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To Save The Church, Dismantle The Priesthood
To Save The Church, Dismantle The Priesthood

Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy— and take the faith back into their own hands.

James Carroll

I. “THE MURDER OF A SOUL”

To feel relief at my mother’s being dead was once unthinkable, but then the news came from Ireland. It would have crushed her. An immigrant’s daughter, my mother lived with an eye cast back to the old country, the land against which she measured every virtue. Ireland was heaven to her, and the Catholic Church was heaven’s choir. Then came the Ryan Report.

Not long before The Boston Globe began publishing its series on predator priests, in 2002—the “Spotlight” series that became a movie of the same name—the government of Ireland established a commission, ultimately chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, to investigate accounts and rumors of child abuse in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, nearly all of which were run by the Catholic Church.

The Ryan Commission published its 2,600-page report in 2009. Despite government inspections and supervision, Catholic clergy had, across decades, violently tormented thousands of children. The report found that children held in orphanages and reformatory schools were treated no better than slaves—in some cases, sex slaves. Rape and molestation of boys were “endemic.” Other reports were issued about other institutions, including parish churches and schools, and homes for unwed mothers—the notorious “Magdalene Laundries,” where girls and women were condemned to lives of coercive servitude. The ignominy of these institutions was laid out in plays and documentary films, and in Philomena, the movie starring Judi Dench, which was based on a true story. The homes-for-women scandal climaxed in 2017, when a government report revealed that from 1925 to 1961, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam, County Galway, babies who died—nearly 800 of them—were routinely disposed of in mass graves or sewage pits. Not only priests had behaved despicably. So had nuns.

In August 2018, Pope Francis made a much publicized visit to Ireland. His timing could not have been worse. Just then, a second wave of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal was breaking. In Germany, a leaked bishops’ investigation revealed that from 1946 to 2014, 1,670 clergy had assaulted 3,677 children. Civil authorities in other nations were launching investigations, moving aggressively to preempt the Church. In the United States, also in 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury alleged that over the course of 70 years, more than 1,000 children had been abused by more than 300 priests across the state. Church authorities had successfully silenced the victims, deflected law enforcement, and shielded the predators. The Pennsylvania report was widely taken to be a conclusive adjudication, but grand-jury findings are not verdicts. Still, this record of testimony and investigation was staggering. The charges told of a ring of pedophile priests who gave many of their young targets the gift of a gold cross to wear, so that the other predator priests could recognize an initiated child who would not resist an overture. “This is the murder of a soul,” said one victim who testified before the grand jury.

Attorneys general in at least 15 other states announced the opening of investigations into Church crimes, and the U.S. Department of Justice followed suit. Soon, in several states, teams of law-enforcement agents armed with search warrants burst into diocesan offices and secured records. The Texas Rangers raided the offices of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which was presided over by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. DiNardo had been presented by the Church as the new face of accountability and transparency when he came to Galveston-Houston in 2004. The rangers seized an archive of abuse—boxes of sex-allegation files along with computers, including DiNardo’s. The cardinal was accused of protecting a particularly egregious predator priest.

These and other investigations will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come. As all of this was unfolding, Pope Francis responded with a meek call for a four-day meeting of senior bishops, to be held in Rome under the rubric “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” This was like putting Mafia chieftains in charge of a crime commission.

Before, during, and after his trip to Ireland, Francis had expressed, as he put it, “shame and sorrow.” But he showed no sign of understanding the need for the Church to significantly reform itself or to undertake acts of true penance.

One of the astonishments of Pope Francis’s Irish pilgrimage was his claim, made to reporters during his return trip to Rome, that until then he had known nothing of the Magdalene Laundries or their scandals: “I had never heard of these mothers—they call it the laundromat of women, where an unwed woman is pregnant and goes into these hospitals.” Never heard of these mothers? When I read that, I said to myself: A lie. Pope Francis is lying. He may not have been lying—he may merely have been ignorant. But to be un informed about the long-simmering Magdalene scandal was just as bad. As I read the pope’s words, a taut wire in me snapped.

The wire had begun to stretch a quarter of a century ago, when I was starting out as a Boston Globe columnist. Twenty years earlier, I had been a Catholic priest, preoccupied with war, social justice, and religious reform—questions that defined my work for the Globe. One of my first columns, published in September 1992, was a reflection on the child-sex-abuse crimes of a Massachusetts priest named James Porter. I argued that Porter’s predation had been enabled by the Church’s broader culture of priest-protecting silence. Responding to earlier Globe stories about Porter, an infuriated Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, had hurled an anathema that seemed to come from the Middle Ages: “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” It took a decade, but God’s power eventually came down on Law himself.

In tandem with the “Spotlight” series and afterward, more than a dozen of my columns on priestly sex abuse ran on the op-ed page, with titles such as “Priests’ Victims Victimized Twice” and “Meltdown in the Catholic Church.” I became a broken record on the subject.

I bring all of this up to make the point that, by the summer of 2018, as a still-practicing Catholic, I harbored no illusions about the Church’s grotesque betrayal. So it took some doing to bring me to a breaking point, and Pope Francis—whom in many ways I admire, and in whom I had placed an almost desperate hope—is the unlikely person who brought me there.

For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.

II. THE TRAPPINGS OF EMPIRE

The virtues of the Catholic faith have been obvious to me my whole life. The world is better for those virtues, and I cherish the countless men and women who bring the faith alive. The Catholic Church is a worldwide community of well over 1 billion people. North and South, rich and poor, intellectual and illiterate—it is the only institution that crosses all such borders on anything like this scale. As James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake, Catholic means “Here Comes Everybody.” Around the world there are more than 200,000 Catholic schools and nearly 40,000 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities, mostly in developing countries. The Church is the largest nongovernmental organization on the planet, through which selfless women and men care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good. The world needs the Church of these legions to be rational, historically minded, pluralistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice.

That is the Church many of us hoped might emerge from the Second Vatican Council, which convened in the nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica from 1962 to 1965. After the death, in 1958, of Pope Pius XII—and after 11 deadlocked ballots—a presumptive nonentity from Venice named Angelo Roncalli was elected pope, in effect to keep the Chair of Peter warm for the few years it might take one or another of the proper papal candidates to consolidate support. Roncalli— Pope John XXIII—instead launched a vast theological recasting of the Catholic imagination. Vatican II advanced numerous reforms of liturgy and theology, ranging from the jettisoning of the Latin Mass to the post-Holocaust affirmation of the integrity of Judaism. Decisively, the council defined the Church as the “People of God,” and located the clerical hierarchy within the community as servants, not above it as rulers. The declaration, though it would turn out to have little practical consequence for the clergy, was symbolized by liturgical reform that brought the altar down from on high, into the midst of the congregation.

I was a teenager at the time, living with my family on a military base in Germany, but I paid close attention to the impression Pope John was making in Rome. He stopped his car as it passed the city’s main synagogue one Saturday and informally greeted the Jewish congregants who’d been milling about after services. He ordered the anti-Jewish adjective perfidious deleted from the Catholic liturgy. As the apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece during World War II, he had supplied fake baptismal certificates to hundreds or perhaps thousands of Jews, aiding their escape; now, as pope, he met with a noted Jewish historian who had accused the Church—rightly—of complicity in Nazi anti- Semitism, and endorsed the historian’s work. In calling his council, Pope John had instructed organizers to put the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people high on the agenda— a result of his intimate experience of the Church’s failure to forthrightly defend the Jews during the Holo caust. When he received a Jewish delegation at the Vatican, he came down from his elevated platform to greet its members, saying, “I am Joseph, your brother”— a reference to the biblical Joseph greeting his long-lost family.

In one area after another, the council raised basic questions of ethos, honesty, and justice, setting in motion a profound institutional examination of conscience. I was very much a part of the Vatican II generation. In due course I would become a priest—a member of a liberal American order known as the Paul ist Fathers. The Paulists redefined themselves around the vision of Pope John, and made me an advocate of that vision.

What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organi zational charts of the late Roman empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasiimperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction— and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repres sion of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascet ic monks and hermits, may have been put forward, early on, as a mode of intimacy with God, appropriate for a few. But over time the cult of celibacy and virginity developed an inhuman aspect— a broader devaluation and suspicion of bodily experi ence. It also had a pragmat ic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

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June 2019