I was an altar boy. Most of the abuse cases now being brought against the Catholic church date from the time when I served Mass, polished candlesticks, smoothed the linen on the altar, filled cruets with wine and water, helped priests on (and off) with their vestments and rang bells at the consecration.
By age ten I could rattle off both the priest’s part and my own in Latin without understanding a word. By age fifteen, a little less fervent, and with other things on my mind, the Mass was drifting irrevocably into English. By age twenty, the Latin Mass was a museum piece and I was an un-outed atheist.
So were lots of priests, or if not atheists exactly they had privately lost their faith. –Plenty of precedent for that, especially among the best-educated priests–and the Church has always had a healthy share of intellectuals and apostates-in-training. I once edited a book by Alfred Loisy, the famous French Jesuit, who claimed that, having lost faith first in the gospel and then in the Church, he was only able to mutter the prayers at the altar and chime in with good conscience at the phrase “suffered, died and was buried,” at the creed. That was in 1928, after he was excommunicated (vitandus) in 1908–as one of an international ring of intellectuals that the Church had come to believe was a conspiracy, called (appropriately enough) “Modernists.”
How many priests, before and since, shared Loisy’s doubts but didn’t possess his honesty? Hundreds? Thousands? How many more thousands after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council turned the rock-hard surety of Catholic doctrine into putty in the hands of Vatican theologians far removed from the dullness and torpor of parish life?
Modernists were not atheists. But then, belief in God was frankly not what the Church demanded anyway. The Church of the nineteenth century insisted that you believe in the holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, its sacraments as the sole means to achieve grace, forgiveness, and salvation, and the hierarchical delivery system codified (once and for all) at the Council of Trent in 1563.
Nothing much had happened before Vatican II to challenge the ossified system and the doctrine of the priesthood that came out of Trent. When he was asked in the late 1950’s (on the edge of the Council that was called to reform the system) what he thought of the “role of the laity”–the men, women and children who put dimes and dollars in the collection basket, pay the meager salaries of priests and nuns and keep the church roof from leaking–the formidable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani answered, “The laity?–ah yes. Their role is to pray, pay and to obey.”
If grandma believed that, and your father a little less so, but still sort of believed it, what was a twelve year old to do at 6.30AM in the church sacristy when confronted by a randy priest who asked to see how much he’d “grown.” No, that little boy was not me. It was my best friend (who has never brought a charge against the Church, went to seminary and became a priest himself–a good one I think.) But I know it could have happened to me if I hadn’t been a little smarter, a little faster washing up and slamming the back door of the church.
I knew the priest. Several of my friends from our Catholic high school made a special trip to visit him in his abbey toward the end of his life, where the diocese finally sequestered him. He was a broken and depleted man–not because he’d been removed from the parish–I suspect that was huge relief–but because long before that he was condemned to live out a theological lie. The church had trained him, taken him into minor seminary (from about age thirteen), helped him to realize his vocation, and thereby made him unfit for any other profession. Unlike Loisy, he was neither educated enough, clever enough nor versatile enough to do anything else. He was taught he was a personification of Christ, but he no longer believed it and he must have hated the fact that there were still those who did. Those who did believe it may have been more dangerous. They were the ones who thought they had proprietary rights over the children of the parish and could do as they pleased.
Given the definition of the priesthood that was normal in those days, that the priest is alter Christus, another Christ, why should anyone be surprised at the moral implosion of Catholicism? Religion “experts” like me make a living by describing cults as the products of aberrant doctrine and extremes of “normative” belief. But who decides “normative”? What could possibly be more abnormal than teaching grown men and women (and children) that a man of flesh and blood “in his own person represents Jesus Christ at the altar.”
What Jesus supposedly did–turn bread and wine into “his own body, blood, soul, flesh and divinity”–this man is ordained to do at the Eucharist. That’s what the Church taught and in so many words still teaches. Do we have any evidence that members of the Lundgren Mormons or the Cult Davidian or the Ark Church believe more absurd things? If the biblical ethics of the marginal groups result in perverse outcomes, the Catholic world recoils in horror. But Catholics until very recently have not been able to draw a line between their beliefs and similar effects. Now they have to.
The “crisis” in the Catholic church is not fundamentally a legal problem. Of course the media has to paint it that way because the media is a cyclops. It encourages rubbernecking, tsk-tsking and scintillation while posing as an objective resource for moral discrimination. It is so obsessed with the that of abuse by priests that it can’t get its camera around the why.
But many Catholics and ex-Catholics like myself know that what is happening is really much more profound. It is the end of priesthood. At least it is the end of the symbolism of priesthood and the tokens of office that came with the job. Once upon a time it was, under canon law, a grave sin to accost a priest or to strike him–a crime tantamount to striking Christ himself. The Church knew that the wall between laity and clergy was belief in the sanctity and authority of the priest.
There was no parallel rule against a priest inviting a boy to take down his trousers. Part of the outrage among the most fervent Catholics is that they have watched this scandal unfold without realizing its subtler effects as a demolition of the symbolism and (thus) the system of priesthood itself. They have watched the wall come tumbling down.
They are angry and humiliated, but not just because crimes went unreported and bishops behaved like caliphs, distributing justice on whim. Priesthood was nothing without the archaic trappings of celibacy, purity, snow white vestments, and clean hands holding the host aloft at Mass–a kind of physical orison of Christ’s earthly incarnation–for the faithful to adore. The thought of the same hands, in secret, doing black and unspeakable things to the least of Christ’s brethren broke the bond of trust forever.
For the ones whose job is only to pray and obey, the priests and their bishop-protectors (who, don’t forget, are merely super-priests) are not only guilty of sin (a Catholic idea) and crime (sin translated into the penal codes of secular states). They have exposed a deeper spiritual hypocrisy that will not be covered up by incense and icons.
Surely people have a right to worship the God they believe in in their own way and to choose mechanisms for expressing their belief. The Catholic church has always been happy to provide one of the more sumptuous options for that expression–symbols of ancient pomp and power, smells and bells.
But with so much riding on a tradition that depends on authority, it’s doubtful that Catholicism can survive the smashing of its altars and thrones. The image of a God who reigns above and a vice-regent who rules below over armies of souls struggling for salvation may seem an odd metaphor in the twenty first century–not one that Joe Catholic thinks much about when he goes to communion at the 6PM Mass on Saturday evening to keep Sunday free for golf. Still, that’s the image: the “Church Militant” (on earth) joined through the saints to God and through the souls in purgatory to generations of dead Catholics that have believed throughout time what you believe now. The belief in the “communion of saints” gave Catholics a well-ordered spiritual cosmos that extended as a link between the parish–and the parish priest–right up to the top. The higher up on the spiritual ladder you were the greater the support system of like-minded men, the easier it was to believe in the historical legitimacy of the tradition that made you a bishop a cardinal, a pope. Rank has a way of assuaging even grievous fits of reason and theological doubt.
The easier it became to forget that the foot-soldiers, the priests, the men in black, leading increasingly isolated lives–intellectually and personally–were the weakest link. Not only could they not hold the line against sin and temptation while their superiors drank the good wine, they had ceased to believe it mattered. Liturgically confused, threatened by ecumenism, their catechism relegated to the attic with their birettas, uncomfortable at pancake breakfasts, rarely acknowledged by higher-ups and confronted with a growing inventory of financial woes, closing schools and consolidated parishes–last but not least, even the “good” ones–the object of suspicion, mistrust, and Mrs Murphy’s hearsay. I am not saying the actions of priests are excusable. I am saying that they were inevitable.
Like a lot of ex-Catholics, I feel in a nagging kind of way that I owe the church something, at least my education. I don’t mean to sound conceited when I say that no one who says he got a “Catholic education” since about 1975 has the foggiest idea what the phrase really means. Catholic schools, especially in America, were the first to suffer from the loss of vigor and direction which in other areas led to the emptying of seminaries, rectories and convents and to the widespread loss of faith reflected in the banality of liturgical and doctrinal reform. What I owe the church as a memento of that education is this essay.
We’re now told that this pope is pulling the Church back to basics. But it will never work. The moral center is missing and may have been a myth all along. Dostoevsky thought so. Loisy thought so. The damage cannot be calculated in the percentage of “guilty” men who are brought to justice, or measures being taken to protect children from sexual opportunists. Will the Church now make sure that a thirteen year old going to confession is accompanied by a responsible adult at all times?
The cure is unavailable to a Church that does not understand that its core doctrine, its whole symbolic garment has been unbuttoned by fake Christs who are no more the real thing than the communion wafer is his body.