Donate to IMPACT
Click below for info
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
by Morris Sullivan
I'm not a Catholic. Nor am I one of those people described by formerly-Catholic acquaintances as a "recovering Catholic." I've never been Catholic at all.
I grew up in West Texas, where pretty much everybody was either Baptist or Methodist. It was common to ask someone you just met, "So...are you Bab-Tist or Meth-Dist?" If the answer was "neither," then they were probably Churcha-Christ. Occasionally, a tent-revival meetin' would come through town, and for a while afterward, you'd meet a few Holy Rollers.
A Cath-Lick, however, was a rare curiosity. About all I knew about them was this: they apparently thought they were the only folks destined for heaven. We Bab-Tists knew better--you can only get into heaven if you're Bab-Tized, and sprinklin' doesn't count.
I moved to Florida when I was fifteen and met some honest t'God Catholics. In fact, some Catholics became good friends of mine. So since no one else in the media will do it--and my hate mail from figure skating aficionados has started getting a little stale--I've decided to defend the Church.
Defending the Church is a decidedly unpopular thing to do; that alone is probably reason enough to do it. However, there are other, better reasons. First, none of my Catholic friends were ever molested by priests, but a couple of my Bab-Tist and Meth-Dist friends were felt up by their pastors. And now that I think about it, so was a Holy Roller cousin of mine.
Several months ago, the words "priest" and "pedophile" started showing up in the news every day, appearing together more often than bacon and eggs on breakfast menus. In response, every two-bit radio talk-jockey and newspaper editorialist began hashing over the issue, while virtually every news organ began in-depth coverage.
Commentary has been almost universally anti-Church. The left welcomes it as further proof of the failure of conservative religion, and their liberal hearts bleed for the victims; the right wants to go after the collared gay pedophiles with their NRA-approved handguns.
The problem stems from corruption in the church and their long-lived tradition of secrecy, one pundit says. Or it's those damn gay priests. Or it's that pesky vow of celibacy. Solutions range from opening the church up to government intrusion to allowing priests to marry to banning gays from the priesthood.
While media coverage has been intensive, it has overlooked some important items. For example, neither homosexuality nor sexual deprivation cause pedophilia. As the gay rights movement tried to explain for decades, people who want to have sex with young boys typically don't want to have sex with either adult males or females. And while priests take a vow of celibacy--which they willingly accept when they enter the priesthood--no one is forced to remain celibate. If the pressure is too great, a priest can always take another job; he won't go to hell for that, you know.
Reporters seem to accept every accusation at face value. Even NPR interviewed a self-proclaimed victim without openly wondering if said "victim" was telling the truth. The guy is picketing the Vatican embassy, having conveniently realized thirty years hence that he'd been molested by a priest.
A news item about a lawsuit--and anticipated cash settlement--caused this ancient memory to bubble into his consciousness. Now, he plans to stay on the sidewalk waving his anti-Church signs until they give him money. "Even $100,000 wouldn't be fair," the guy said. After all, he'd wasted his life because of a pedophile priest.
Now, maybe the guy's story is true, in which case the priest deserves sanctioning and the church ought to pay him something. I imagine if a preacher had put his pudgy Bab-Tist hand on my preadolescent thigh and asked me to jack off for him, I'd be traumatized by that for a while. And if someone did that to my kid, I'd kick his ass. But I'll be Goddamned if I'd let it waste either of our lives. And reporters should know that when the smell of money is in the air, there will always be some people who will follow its scent, hoping to snag a few hundred thousand bucks as they waft by on the breeze.
On the eve of Memorial Day, I listened while a Missouri talk radio host grilled a politician about why government wasn't going into the church to force it to clean up the mess. The politician calmly explained the first amendment to the US Constitution, which says, among other things: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Liberal types ordinarily use that clause to protect us from religion. However, the sword cuts both ways. Our founders did want to protect us from government-imposed religion; but they also wanted to protect religion from government imposition.
Our founders were remarkably far-sighted guys. In today's America, religious organizations compete with government and Madison Ave. for our hearts and minds. The Church is the only organization big enough and powerful enough to sway public opinion to any great degree. It has made more than its fair share of mistakes. However, if I had to choose one or the other--the well-intentioned if sometimes misguided moralism of the church, or the avarice-driven amorality of the multinational corporation--I'd take the church, hands-down.
The Church has been less-than-supportive of the "war on terrorism." While Protestant congregations seem ready to join the flag-waving and God-blessing, the Catholic Church has urged restraint. The Catholic Church has more solid international political connections than American Protestant sects, and is inherently less intertwined with American-style chauvinism.
Consequently, the Church's views on the war are a few steps farther away from the attack on New York City. In his New Year 2002 address, while Americans were buying record numbers of hawkish bumper stickers and tee shirts, and while the war raged in Afghanistan, the Pope urged a response that "combines justice with forgiveness."
"International cooperation in the fight against [terrorism] must also include a courageous and resolute...commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization," said the Holy See. "The recruitment of terrorists is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated."
That enough was probably hard for the average American hawk to swallow. Further, while the Church is commonly perceived as a highly conservative body, American Catholic priests have been effective leaders in several important "liberal" causes, including the Vietnam-era antiwar movement. One such priest, Father Daniel Berrigan, gained notoriety when he broke into a draft board office and poured blood on its files. Since September, Berrigan has already begun to encourage a fledgling antiwar movement.
Were I a little more paranoid, I'd wonder if the assault on Catholicism wasn't motivated by a conspiracy to discredit the Church along with its war-unfriendly philosophies. However, I suspect the actual conspiracy is much subtler and even subconscious.
The legal system and media have both ignored the fact that there has long been an anti-Catholic prejudice in middle America. Despite the religious demographic of some of our larger cities, most of the US is decidedly Protestant, and thus anti-Papist. It's entirely possible that media and prosecutors have, at least unconsciously, fed into and fed off of that prejudice.
I began by saying I knew no one who had been molested by a Catholic priest. I failed, as have most journalists, to mention something else important: Virtually all the Catholics I've known have told me stories about priests. Some have received wisdom from priests in times of confusion. Some have been helped through a hard time by a priest, consoled in time of tragedy or fed in time of need. Others have begged a priest for, and received, forgiveness for some small but persistent guilt.
When a priest imparts absolution, I'm told, he does so by penalizing the sin, then forgiving the sinner. I think America could take that approach to heart. We should indeed mete out justice to those who deserve it, but the Church and its priests do a lot of good in our society. We should indeed punish the sins. However, let's not neglect to forgive the sinner.
Email your feedback on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns
Other articles by Morris Sullivan: