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The Curse of Catholicism

Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni.  Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.”  The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up.  I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.

I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week!  Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew.  Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.

Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates.  A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles.  He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education.  Every day I worked just a few floors below him.  I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice.  Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits.  The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property.  The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.

In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity.  This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it.  I choose to be a part of it.  My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church.  If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?

This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself.  Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent.  The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body.  We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals.  We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.

So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–

More on that last line in the next blog post.

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6 Comments

  1. Mary Ann Hinsdale says:

    I like your reflections very much. Though I might suggest further exegesis on the Letter to the Hebrews (re: your critique of Gary Wills), there’s much food for though here.

  2. Paul Huesing says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful reflection. I just wish toward the end you had written “any Catholic’s (or Christian’s) sin is not every Catholic’s (or Christian’s) sin.” I think that would be more in keeping with Paul’s thinking. Of course any priest or bishop or abbot or nun or seminarian or theologian,etc. can be the sinner.

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