Patent Leather, Impure Thoughts

In the middle of last month Cardinal Edward Egan, who leads the Archdiocese of New York, lamented that the Roman Catholic church was "under siege" and threatened with a situation that might put it "out of business."

Each day brought new revelations of pedophile priests, each morning new stories of young Catholics victimized by the men they had been raised to call Father. But the cardinal was sounding the alarm about something altogether different. In the midst of the greatest scandal to engulf the church in his lifetime, he was irate about legislation that would require mandatory health-insurance coverage for contraceptives in New York state. His anger brought to mind the Gospel of the Sunday before, in which Jesus gave a blind man back his sight while one of the Pharisees criticized him because he had performed the miracle on the Sabbath.

Missing the point has become the stock in trade of many of those who purport to lead the world's Catholics. And they are about to miss it again as they talk of better psychological screening for seminarians, of finally relinquishing the role of prosecutor to actual law-enforcement authorities, of ministering to victims, of agonizing over how in the world all this could have happened.

Perhaps they might want to ask the ordinary Catholics who have been too little consulted by the highhanded hierarchy. We understand that in the world of "Father knows best" in which we came of age, all this was bound to occur. For too many years, the church seemed to have a bizarre preoccupation with sins of the flesh so unrelenting that, to this day, people will ask if the nuns taught me that patent-leather shoes reflect up. (No.) The enforced celibacy of the male priesthood, an invention only of the faith's second millennium, taught a clear lesson: eschewing human sexuality was the greatest glory of the highest calling. ("Our ideal is not to experience desire at all."--Clement of Alexandria, saint.) The ban on contraception taught that sex could be countenanced only when it could lead to pregnancy. There was no passion or pleasure, only procreation and punishment. Of course, there was power, too, the absolute power of the priest, a man whose psychosexual development often became becalmed in what Eugene Kennedy, the psychologist and former priest, describes as "a child's-garden-of-verses world in seminaries and novitiates," a world customarily entered in adolescence, when most of us are just beginning to learn about the uses and abuses of sexuality.

Out of such preparation, with such sentiments, how could there not be some whose sexual impulses would be perverted into twisted power relationships with children or unformed young adults? "They reached towards children," Kennedy writes, "for children they were themselves." And despite the church's antipathy toward homosexuality, it was inevitable that most of those victimized would be male. After all, the teachings about ordination and celibacy and the evils of desire had as their subtext a misogyny that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that sex with a female is the lowest form of sexual expression. ("Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman."-- Augustine of Hippo, saint.) Even when a kinder, gentler Catholicism began to flower after Vatican II, pregnancy politics often threatened to crowd out social action, and questions about the ordination of women were sometimes treated like the most unthinkable blasphemy.

We didn't understand, some of the bishops say now about the pedophiles among them, moved from parish to parish, with fresh choirboys to importune and then hush. We thought they could change. We thought they could be cured. We didn't know. There is so much they didn't know years ago, and yet about which they were so certain. They didn't know what it was to bear and rear a half-dozen children, to turn away at night not because of coldness but because of mother fatigue. They didn't know what it was like to drag along in the harness of a dreadful marriage, dying by inches. But no birth control, they said, no divorce. No self-abuse, no petting, no impure thoughts. The church of a Jesus who let Mary Magdalene caress his feet threatened to be swamped by an icy sea of sexual prohibition.

The bishops gathered wood for this current conflagration every time they turned away from the human condition to emphasize wayward genitalia. They must be amazed at how harshly they are now judged after all those years of deference, when they were allowed to make their own laws. Perhaps they sense that they are being judged with the ferocity of those accustomed to being judged harshly themselves. The judgment of divorced Catholics reborn in good marriages ordered not to go to communion. The judgment of women up all night with sick babies lectured about the sanctity of life. The judgment of hardworking, devoted priests who have watched the hierarchy cover up the dirt that sullies them, too. The judgment of now grown children who have taken to drink, drugs, domestic violence, because of the shadow that Father's wandering hands have cast over their lives.

Now there is some new talk of allowing priests to marry, even the occasional radical suggestion that the notion of ordaining women might be revisited. That's the way, isn't it? As soon as a job is devalued enough, they offer it to us. Perhaps, in this case, too late. ("I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."-- Groucho of Marx, wise guy.) When the sad stories were told from the pulpit of dwindling vocations, there was always this underlying notion of selfishness, of a smirking guy with a beer and a babe not great enough to give himself up to the service of God. Instead there is now a sense of a priestly existence so out of balance, so estranged from normal human intercourse that, for some, the rapacious pursuit of altar boys passes for intimacy. The leaders of the church miss the point. This is not simply about pedophilia. It is about a pathology deep and wide, a pathology that allows blindness to continue as long as the Sabbath is observed.