Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter thoughts

Some time ago I was asked by a philosophy professor with whom I was friends what my religion was. The question was asked diffidently, politely, with the caveat that I didn't have to answer if I didn't want to. I said not to worry, that I was a lapsed Catholic—in response to which, my questioner smiled and said "Oh, excellent. Those are the best kind!" His reasoning for this response was interesting: he said that every person should be raised in the ritual and theatre of the Catholic church, with all its concomitant elements of guilt and anxiety, of scriptural exegesis and catechism ... and then at a certain point, make a break. What this does, he suggested, was to give one an innate understanding of symbol and metaphor and grand mythology, of the potential grandeur of spirituality, while leaving room for a principled rejection of the church's hidebound doctrine and quasi-medieval dogma. An apprenticeship for the imagination, he said, and the groundwork for an ethical intellect.

I always remember that conversation fondly, as it put into words something that I had felt for some time. For all of Catholicism's doctrinal fetishes, its capacity for instilling wonder and an appreciation for the role played by symbolism and metaphor in everyday life is pretty spectacular. I wouldn't say that growing up Catholic trained me for a career in literary criticism, but it certainly didn't hurt. And in terms of intellectual rigor as regards textual interpretation, the Jesuits are matched only by Talmudic scholars. Plato and Aristotle might have been the first literary critics, but they were concerned with the social role of poetry; St. Augustine was the first to really tell us about the levels of meaning in a text, and he scoffed at anyone who read scripture as literal truth. To read the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth, he commented, would give one "no end of laughter." Creationists and fundamentalists take note!

I can laugh about being a lapsed Catholic and be grateful for the lessons I learned in my religious upbringing, but it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the ironic distance to the church afforded the lapsed with each new revelation of abuse. At what point, I find myself wondering, do we reach critical mass? It has been apparent to objective observers for some time that such abuse has been endemic, but church officials and apologists have been somewhat able to maintain that previous revelations were isolated incidents perpetrated by disturbed individuals (they have been less able to account for the consistent cover-ups). But the latest slew of revelations from Germany, Ireland, Wisconsin, and within the Vatican itself—as well as widening scandals in Brazil, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—make it next to impossible to see the abuse of children by Catholic clergy as anything less than pervasive and endemic.

That does not of course prevent the church's apologists for trying. Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's personal preacher, wins the dubious award for the most egregious statement, in which he compared the attacks on the church to the Holocaust. Professional angry person Bill Donohue claims that because most of the abuse cases involved adolescents, it was not a question of pedophilia but homosexuality, and through a logical turn understood only to him thus claims that the fault lies not with the church but "the gays."

Ross Douthat characterizes the cases of abuse as historically specific to the last twenty to thirty years and caused, in part, by the eras of sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s. Seriously. He writes, "The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the '70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era's overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.)" Now, I'm just guessing here, but I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the priests who committed outrages against aboriginal students in residential schools in northern Ontario, or against the orphans of Mount Cashel here in Newfoundland, were not unduly influenced by Woodstock and Erica Jong. I'll go one further and suggest that it was the "permissive" culture of the last thirty or forty years that finally created a cultural climate allowing victims of abuse to step forward and testify to the crimes committed against them, and that if we had the means to do so we would discover that clerical abuse of children and adolescents has been common for centuries.

There has of course been much hand-wringing over the issue of enforced celibacy for priests, but that misses what I think is the most crucial point—that sexual abuse, like rape, is not about sex but power. The abuse itself is horrifying, but the consistent refusal of the church to clean house, to defrock offenders, and indeed their tendency to cover up and paper over incidents is as much a demonstration of this basic principle as anything else we have seen happen. Power, especially political power, invariably seeks to hide the evidence of its own failings. The massive, byzantine, secretive entity that is the Catholic church is living proof of the old adage that what begins in ritual ends in politics.


SOS said...

Are you saying that you have mixed feelings about your Catholic background because of the good and evil that has come out of the church?

Many of the people who have committed acts of sexual abuse may be sexually suppressed. The expectations put upon these officials are strict guidelines taken from interpretations of the scripture, aren't they? I wonder if we all kept St. Augustine's theories in mind when interpreting the bible then would we have more tolerance for human nature? Did the boundaries imposed upon the minds of the offenders cause them to behave in ways that they wouldn't have otherwise? Just an uneducated thought...

Chris in NF said...

I have mixed feelings about my Catholic background because of the immense respect I have for many devout Catholics I have known who have found in the church great resources of spiritual and moral strength, and who have used their faith as a basis for deep and honest philosophical inquiry (many of them from my immediate family). It is these personal connections that will always prevent me from condemning the Catholic church -- or any major religion -- wholesale.

johnwilpers said...

Hi, Chris,

This is John Wilpers from GlobalPost where we have been sharing your thoughts with our world-wide audience. I would like to send you an e-mail but don't have an e-mail address for you. Would you mind sending one to me, please, at:



SOS said...

I guess the matter of finding good within religion first requires you to find good within yourself and the ability to see the good around you. I'm glad to see that you have found this.