"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Despite Pope Francis, The Catholic Church Is Still Insular and Antiquarian.

Frank Bruni reviewing Garry Wills new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (New York Times (1.27.13) refers to “the curse of Catholicism” an elitist insularity which in its self-protective secrecy has widened the gap between the Church and its believers:

The Roman Catholic Church, specifically to its modern incarnation and current leaders, have tucked priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapped them in mysticism and prioritized their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews. I have a problem, in other words, with the church’s arrogance, a thread that runs through Wills’ book, to be published next month

Wills lays the blame on priests who in contradiction to the wishes of Jesus formed a cabal for purely selfish interests:

Among the Vatican’s issues with Wills was his stated belief in a 2010 article that the priesthood, rather than originating with Jesus and a specially selected group of followers, was selfishly created later by a “privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves.”

Bruni focuses on the sex abuse scandals of recent years and the denials, cover-ups, and mendacity of the Church throughout this period.  This attitude of rectitude and defiance might have protected priests in the early days of the scandal, but eventually alienated even its most faithful followers.

Circling the wagons, however, is nothing new for the Catholic Church.  One thinks first and foremost of  Henry II and his battles with Thomas Becket over the rights and privileges of the Church.  Beckett argued that the clergy should not be subjected to secular law – i.e. the Church would adjudicate all crimes and misdemeanors by its priests – while Henry insisted that the Church, as part of England, should be ruled by secular law.  The Church was a powerful political force in Henry’s day and for centuries thereafter, and the king made a relatively minor incident into a cause celebre to make a strong show of regal force.  The battles between church and state continued for over 400 years until the conflict finally came to a head during the reign of Henry VIII.  The cause celebre at that time was Henry’s marriages, but the political positions were identical.  Both church and king claimed sovereignty.

Five hundred years later, the Church is still fighting to protect its own, to reinforce the bastions and ramparts that protect it from the secular world, and to fight increasingly with today’s kings and presidents.  Not only did the Church act as it always has in the past by slamming its doors to prying eyes, but it lashed out, as the Popes had against the Henrys to assert their authority and dominance.  The Catholic Church today has formed alliances with Protestants, no less, to fight what it sees is the secularization of modern society.  It has been on the aggressive, attacking pro-choice advocates in the United States, threatening excommunication of prominent Catholic political leaders who espouse pro-choice positions, and have begun a holy war on moral dissolution.

Therefore the Church’s actions regarding its pedophile priests should not come as a surprise.  While our generation abhors the sexual abuse of minors, priests over the last 1000 years since Becket and Henry II have certainly committed their share of heinous crimes.  In other words, nothing much has changed.  Priests do dastardly deeds, the Church covers them up, fights to keep out the light of secular justice, turns up the heat of attack on its attackers, and eventually goes back into its comfortable private enclaves.

The second fact that Bruni and Wills overlook is that priestly castes have been around since our emergence from caves.  Shamans, witch doctors, and priests have always been among the most intelligent members of society and have used their powers of observation, analysis, and persuasion to arrogate power to themselves.  The absolute rule of priests in Hinduism, for example, is no different from those in the Catholic Church.  Hindu priests exert control over the faithful because only they have access to sacred texts and only they can perform the holy rites of birth, death, and marriage.  The scenario is the same for other religions who have established a priestly caste as intermediaries between God and His people.

Bruni goes on to summarize another issue raised by Wills:

At the start, Christianity not only didn’t have priests but opposed them. The priesthood was a subsequent tweak, and the same goes for the all-male, celibate nature of the Roman Catholic clergy and the autocratic hierarchy that this clergy inhabits, an unresponsive government whose subjects — the laity — have limited say.

Once again, this is not surprising, for both secular and religious institutions behave in the same ways.  The courts of English kings with their internal rules, regulations, and routines were all organized to concentrate power and to dominate and intimidate the citizens they ruled.  The Vatican is no different.  The all-male clergy has nothing to do with misogyny, and all to do with the hocus-pocus of Biblical interpretation.  If Jesus meant for there to be women priests, the Vatican says, then there would have been women amongst his disciples.  And the application of this doctrine goes a long way in perpetuating the ‘mystery’ of the Church.  Every time a male priest consecrates a Mass, it is as though a disciple of Christ is present on the altar.  There is an unbroken line between priest, bishop, cardinal, Pope, and Peter; and of course by extension to Christ himself. 

Breaking up the all-male priesthood would not simply be ‘catching up with the times’ but a breach in the wall, a tarnishing of the imperious, unknowable majesty of the Church.  No small thing.

I was brought up Catholic and left the Church largely because of the unctuous, sanctimonious priests who lorded it over us all from the pulpit and the confessional.  There was truly a cabal of arrogant, pompous, and self-interested and self-serving men.

Bruni and Wills aver that they have nothing against priests in general, many of whom are good, compassionate, and dedicated men.  It is the Church itself that is responsible for its own decline.  Its secrecy, inwardness, fiery denials, and continued sanctimony in the face of criminal activity are unconscionable and indefensible.

While I agree with that, I cannot exonerate priests who, as recent events have shown, used the cover and protection of the Church to commit unspeakable deeds.  The present diminished state of the Church is the result of a complicity of both clergy and Church.  It takes two to tango.

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