Monday, 5 April 2010

The Catholic Church - again

Once more I feel I have to write about a continuing theme I really don’t want to have to concentrate on in this blog – I am referring of course to the Catholic church and the positions being taken by many of those in authority there, right up to and including the pope. I think I need to explain something of this reluctance before commenting on current developments.

I spent nine years of my life as a member of a Catholic religious order which I left a year after I had been ordained a priest. Those nine years were exciting, formative, positive and negative, inspiring and frustrating; in hindsight, twenty four years later, a completely normal experience of full-tilt, confusing, ecstatic, exploring, orientating, completely-alive early adulthood. My personal journey through life has taken me much farther since then, away from Catholicism, beyond Christianity, into an open atheistically-inclined agnosticism with which I am generally quite content. As such, the vestigial continuing interest I have in things Catholic could be compared to the interest one has in hearing news of an old lover, with whom one has little current contact but where the mutually inflicted wounds and injuries have long healed over. I feel that I have basically sorted out many of the issues that I had with the church while I was a “professional” member by realising that it was not for me and, following the logic of that recognition, leaving. It took me a few years after leaving to complete this realisation but, from my point of view and that of most of the brothers who remained in the order, the hurts have been forgotten and the bitterness transcended.

On reflection, I would even go a step further, and state that, in many respects, I feel deeply thankful to the Dominican Order in particular for many things, for deep abiding friendships, for a wonderful atmosphere of open intellectual enquiry, for marvellous memories and a personal experience, generally, of great (some might even have said at the time, too great) tolerance. But then, I was part of the whole thing during a period from 1977 to 1986 when the atmosphere was more open and positive than it is today – or such is my impression at any rate. (And, at the same time, there was an unspeakable and unspoken shadow-side of which I was unaware, hundreds of priests abusing children with impunity and – in many cases – with the knowledge of their superiors.)

This is the background to that reluctance to comment I mentioned above. But it is also the background which makes me so angry at the position I see being taken by many “official” representatives of the church during the past couple of weeks. In his Good Friday sermon in the presence of the pope, Benedict’s personal preacher, Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the treatment of the church over sex abuse to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”. Cantalamessa claimed that this comment came from a letter from an unnamed “Jewish friend” and subsequently half-heartedly apologised “if …I hurt the sensibilities of Jews and victims of paedophilia.” There are two points which arise here. Firstly I am somewhat sceptical of the authenticity of the source of the letter quoted. “The more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”? One might ask what the less shameful aspects of anti-Semitism are. (And before someone accuses me of nit-picking here, let me add that the author of the sermon must have been aware that his words would be reported worldwide.) I find it difficult to believe that a Jew would have written these words. Secondly, the so-called apology is not a retraction of the comparison, but only an expression of sorrow if Jews or victims of paedophilia were offended. The intent is clear, the comparison remains.

All this fits in with other comments coming from official Vatican sources. Among others, Frederico Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesman, has repeatedly referred to a defamation campaign being carried out by those ill-disposed to the church. In an unprecedented laudation before the pope on Easter Sunday, the dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, said that the church would not be intimidated by chiacchiericcio, meaning idle chatter or petty gossip.

This approach is a continuation of the knee-jerk reaction of Catholic church authorities in the past decades to any form of criticism. Rather than making any attempt to listen to what is being said, the strategy seems to be to immediately try to discredit those who are expressing the criticism. It is an easy and cheap form of ad hominem argumentation, attacking the messenger who brings bad news rather than taking the message itself seriously.

It is also insulting. It insults those thousands of us critics, most of whom do not spend their lives simply looking for sticks with which to bash the Catholic church (we have better things to do with our lives), many of whom, in fact, may wish the church well. It insults those millions of believing Catholics who, despite the moral abyss in which they see their leaders lost, still try to carry on living their faith. It insults those many sincere sisters, brothers, priests and lay-people who continue to work for the gospel, for the ideals in which they believe. It betrays that very message which these men purport to represent – and, in the spirit of the story the church officially remembered last week, one wonders when the man who claims the title of Peter’s successor will hear the cock crow? How hurtful it must be for those who were actually abused and subsequently let down by the men who had the power to stop the abuse and see the abusers legally dealt with – their superiors – and who instead chose to browbeat the victims, swear them to silence and ignore their suffering is beyond imagination. And now, some of these same men (or, in the case of the bishop of Rome, their spokesmen) try to justify themselves by pointing to campaigns by enemies of the church or by arguing that the whole affair is the result of secularisation and a general weakening of the faith. To quote Scripture, Jesus wept!

On Good Friday, Father Cantalamessa knowingly brought anti-Semitism and, by implication, the Holocaust into the discussion. It would have been better for him to remember that millions of those reading reports of his words know enough history to be reminded of other possible parallels to the Nazi period. I, for one, was led to think of the Nuremberg trials and some of the justifications given by those in the dock concerning obedience to orders and the necessity of some suffering in order to achieve a greater goal.

If these men had any mature sense of moral responsibility, any of them even passively implicated in any cover-up, in any failure to report abuse to the civil authorities would resign. Every time they celebrate mass, they publicly ask forgiveness “for what I have done and for what I have failed to do.” Such gestures might just show the beginning of a way to honestly dealing with the issues which have arisen. Instead, only a few resignations have taken place, practically all of them under pressure and with little or no acknowledgement that the men involved have even understood why they had to go.

In the light of all that is unfolding, I am glad to be able to say that I am no longer a Catholic. And yet, that part of me which was Catholic, which believed in the liberation and joy, the potential for good in the Christian message, which, as part of my personal history, is still part of who I am today, feels sorrow and shame. It was a comment on an earlier post published on this blog by a kinswoman of mine, who like me has had a complex history with the Catholic church, which gave me the deciding motivation to write this piece. Maureen, you summed it up so well: “My dear friend, a Maryknoll Sister, gave her life in El Salvador to protect the powerless against the ruthless. Now the ruthless run the Church. It makes me so very sad.”

(Sources: The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, L’Osservatore Romano,

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