Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Church's Let-Them-Eat-Cake Moment

Dave Granlund
It saddens me to see the fallout from the church sex-abuse scandal over the past week. From bishops and far-right traditionalist groups trying to scapegoat gays, to a report from the Catholic League trying to parse the meaning of the word “rape,” to a cardinal in Mexico who says the victims should look at the skeletons in their own closets (no joke), it’s obvious that church leadership doesn’t have a clue. Even the pope, whom I generally like, took a week to release a statement, and when he did, it included asking the entire church to fast and pray – as if we should all be doing penance rather than the perpetrators.

Blaming gay men, blaming victims, blaming everyone but themselves.

What should be happening is a purge. The Vatican should be demanding the immediate resignations of anyone still in the church who took part in the abuse or helped cover it up. Instead, we’re hearing a lot of the same things we did back in 2002 – unconvincing apologies and half-hearted promises to do better. When even the best the pope can do is offer platitudes that sound like the empty "thoughts and prayers" that follow every mass shooting, it's clear that this problem is not going to go away quickly, if at all.

Indeed, the reaction so far tells me that nothing is likely to change until the church feels a financial repercussion. People will have to vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. Money talks, even in the Catholic church.

To his credit, the pope did point a finger at clericalism in the church, and that is part of the problem. Some people in church leadership act as if this is still the 12th century and the clergy are all unaccountable demi-princes with no time for the common riff-raff of the laity. If they're sorry about anything, they're only sorry the church got caught. But that's also serving as a stark reminder that the church is, inherently, a hierarchical institution that's accustomed to barking down orders from on high while the laity are supposed to blindly obey and never question their authority figures, no matter how wrong they may be. The church is not a democratic institution in which the voices of the everyday people count. It never has been, and it probably never will be. 

The church has been run by an old boys’ club for literally centuries. They look out for their own, and it’s clear that many feel themselves above reproach. The same thing happens anytime a group of men are given power over others. But you know what cleans up the back-room deals, cover-ups, and all-around secrecy and corruption of all-male clubs? Letting women in. It changes the dynamic every time. Men act differently in the presence of women. We all know this to be true. Most of the time, they act better.

The church has always maintained that it can’t ordain women because Jesus only had male disciples. The only problem is, that’s not true. Mary Magdalene was the apostle to the apostles. Women followed Jesus from town to town and at least partially funded his ministry. He treated women like equals in a time when women were literally the property of men. The early church was populated with female deacons, prophets, and hosts of house churches.

Yes, it’s true that the church venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it’s notable that for Mary and all the female saints, what many seem to value the most about them is their virginity. You never hear about it if a male saint was a virgin, but it almost always comes up for the women. Meanwhile, Paul says it’s better to marry than to burn. So we end up with a dichotomy for women that values them either for their virginity, or for their ability to act as a sexual receptacle for men so that the men don’t burn with lust. But where are women valued for simply being women? Why should women with a gift for ministry be prohibited from leading a flock? Why should we not value their natural gifts for nurturing and compassion and allow those characteristics to help reshape the church?

Allowing the ordination of women won’t clean up this mess by itself, but it would be a big step in the right direction.  

Then there’s the problem of scapegoating gay priests. Far-right Catholic groups, along with a small number of bishops, have been loudly condemning a supposed “lavender mafia” in the church, in an attempt to portray the abuse problem as a homosexual problem. Polls have suggested that as many as 50% or 60% of priests are gay, so in that sense it’s not a surprise that many of the abused have been male. But to say that the abuse problem is therefore a “gay” problem is to miss the point that abuse is not about sexual gratification as much as it is about power and control. When straight men abuse girls and women, we don’t blame it on the fact that they’re heterosexual. We acknowledge that they’re abusing their power over others to get what they want. It’s no different for gay men. To be gay does not make you a predator. We can’t overlook the fact that women and little girls were abused, too, and that nuns have also complained of systemic sexual abuse.

No correlation has ever been found between homosexuality and pedophilia. Despite the persistent myth, the idea that gay men are predisposed to pedophilia is as baseless, and as bigoted, as the long-discredited racist claim that black men were predisposed to raping white women. In fact, studies show that the typical pedophile is a middle-aged married man with children. 

So why are so many boys abused? Because studies also show that pedophiles are attracted to age groups rather than to gender. So a male pedophile who may otherwise appear straight to the outside world could be just as likely to rape a boy as a girl. And in the case of the Catholic church, whom do abusive priests have more access to? Boys.

The larger issue appears to be that men with sexual problems are entering the clergy, either to gain access to children and subordinates, or to try to escape from their own urges. And that’s why I wouldn’t mind seeing the church give up its celibacy rule.

I’m not making the absurd argument that celibacy turns men into pedophiles, or that marriage cures pedophilia. What I’m saying is that without the celibacy rule, men seeking refuge from their sexual desires may not find the priesthood as welcoming of an escape any longer. It would certainly widen the field of candidates to include men who may be otherwise eminently qualified to be a priest, save for being married. And it therefore may also attract men who are more sexually balanced in the first place. It’s notable that other liturgical churches that allow their priests to marry – Orthodox, Episcopal, even Eastern Catholic – don’t deal with these sex scandals to anywhere the same degree the Roman Catholic church does.

Maybe, then, dropping the celibacy rule would create a church that’s less sexually obsessed, and that's led by men (and women) who aren’t so sexually stunted. From a practical standpoint, it would be nice if engaged and married couples could receive counseling from a priest who actually knows what married life is like. To be counseled on marriage by a celibate man is absurd at best, hypocritical at worst.

Speaking of hypocrisy, the church would do well to stop punishing people for their own personal relational choices until it cleans up its own act. Divorced? No communion. Using contraceptives? No communion. Catholic and didn’t get married before a priest? No communion. But oh, you’re a priest and you sexually abused a child? We’ll move you to another parish, and don’t forget to consecrate the Eucharist on Sunday.

"They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger."

Jesus dined with sinners and didn’t withhold the bread and wine from anyone at the Last Supper. But he had a whole lot to say about hypocrites, especially religious hypocrites, and warned that it would be best for a millstone to be tied around one’s neck than to lead a child astray.

Frankly, we’re well past the point of needing to flip tables in the temple. We need nothing less than a modern Reformation.

Whether the insular, corrupt leadership of the church will do anything remains to be seen. Right now I think they’re happy to feed the antigay narrative and try to pin the whole problem on a shadowy lavender mafia. If they have a scapegoat, they don’t need to change a thing. But good luck getting that to fix the problems with the church. All it’s going to do is inflame antigay hatred while unaccountable men continue to abuse their power.

And for those in the pews who are trying to shame the people who have left the church over this issue: Stop. Please. For those for whom abuse hits home, either at the hands of a clergyman or someone in their family, they may have no choice but to leave for their own mental well-being. The combination of horrific abuse and systemic cover-up will be a bridge too far for some. Others simply aren’t going to be able to stomach the self-serving hypocrisy anymore. Everyone has a breaking point. To tell those who leave that that’s what Satan wants them to do is like telling a battered woman to stay in her marriage because her husband is still a good guy sometimes.

For those who stay, do some good. Don’t let the leadership allow this incident to blow over. Don’t allow them to scapegoat people or blame the victims. Demand more oversight, accountability, and transparency. Hold your offering from the collection basket if necessary. Be a thorn in their side until they respond.

For those who leave, I know how hard this is and how angry you are. And I don’t blame you for your decision.

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