The Pope’s Boys

Yes, the United States is a deeply religious country, at least compared to other developed countries. A majority of us tell the polls that religion plays a “very important” role in our lives, and only fifteen percent, at best, identify themselves as having no religious affiliation. And most of those folks say they’re spiritual – they’re big on God, or some great spirit, but they just don’t like organized religion, so that should count and no one should be angry with them.

Those who just don’t get it – they just don’t think the God concept makes much sense – are few and far between. And they generally stay quiet about it, save when it seems useful to suggest that it might be wise to keep religion out of governmental policy and public education, as having a bunch of angry people shouting at each other about what they know God wants, and it’s not what the other guys think, isn’t very useful. Then you suggest perhaps it’s probably just best to work out the humdrum earthly problems on our own and leave the big stuff to God, as he might not care that much about local zoning laws. And as for wars and the big stuff, that’s usually about who wants what, and all the talk about what God thinks you should have and others shouldn’t have obscures the real issues that must be resolved. Of course that does no good, but you say it anyway.

Garrison Keillor puts it nicely:

Some people believe that God has revealed Himself to them and their tribe and not to the barbarians. He despises all the same people they despise. Others feel that God has given gifts to be shared with others, and we should walk softly and not be cruel in His name. The prospect of perfect harmony is not good at the present time.

But we are a nation besotted by religion, even if some of us never got that whole Dan Brown thing. There was his wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code – our hero and his fetching partner investigate a murder in the Louvre and discover a battle between the two secretive and mysterious Catholic orders – one of them is Opus Dei, of which Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Mel Gibson are not really members after all – over the possibility that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was actually married to Mary Magdalene. Yeah. Okay. So what?

But there is the body of the murder victim in the Denon Wing of the Louvre, naked and posed like a famous Leonardo da Vinci drawing, with a cryptic message written beside his body and a pentacle drawn on his stomach in his own blood. This must be serious. And then it gets even stranger with the key concept – you see, the figure at the right hand of Jesus in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is not the apostle John, but actually Mary Magdalene, and, really, she was the wife of Jesus and was pregnant with his child when Jesus was crucified. So that means that the absence of a chalice in that painting means Leonardo da Vinci knew all along that Mary Magdalene was the actual Holy Grail, the bearer of Jesus’ blood in the form of the child she was carrying. And everyone has been covering this up ever since. Who knew? Some knew.

Needless to say the Roman Catholic Church was not pleased with any of this, but the book sold – forty million copies, translated into forty languages, making it perhaps the best-selling novel of all time. And then came the movie – but that was a dud. Opie (Ron Howard) couldn’t make it work on screen – Tom Hanks was just workmanlike and, for a change, big-eyed Audrey Tautou was rather boring. Perhaps there was just too much plot and too much talk. Or, perhaps, seeing it all on screen just made it all seem silly, when it wasn’t brutal and disgusting. Juicy conspiracy theories on the page often seem like absurd nonsense on the screen. It happens.

But the Catholic Church was adamant. Jesus was not married. Mary Magdalene is not the Holy Grail – that’s an actual cup, damn it. Everyone knows that, and they don’t know why it wasn’t in that Last Supper painting. Let it be. Mother Mary comfort me – just like the Beatles sang. You don’t question the facts. You pray to Mary, the only virgin to ever give birth to a child, even if the Protestant idiots have the gall to bypass her and pray directly to Jesus, and some fools pray to God himself, or herself, or whatever. But the basic idea is you have to take this stuff seriously, on faith. Dan Brown was ruining everything.

But there are some things more dangerous than Dan Brown:

The Vatican fought on Friday to limit the damage from a report alleging Pope Benedict XVI failed to bar the transfer of a known pedophile priest.

The fresh allegation added fuel to the fire after child abuse scandals sweeping Catholic churches around the world have encouraged more and more victims to speak out.

It seems that the New York Times reported earlier that day that Pope Benedict failed to act in 1980 to stop Reverend Peter Hullerman – a priest accused of sexually abusing children – from taking up new duties in a different parish in Germany. Benedict, the area archbishop then, was head of the crew that decided no one need know about this and they’d put the guy somewhere obscure. Benedict was head of the team that essentially said that sure, the guy might abuse more children there – but maybe he wouldn’t, and it had to be kept quiet. The pattern seems to be to make the kids and their parents sign an agreement to remain silent, or face excommunication. Excommunication means no access to Holy Communion and thus no access to God. That’s some threat. But it protects the church, God’s house on this earth, and that matters more.

But in this case the Church was saying it just didn’t happen that way. The Vatican issued a statement – “The then archbishop had no knowledge of the decision to reassign (Hullerman) to pastoral activities in a parish” and “rejects any other version of events as mere speculation.”

But the facts are curious. Hullerman was suspended from his duties in Essen in late 1979 over allegations that he abused an eleven-year-old boy, and the following January, Ratzinger led a meeting approving Hullerman’s transfer to Munich despite a memo warning that the priest was a potential “danger.” The Times has the memo, and six years later, in 1986, Hullerman was found guilty of molesting boys in another Bavarian parish. Oops.

The Munich archdiocese issued a statement on March 12 confirming that Benedict “took part” in the decision “to offer accommodation” to Hullerman while he underwent therapy, but the former vicar-general, Gerhard Gruber, said he took “all responsibility” for the transfer decision. The guy who’s now the pope didn’t make the decision, you see – he was just in the room at the time.

And there’s this:

The case comes on the heels of another New York Times accusation on Thursday according to which Benedict failed to act over an American priest accused of molesting up to 200 deaf children between 1950 and 1974.

The New York Times published documents showing that top Vatican officials, including Ratzinger – who was elected pope in 2005 – never took action against the priest, despite warnings from US bishops.

This is getting nasty. The apology to the Irish over the same stuff there may have to be mimeographed for use elsewhere. And the hits just kept on coming:

Also Friday, the Legionaries of Christ, an influential order, apologized for the “reprehensible actions” of their late founder Marcial Maciel after a Vatican probe concluded he had molested seminarians and fathered children.

And on it goes. Dan Brown was a minor problem, and the National Catholic Reporter says this is major – “We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history.” This editorial demands a personal response from the pontiff. He needs to clear the mounting evidence of his own personal complicity in cases of child rape and abuse, and what seems to them a subsequent cover-up:

The Holy Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role – as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope (2005-present) – in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

We urge this not primarily as journalists seeking a story, but as Catholics who appreciate that extraordinary circumstances require an extraordinary response. Nothing less than a full, personal and public accounting will begin to address the crisis that is engulfing the worldwide church. It is that serious.

And the very Catholic Andrew Sullivan seems to agree:

I think it’s that serious too. But this Pope could not face such a press conference or even a more dignified “credible forum.” The entire edifice could crumble to dust.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be called The Inquisition. This Pope doesn’t want to face one of those.

And the New York Times won’t let up:

The Vatican rejected as “speculation” any version of events other than the one it originally put forward to explain what it called the pope’s “nonresponsibility” in the matter.

But they add this:

Neither the Vatican nor the German archdiocese had previously mentioned in their statements that Cardinal Ratzinger was sent a memo relating to the reassignment of Father Hullerman. In his statement on Friday, Father Lombardi did not comment directly on the memo.

And Sullivan sees what is happening:

They can’t handle this. So they won’t. All they have now is denial.

That’s not a good place to be, and Sullivan cites former GE executive Ben Heineman in Business Week:

An important question is whether the Church should investigate and discipline severe ethical transgressions of its leaders as do other major organizations, including corporations. It appears that when it comes to ethical and leadership failures, Pope Benedict believes the answer is “no,” that the Church – which serves God – should not be held even to the same standards as responsible corporations – servants of Mammon.

That’s cold, but not as cold as Sullivan:

And this is the case Benedict is making: because we are the church, we need not observe the same moral standards as secular institutions. Even child rape must be dealt with entirely internally and secretly – and even then, no actual firings in any way commensurate with the offense. And now that we know that Ratzinger chaired an actual meeting that agreed to transfer a pedophile priest to therapy and another parish, rather than fire him immediately and report him to the authorities, we know how far up that attitude goes.

That’s why there really is no solution apart from a mass resignation at the top of the Church and some attempt to start over.

And he is not happy that those who enabled the abuse still run the church:

This strikes me as somewhat similar to the US torture issue. By now, no serious person can deny that the US tortured prisoners and that the president authorized it. But few can actually own this yet and follow it to its inevitable conclusion. Similarly, it is so mind-blowing to think of the Catholic Church as an international conspiracy with respect to raping and abusing children with impunity for decades that few of us can get out of the denial that everything is somehow still ok.

But it isn’t ok. If the Pope had any true sense of personal responsibility for enabling the abuse and rape of children, he would resign immediately. And if the Pope cannot take that personal responsibility for something so vile, something that wounded so many, something that violated core, basic levels of human trust, then what is he doing as a moral leader of any kind?

That’s a good question, one often asked of Bush, actually. And Sullivan sees what has happened to his Pope:

His clerical power may remain; but his moral authority is finished.

But elsewhere Sullivan suggests that the real problem is that these folks tend to see child rape as a sin rather than a crime, and that may be the root of the problem:

Hence the emphasis on forgiveness, therapy, repentance – rather than removal, prosecution and investigation. Obviously, there’s one reason for this: they were defending the reputation of the church by hiding its darkest secrets, and they were using the authority of religion to do so. But I suspect it’s also true that this is how they genuinely thought of child rape or abuse.

What could lead them to think that? Here Sullivan pulls rank, as an openly gay Catholic man:

Imagine you are a young gay Catholic teen coming into his sexuality and utterly convinced that it’s vile and evil. What do you do? I can tell you from my own experience. You bury it. But of course, you can’t bury it. So you objectify sex; and masturbate. You cannot have sexual or even emotional contact with a teenage girl, because it is simply impossible, and you certainly cannot have sex with another teenage boy or you will burn in hell for ever … so you have sex with images in your own head. Your sex life becomes completely solitary. It can be empowered by pornography or simply teenage imagination. Some shard of beauty, some aspect of sensuality, some vision of desire will keep you sexually energized for days.

Now suppose your powers of suppression and attachment to religious authority are also strong – perhaps stronger because you feel so adrift you need something solid to cling onto in your psyche. And you know you cannot marry a woman. But you want to have status and cover as a single man. If this is the 1950s and 1960s, it’s into the Church you go. You think it will cure you. In fact, it only makes you sicker because your denial is buttressed by their collective denial. And the whole thing becomes one big and deepening spiral of lies and corruption.

And here is his assessment:

Many of these tormented men have arrested sexual and emotional development. They have never had a sexual or intimate relationship with any other human being. Sex for them is an abstraction, a sin, not an interaction with an equal. And their sexuality has been frozen at the first real moment of internal terror: their early teens. So they tend to be attracted still to those who are in their own stage of development: teenage boys. And in their new positions, they are given total access to these kids who revere them for their power.

So they use these children to express themselves sexually. They barely see these children as young and vulnerable human beings, incapable of true consent. Because they have never had a real sexual relationship, have never had to deal with the core issue of human equality and dignity in sex, they don’t see the children as victims. Like the tortured gay man, Michael Jackson, they see them as friends. They are even gifted at interacting with them in non-sexual ways. One theme you find in many of these stories is that until these screwed up priests’ abuse and molestation is revealed, they often have a great reputation as pastors. As emotionally developed as your average fourteen year old wanting to be loved, they sublimate a lot of their lives into clerical service. But they also act out sexually all the time.

And it’s too bad that makes so much sense. And there’s the closed-loop thing at play too:

And they know that many around them have the same patterns, and so a truly sick subculture perpetuates this. In the end, it is all about themselves and their pathologies, how to express them and how to hide them. As social sexual tolerance advances, and as fewer straight men are prepared to give up sex for life to become priests, the proportion of screwed up pastors increases. In this self-protective environment, these priests do not even see the children as fellow humans. They remain like those solitary abstract images in their heads. So they cannot fully grasp the enormity of the crime they are committing and see it merely as another part of the vortex of their sexual sin.

So they cover up for one another; they fear that if one of them falls, they will all fall; even those who are not totally screwed up about sex are eager to prevent the church’s secret from being exposed. But the more they cover up, the bigger the calamity when it all emerges. And when it’s clear that at the center of this kind of pathological secrecy and shame is the current Pope, then it is clear that the entire institution is corrupt from the top down.

So basically “these men are too objectively disordered to run a church.”

They bask in self-denial, while they wage a culture war against gay men who have actually dealt with their sexuality, who have owned it, and celebrated it and even found ways to channel it into adult relationships and even civil marriage.

But it seems this game is now over:

The current Pope is now found directly responsible for two clear incidents of covering up or ignoring child abuse and rape. As head of the organization that took responsibility for investigating these cases for so long, his complicity in this vast and twisted criminal conspiracy is not in dispute. If he were the head of a secular organization, he would have already resigned and be cooperating with the police.

But he is the Vicar of Christ on earth.

It’s hard to imagine a deeper crisis for the Catholic hierarchy than this. If the church is to survive – and it will because it is the vessel of eternal truth – it will have to go through a wrenching transformation.

He sees only one possibility – the resignation of this Pope and an end to priestly celibacy.

But one of his readers has some quibbles:

You say that some men entered the priesthood to find a cure for their gay sexuality. I suspect that somewhere there may be such a priest, but overwhelmingly, we who were ordained gay were actually not in search of a cure. We had a rather high estimation of ourselves as sexual creatures. We were joining a fraternity of accomplished and respected gay men. Gay sex was certainly not off limits to us as long as we bought the duplicity and the premise that we did it secretly. As gay culture became acceptable, the need for this fraternity withered and the priesthood stopped attracting good gay candidates.

Also, I tried hard to understand and to feel your assertion that pedophile priests see their victims as less than human. I don’t think I agree with that. I think that in most cases, pedophile priests saw their victims as convenient humans.

Maybe so, but, either way, there was and is and will be a problem:

I think what many Catholics don’t know is that priests are simply not well trained for celibacy. Even the ones who are not sexually active have substituted the non-celibate preoccupations of gluttony and entertainment and porn and whiskey to take the place of sex. It’s a sad way of life all around.

And he thinks this Pope will retire “for health reasons” – but that no one is going to abolish “the charade” of priestly celibacy. It seems we have a self-perpetuating system – an ecological system, as the trendy people say these days.

But there is a larger ecology to consider. We are a deeply religious nation. Then Dan Brown turned the core of Christianity into a masterful murder-mystery-conspiracy entertainment that took the country by storm, and then became a major motion picture – Columbia spent a hundred twenty-five million on it and Sony Pictures Entertainment handled the worldwide distribution. That did its damage, and now this. Moral authority – the cultural agreement that this that or the other thing should be taken very, very, very seriously – dissolves, as it will.

And that spreads. Religion itself begins to lose its grip on the imagination. Sarah Palin says she will run for president in 2012 if God tells her to – and that sort of thing somehow seems less appealing after all this. Someone says God told them Darwin was wrong. People shrug. Someone else says Obama is the antichrist. Yeah, well – whatever.

And sooner or later we are no longer a deeply religious nation. We decide to work things out on our own, thinking things through and talking with each other, while God tends to more important things, or other things. We become Deists like Jefferson after all – all because of one potboiler novel and a conspiracy of a number of confused and conflicted and frightened men who turned as bad as bad can be.

Will we survive? We probably will.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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