Sunday, September 25, 2005

Stop the bell, close the book, quench the candle ...

"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."


  1. Here's one Lutheran who agrees with you. And what you said goes for any Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Methodist hierarchy that have the same lenient attitude with its clergy.

    Unfortunately, as my pastor preached this past Sunday, sola scriptura has become sola cultura for many of our church leaders.

  2. I'm only ostensibly Catholic, or even Christian, but my parents were raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. The stories they tell were enough to raise the hair on the back of your head. Those nuns and brothers who taught them were far from holy. It's most of the reason why I wasn't really raised religously; like many of their generation, they were disenchanted.

    They attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia in the time period (the 60s) when a lot of these incidents allegedly took place. In fact, my mother made me find a copy of the grand jury report online so she could see if she knew any of the priests. She didn't; the schools and parishes where my parents attended (West Catholic, Good Shepherd) were not implicated in this particular grand jury case (though my mother is positive that abuse took place, possibly with my own father as a victim). But it still was shocking and disheartening to look at all the priests and all the accusations and how little was done about them. The punishments meted out by the Church just seemed bizarre to my mother and I; not being listed in the Catholic Directory, laicization, "a life of supervised prayer and penance," this is what a child abuser gets? My mother was thoroughly disgusted.

    As a gay man, this story also really gets to me because the Church seems hellbent (HA! Get it?) to use homosexual priests as the scapegoats for all these problems. They (and, unfortunately, many others) just don't seem to grasp the concept that paedophilia and homosexuality are TOTALLY DIFFERENT THINGS. And no one ever mentions that a lot of this abuse was done to girls; it wasn't just altar boys, but a lot of young female rectory workers (at least in Philadelphia) who got abused. Also, as my mother and I said, there is probably a lot of misconduct between priests and female parishoners that was never reported. But everyone just pretends this is a "gay problem" and not a problem of sick men and cronyism and lax discipline and institutional hypocrisy/arrogance. So Pope Benedict's going to ban gay priests, even celebate ones, which makes NO sense, and that'll solve everything or something. Please! Just disgusting.

  3. Very very well said. You encapsulated my thoughts more elegantly that I could have. What I really wanted was to see JPII recall Cardinal Law to Rome and remove his mitre and ring. Publicly defrock him and send him back to face civil justice. After that I would like to hear of the establishment of a tribunal to investigate each and every diocese in the nation for any priest who was involved. Said Priests to be handed over to civil authorities as appropriate. We know these monsters are still out there and have been moved around as their behavior catches up with them. What I wanted was a "Never Again" statement from Rome on down. Would innocent priests be caught up in the flood? Maybe. If so, I'd be willing to lose a few good priests if it means the evil ones go first.

  4. As I indicated in my post, ordination to the priesthood is no guarantee of personal holiness. My own experiences with priests and nuns while I was growing up was largely positive. The man who had the greatest influence in my life -- I didn't know my father too well -- was Edward Gannon, S.J., professor of philosophy at St. Joseph's College (as it then was).
    I agree that Church officials aren't thinking very clearly when they blame this scandal on homosexuality -- because, to be logical, one would have to blame the misdeeds of the priests who assaulted woman and girls on those priests' heterosexuality.
    On Thursday two very dear friends are coming over for dinner. Both are gay. Both are Catholic. And both are teachers. Neither has ever assaulted anybody. I am sure there are plenty of faithful priests right now whose orientation is homosexual. It's no easier -- or harder -- for them to remain celibate. I should think the Church would regard such men as exemplars of the faith.