Wednesday, January 16, 2013

James Carroll's An American Requiem: "The Repressive, Deceit-Ridden Culture of Celibate Clericalism"

Francis Cardinal Spellman

I've just finished reading James Carroll's memoir of his relationship to his father, and his own painful journey through and out of the priesthood in the turbulent years of Vatican II, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War. The book is called An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

This passage leaps out at me:

[Francis Cardinal] Spellman was a short, round-faced eunuch--although his biographer many years later would report that "rumors abounded" about his homosexual activity. Many of his priests assumed it. William Cardinal O'Connell of Boston had called him many years before "the fat little liar." Some would describe Spellman as a pederast. The thought that at the very time I was trying to repress my own sexual urges, key Church figures at whose behest I was doing so may themselves have been promiscuous is enough, even today, to wrench my stomach with anger and disgust. The issue is not homosexuality, but dishonesty and abuse. By the 1990s the pathetic exploitation of the young and the weak by priests had become an old story, but in the 1950s this pathology was deeply hidden. As the secret became exposed, Church officials would work hard to make the misbehavior of priests seem marginal, yet it was central. The pathology was and is endemic to the repressive, deceit-ridden culture of celibate clericalism. Cardinal O'Connell's biographer would expose him, an active homosexual, as a liar too (pp. 70-71).

The repressive, deceit-ridden culture of celibate clericalism: Carroll speaks elsewhere in the book about the belief, deliberately inculcated among Catholics by their hierarchical leaders, that ordination changes the ontological status of the man (underscore man, he points out, too) ordained. And makes him semi-divine, the necessary channel of salvation for the Catholic people, so that without a priest and his mediation, one cannot attain salvation. As he notes, these ideas were especially strong in the Irish Catholic subculture in which he grew up, in which having a son who was a priest gave a mother quasi-regal status in her parish.

Clericalism, with its suggestion that those inducted into the secret, deceit-ridden club of power and privilege attain a status that elevates them above the humanity of the rest of the people of God: the only word I can use to describe that system is the overworked theological term "evil." And to the extent that some Catholics still don't get it, that they still permit the church's leaders to forfeit the future of the whole church to the maintenance of that evil, spectacularly unjust system as they remain complicit in the evil--to that extent, the need of the Catholic church for thoroughgoing, top-to-bottom reform seems glaringly evident to me.

As an aside, but related: Carroll notes (p. 74) that the election of John XXIII to the papacy spelled "disaster" for the likes of Spellman, for the powerful curial officials, and for "Church moguls" whose power depended on the "triumphalist ecclesiology of the Counter-Reformation," with its insistence that the church is a perfect society in need of no reform. With princes whose power is unassailable and who are beyond accountability to the mere mortals over whom they rule . . . . 

As he notes, the myth of the sinless church was definitively shattered for European Catholics after "the near total capitulation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy before Adolf Hitler." And then he adds,

As for the Vatican itself, when Pope John was asked what to do about Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy, which savaged Pius XII's complicitous silence, His Holiness replied, "What can one do about the truth?"

"What can one do about the truth," indeed?

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