"Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on."
So says Philip the Bastard in Shakespeare's King John. It's an allusion to the Roman Catholic rite of anathema, pronounced in cases of major excommunication. According to one account, a bishop and 12 priests gather in the cathedral. Each holds a candle. The bell tolls as for one dead. The bishop pronounces the sentence:
"Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N-- himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment."
The priests respond "Fiat, fiat, fiat" ("Let it be done ..."). The holy book on the altar is closed and priests and bishop quench their candles by dashing them to the floor.
It brings to mind a time when the Church was associated with solemnity, not obscenity. As a Catholic wont from time to time to review books that have some bearing on the Church and its teachings, I feel obliged to comment on the sex scandal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which recrudesced last week when the grand jury charged with investigating the matter issued a report on its findings. In an interview with Inquirer reporter David O'Reilly, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia's Archbishop, cautioned the faithful that the report was not suitable for family reading. No lie there. This document makes the Starr Report seem wholesome by comparison. It is filled with toxic waste. The priests whose activities are chronicled therein are predacious vermin who committed criminal acts for which, thanks to the egregious mishandling of the matter by Church authorities from start to finish, they cannot be prosecuted -- because the statute of limitations has run out. If ever there was a group of people deserving -- just for starters -- of formal, public excommunication, it is these twisted clerics.
My wife, who was raised an Episcopalian but attends Quaker meeting, has wondered out loud how anyone could continue to go to a Catholic Church. Well, a single Archdiocese on the banks the Delaware -- and even a number of them throughout the United States -- hardly constitutes the whole story of the 2,000-year-old institution that is the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, world-class villains are hardly a recent phenomenon in Church history -- the Borgias come immediately to mind. But they are outnumbered by far by the likes of Father Damien and St. Francis of Assisi.
Nevertheless, as is usually the case with my wife, she hit upon the crux of the matter (no pun intended), namely, the grievous blow this scandal has delivered to the faith and the faithful.
In Saturday's Inquirer, Cardinal Rigali was quoted as saying that "in every single case reported to Archdiocesan officials, action was taken based on the best medical attention available." What about sin, your Eminence? I realize that, for many, it's an archaic term, but I believe it is still used in Catholic moral theology. Even if one admits that the moral failings of the priests in question were to some extent mitigated by a measure of psychiatric disorder -- and I think it's a stretch myself -- those moral shortcomings remain both obvious and grievous.
As I understand it, if a Protestant finds his minister's sermons less than edifying, he is free to look around for another church, or even another denomination, and go there instead. But Catholics don't go to church for the sermon, or for the hymns, or even for the Scriptural readings. They go to witness and partake of the miracle of the Eucharist, the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus. For Catholics, the Host is not merely a symbol. For them, it actually is what it symbolizes -- Jesus Himself, His flesh and blood. Catholics also believe that what is called the Last Supper was the first Mass, during which Jesus instituted not only the sacrament of the Eucharist, but also the sacrament of Holy Orders, giving the 11 apostles present priestly powers to effect the miracle He had just performed and to pass that power on to others.
Now I know it will seem odd that a reasonably well-educated, presumably well-read, worldly-wise journalist should subscribe to such doctrines, which doubtless strike some as bizarre, but sharper cookies than I have subscribed to them as well. Presumably, Archdiocesan officials subscribe to them also. Then why didn't they act upon them? Why, confronted with acts the Church designates as sinful -- rape, corruption of innocents, abuse of authority, to say nothing of blasphemy -- did they evince no moral response? I go to confession and tell the priest I'm having an affair and I'll be told to repent and clean up my act, not see a shrink. Bishops and priests seem ready enough to bloviate about sin to the laity, but when it comes to their wayward colleagues -- oh, they need treatment. What the priests cited in the grand jury report needed was arrest, prosecution and conviction. Moreover, even if Archdiocesan officials had a hard time discerning the moral dimension of the problem, what about their plain duty as citizens? When you know that a felony has been committed, padres, you're supposed to report it.
Has this sorry episode shaken my faith? Not at all, actually. I never placed my faith in the hierarchy, only my tentative trust. I attended Catholic schools for some 16 years and, as Yogi Berra noted, "you can observe a lot just by watching." I learned fairly soon that ordination is no fast-track to sanctity. I've known plenty of good priests. But I've also known priests who scarcely rubbed elbows with civility, let alone piety. As for scandals, Jesus Himself warned that they were inevitable: "For it must needs be that scandals come," He says in the Gospel of Matthew -- adding, however, "woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh." Woe indeed: "... he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea."
No mention there of "the best medical attention."