catholic University; and there was a perusal of the seminaries (from which absolutely nothing came). All well and good, but where, I asked the priest, is the "let him be anathema," where are the excommunications in the absence of recantation? "Imprudent, I suppose," he answered, but without conviction.The Pope traveled to Nicaragua where he shook his finger in the face of, and gave a public dressing down to, a street-clothed priest occupying a high government post. In the face of what Cardinal or Bishop, charged with oversight of molesting priests, has he done the same? The communists and liberation theologians of Nicaragua made life miserable for a lot of people, but I don't recall them being charged with buggery of the children. During the Rome meeting, I was waiting for him to follow Peggy Noonan's suggestion: to lean over Cardinal Law as the Prelate knelt before him, lift the red cap from his silver pate, thank him for his service, and then refer him to the nearest mountaintop monastery. The Pope can meet with thousands of young people in a stadium, but he can't make time to meet with a few dozen victims of sexual abuse, as though the restitution owed these people were of less importance than bucking up the troops and making a show of it before the world. He went to the prison of his would-be assassin and forgave the man, but he can't stand before a group of his own wounded sheep and beg forgiveness on behalf of the Church. As the song says, sometimes the little things mean a lot.

Of the subsequent meeting in Dallas, I have read that the Bishops got it right, and I have read that they didn't. There is now a lot of haggling over zero tolerance. I have read that the ordination of homosexuals is the problem, and that perhaps it isn't. I have heard that the distinction between 'pedophiles' and 'ephebophiles' is of the essence, or that maybe it isn't. I have heard that expertise brought to bear by lay oversight boards will bring fresh air to the housecleaning, and maybe it will not. I believe that a motion was introduced to study the "culture of dissent" and to figure out what to do about it, and that it was voted down. It was, wasn't it? Ah, the core of the problem: nothing has changed, and nothing is going to.

Several points:

First, this is not a matter of dissent. Dissent is a polite word implying cordial disagreement at best, formal at worst, that an atmosphere exists in which we might "agree to disagree." That is not what's happening. The faith is being corrupted. These are rebels and moral anarchists who will not rest until the substance of Catholicism is transformed. They cannot be appeased because they cannot be convinced. They are not amenable to compromise because we've already tried that by de-emphasizing the more uncomfortable tenets. I am not referring here to molesters, but to bishops, religious superiors of men and women, to seminary rectors, university theologians and to your parish priest, all those who nourish the culture in which these alien bodies thrive. What have the bishops done, I would ask, that, in time, they would have done on their own without being compelled by the intrusion of outsiders? The answer is nothing. Our bishops are fat and happy, they eat well, their quarters are spacious, and they move from here to there, sometimes chauffeured, in nice cars. They watch a lot of television, have a drink more than occasionally, and socialize with important figures in business and politics. They are vain, self-indulgent, and cautious in utterance, careful of their reputation in the eyes of the world. In short, they are Americans.

Second, as to the question of the degree of obloquy that ought to be heaped upon the ordaining of homosexuals, or upon homosexuals themselves: well, it depends on the homosexual, doesn't it? Homosexuals can be ordained, and such brothers admitted to monastic communities, if their consciences are rightly ordered and the Church 'culture' that forms them is correct. I have known such men. The men who have been after our children are different. Some say they are psychologically immature, sexually stunted individuals trying to "relate" to others at an inappropriate level. This makes them sound like candidates for treatment of an affliction they simply can't help. Not being an expert, I'll go out on a limb and say that I don't buy it. Nor do I much buy the distinction between the two kinds of "philes." The wellsprings of lust are mysterious and largely unfathomable, but we know it when we see it and these "men" are riven with it, as is much of humanity. The object of their lust is sweet, young flesh and, if I may speak frankly, we all know its attraction. Ever been at the beach or the pool and seen a middle-aged man staring for too long at a fourteen year old in her bikini? Of course you have. And if she were twelve, might he still gaze? Ten? Don't we tend to coddle our lustful impulses? If we have the will to refrain from action, yet we enjoy at our leisure what's playing out in our minds, where no one can see what we'd never reveal. Most of us, especially if we have children, know the sweetness of that flesh in a different way. The tenderness we feel for it is beyond words and overwhelms all else. It renders lust unclean and excoriates our conscience. We know it is to be treasured, not tampered with. But for these fellows, who have not the will to refrain, it is the guiding fantasy of their lives. Their choice of victims may rely more on calculation than stimulation: which child, post or pre-pubescent, is least likely to betray me? Which, with a few carefully chosen words, can I best intimidate into silence? Paul Shanley, after all, seems to have run the gamut. But if one kind of victim might arouse a Geoghan more than another, in the end they are all feeding the same hunger: pleasure gotten by way of the corruption of innocence. It is the inexperience of their victims, the utter lack of it, that makes their subjugation so enticing. To elicit a new emotional and physical response from one who has never known it before is the compulsive delight of the erotic morass infecting their minds. They are the lords of the ceremony of initiation; they induct others into the new world. There can be only one first time, and those to whom they have done this they own a piece of forever. Many call them predators, but so commonly that I prefer parasites. They are like the vampiric lampreys of the northern lakes, latching on and sucking the innocent blood to feed their own vision of heaven.

Since we are members of one mystical body, born after the spirit and not the flesh, these men have compounded the crime of rape with the sin of spiritual incest. They have violated the temple of the body, the dwelling place of the Holy Ghost, and the immortal link, the soul, in God's chain of light which binds us not only to Him but to every child of His who has ever lived or ever will live. I am less interested in the distinction between the "philes" than in the effects upon the victims. It would not surprise me to know that the adolescents endure a debilitating sense of emasculation, that all feel something has been ripped from their guts that cannot be gotten back, that, very nearly, a piece of their soul is missing. Most likely there will be problems down the line. We can discuss endlessly how such men got into our Church and why they would be attracted to it in the first place. Let's not. Endless and inconclusive discussion of myriad matters is part of what got us here in the first place. In this one instance, let's pretend we know objective truth when we see it and just get them out, them and their protectors and apologists, their shields of silent witnesses. They'll be lying low now, so they'll have to be sought out. Will anyone do it? Count the years and decades, not the weeks and days.

Third, lay people will be brought in for consultation, for expertise, to let in the light of day that the rest of us might have confidence in the integrity of the proceedings. Excuse me, but is this the same laity upwards of seventy percent of whom consider the Church's moral teaching on contraception so irrelevant as to be embarrassing, who would make some exceptions (and some would make many) in the case of abortion, whose women have their tubes tied with the regularity of spayed animals, who are not troubled by nor even give thought to invitro fertilization, who can't make up their minds about therapeutic cloning (if they even know what it is), who find the doctrine of the Real Presence, well, difficult to defend, the doctrine of exclusive salvation absurd on its face, the infallibility of the Pope more than debatable, the Virgin birth contrary to nature and therefore improbable, in short, a laity who puts its private judgement above that of the Church in virtually all matters? Please, the laity is half asleep. Like the bishops they are fat and happy, want their own way, and will not be told what to do. They are Americans, averse to the pain of fasting, annoyed when the duty of prayer might interfere with the important business of life, and convinced that Holy Days of Obligation are another option. It sometimes seems that the only certainty they share with the Pope is the possibility that there might be a God. It was in this lukewarm cesspool of doctrinal doubt and moral recalcitrance that the spore of depredation found root to grow. Do we really imagine that the bishops and the renegade theologians are alone in allowing this to happen? Our ambivalence and apathy left them free to reign. Our money in their coffers financed the seditious teachings and dulled our bishops' sense of the duty to discipline. We could have starved them out of their dogholes if we so desired, but we didn't. And then there is the sensuous indulgence of our own lives, making us slow to judge, until it's too late and innocence has been plundered.

From among the numbers of this wise, engaged laity, eaten up with fervor for God and the precepts of His Holy Church, the bishops have plucked one Leon Panetta - personally opposed to abortion unless someone actually wants one, and, as the president's chief of staff, defender of Bill Clinton's opposition to a ban on partial birth abortion - to serve on their national review board. You see how things change? Not even on the surface. It's the same old story, the bishops in thrall to a man simply because he's prominent and calls himself Catholic. The bishops have not gotten it and will not get it. At the Dallas meeting they drew the veil of sobriety over their features, listened to disturbing presentations, lifted their arms to support or oppose various motions, preened for the press, and gave the world the impression they were sincere and concerned fellows like you and me, that they were moving with purpose and direction. Like the contraception they are loath to condemn, everything they do seems artificial, disguising from their own eyes the truth of their being. It will be the few against the many, the Pope will not intervene, and the laity will sleep, pouring money into the coffers of the temple thieves on the assumption that the children's bedchambers are now secure.

But as I've said, there is always activity beneath the unchanging surface. The boil has bled but will seep for some time to come as hidden cases are brought to light. If there is change brewing, it will come with the next generation of bishops, or the one after that, with the next Pope or the one after, not with this one. Or it might come from those young people the Pope likes to meet with. I have my doubts. We've already lost nearly two generations to a catechesis without content or conviction, and the first are now parents well into middle-age. Perhaps their children will rebel in an unusual way. Perhaps.

As for me, I see no mounted warrior on the horizon riding in to slay the dragon. With any luck, it's because I'm blind. Meanwhile, I tend my garden: faith, family, prayer. I've watched my daughters grow up, and soon I'll watch them go away. They believe all that the Church has to offer, mostly because of their mother, I expect. We have tried hard to keep them safe.

As for the Jesuit, my miracle priest, we corresponded for a few years, then fell out of touch. He could be in a nursing home in Florida for all I know, but I pray God won't let that happen. I pray that he dies quietly in his own bed with some measure of the peace he brought to our lives. I think of him daily, and still see him striding gracefully in his black robe from one part of the church to another, through the social hall, across the courtyard, down the church aisles as evening sunlight slants through the colored glass. He seems now like an apparition. Had he really been there at all? Was he a dream from the past, a vision of the future? Yes, he could be dead now; it's been over twenty years. He'd be well into his eighties. I should write Christendom and find out his disposition. But I won't, not yet anyway. If I don't know he's dead, I won't have to say goodbye.





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