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Justification or Atonement

August 23, 2019 (4,217 words)

It’s not uncommon for young, headstrong people to make poor choices and bad decisions while in their halcyon teens and 20s, and sometimes even into their 30’s and 40’s.

But once we reach the calmer waters of our 50’s and 60’s it’s natural to look back, take stock, and recognize where we may have veered off course. We begin to own up to our mistakes, even if hesitantly and a bit haltingly. This is when humility makes its first appearance in many of our lives.

That doesn’t seem to be happening with the same frequency it once did. More often than not these days, with waves of encouragement from the culture of personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, yesterday’s rebels are digging in their heels and doubling down on their apostasy.

They are refusing to acknowledge the flaws in their youthful thought process, and choosing instead to stand by and defend their often flagrant miscues.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, endless justification of our wayward behavior strikes me as an unfortunate form of self-flattery. I suppose the proper word would be “narcissism,” though, wouldn’t it?

This came to mind recently when I happened across the June cover story of The Atlantic magazine. It’s entitled “Abolish the Priesthood,” and is written by that famous ex-priest, James Carroll.

By way of full disclosure, I have not followed Mr. Carroll’s illustrious post-ordination journey, nor am I the least bit familiar with his oeuvre. But I have read his long Atlantic piece several times now, and I think I get his gist.

A simple internet search reveals Carroll was ordained in 1969 at the tender age of 26, and left the priesthood in 1974, at the equally tender age of 31. This brief, five-year stint inspires his confident assertion: “I know this problem from the inside.”


whistle-blower status as a badge of honor…


Indeed, his whistle-blower status appears to be his calling card, a badge of honor, and the basis of his subsequent forty-five year (and counting) writing career. By all accounts he has successfully mined this limited experience again-and-again, in award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction.

Along the way he has developed a reliable reputation for dire observations about the Catholic Church and the ordained life that our contemporary world has been only too eager to embrace.

If that is so, if his five years as a young priest are the foundation of all that has followed, then it would be safe to say the ideological bent of this current magazine article is fairly representative of the whole. So I can’t be accused of jumping to conclusions.

But make no mistake, the man can write. The acclaim and plaudits he has garnered for his fluent prose style have merit. And to be clear, it’s not my intention here to clumsily disparage or casually dismiss James Carroll’s heterodox ideas just because I may disagree with him.

On the contrary, I readily grant many people think and feel the same way he does. My objective is not to throw stones, but to balance the scales in some small way. Since polite society already agrees with everything Mr. Carroll has to say, the field is ripe for someone to push back a bit on the conventional wisdom of the day.


his eloquence lends nobility to the average skeptic…


Since he is not saying anything new at this point – merely adding yet more evidence to buttress his basic argument – his writing is now a case of preaching to the choir. Though his eloquence does make the average skeptic feel much nobler about their own rebellion.

Regarding that choir, he himself acknowledges his recent 2018 decision to stop attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist will probably be met with indifference among his rank-and-file readership: Who cares? It’s about time!

Nevertheless, for a layman like me to tackle this professional’s polish and erudition is a daunting task. Just considering this long magazine article alone, one has no choice but to admit how accomplished the 10,000 word effort is, and how comprehensive is its scope.

Not only is it beyond my ability to address and rebut each example of priestly malfeasance and institutional corruption Mr. Carroll cites, but it would require 10,000 words of my own to even attempt the challenge.

So I will limit myself to a few broad strokes, as his my wont. For starters, one notices Carroll’s five short years in the priesthood did not lead him to conclude that perhaps he wasn’t cut out to be a priest. Instead it apparently taught him there is something fundamentally wrong with the priesthood itself. All two thousand years of it.

When hearing confessions of young people who were racked with guilt because of “a Church-imposed sexual repressiveness,” it does not occur to him the formation he received at his liberal (by his own admission) seminary may have been lacking in the fundamentals on this important subject.

Alternatively, he can’t bring himself to simply call out the obvious: How challenging it can be for a young priest to properly discern an authentic Catholic perspective on this most important, elemental aspect of the human condition.


reaching the same conclusions as our cultural arbiters…


Nor does it seem to register with Mr. Carroll that he has coincidentally reached the same conclusion regarding the Church’s “sexual repressiveness” has have so many others, who also happen to be our leading cultural arbiters. He does, however, articulate that viewpoint with far more panache, employing a slew of impressive historical antecedents to underscore the standard complaints.

For those who go in for this sort of thing, he locates the source of all the repression in the fourth century, and identifies Augustine’s “theology of sex” as the culprit. The way Augustine reads Genesis, Carroll tells us, paints the original act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden, involving Adam and Eve, as a sexual sin.

This “put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.”

And then before you know it, we arrive at: “The celibacy of priests… 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 experience.”

Adding to this “suspicion” and “devaluation,” the original act of disobedience in Eden “led to the blaming of women 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.”

For James Carroll, “The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure.” That structure is based not on the Gospels, but “in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman Empire… under the Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself.. with the bishop in Rome reigning as monarch.”

This, then, is the origin of “clericalism,” that deadly condition which “explains both how the sexual-abuse crisis could happen, and how it could be covered up for so long.” It all began in that treacherous fourth century, with:

“the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy… The conceptual underpinnings (of which) can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made ‘ontologically’ superior by the sacrament of holy orders.”

“Removed by celibacy from the competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replaced the medieval feudal order.”

It is a measure of Mr. Carroll’s cleverness as a polemicist and skill as a writer that he can stitch together these various strands of conspiracy theory into a coherent narrative that appears to our modern, emancipated selves as a beautiful tapestry.

But when all is said and done the astute James Carroll is just another prisoner of his age. Like many other young bucks coming up in the 1960s, he wanted the Catholic Church to be “pularistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice.”

He saw the papacy of John XXIII (1958-1963) as emblematic of those values, and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that John initially convened as “a vast theological recasting of the Catholic imagination… raising basic questions of ethos, honesty, and justice, setting in motion a profound institutional examination of conscience.”


a Rorschach test for Catholics…


But as we have seen in the fifty some years since the close of Vatican II, its legacy is far from cut-and-dried. It has become something of a Rorschach test for Catholics, with each side of the liberal/conservative dialectic claiming its heralded documents either dramatically reformed or creatively re-affirmed this or that teaching.

For his part, Mr. Carroll entered the priesthood in the wake of the Second Vatican Council as a member of “a liberal American order known as the Paulist Fathers… (They) redefined themselves around (what they saw as) the vision of Pope John, and made me an advocate of that vision.”

The problem for all of us, Carroll included, is how we have fallen into the habit of identifying our modern-day Popes as either good guys or bad guys. We are quick to give each of them the thumbs up or down, as if we are all back in the Coliseum, watching lions maul Christians.

But this incessant setting up of what we like against what we don’t like is a disease of the mind. We should be looking for the continuity of the Magisterium from one papacy to the next, instead of this partisan interpretation of each gesture or statement as a “much needed reform of a backward teaching” or a “staunch re-affirmation of hallowed tradition.”


reform-minded initiatives thwarted by clericalism…


In Mr. Carroll’s view, all of Pope John’s reform-minded initiatives of the late 1950s and early 1960s were ultimately thwarted by clericalism, “with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom- ladened afterlife…”

And while Pope Francis struck Carroll in the beginning “like a rescuer,” he has proven to be just another ordained disappointment, despite what our author approves of as several papal attempts at paradigm shifting. In the end, though. “Francis has stoutly protected the twin pillars of clericalism – the Church’s misogynist exclusion of women from the priesthood and its requirement of celibacy for priests.”

This clericalism “is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction… If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.” Oh, my. The poor man goes on like this for several thousand more words.

James Carroll has been aware of the priest sex abuse scandal since the early 1990s, but he is only now deciding the priesthood itself must be abolished. What is responsible for this ratcheting up of his protest?

It was the recent 2018 visit of Pope Francis to Ireland. Or more specifically the Pope’s comments made to reporters on his return trip to Rome, that until then he had known nothing of the infamous Magdalene Laundries or their scandals. (For reference, please consult the movie Philomena, starring Judi Dench.) Mr. Carroll solemnly reports, “As I read the Pope’s words, a taut wire in me snapped.”

As no doubt that same taut wire snapped in many of us, as well. Any decent human being naturally reacts with frustration and disgust to all of this. The following summary, prepared by yours truly, no doubt expresses the sense many of us share:

The emotional, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated by ordained men and consecrated women around the world is deplorable. It is a violation not only of their sacred vows, but of the basic norms of decency, of which Christian charity forms the basis. This abuse has caused grievous hurt to numerous young people, and their hurt cries out to heaven for healing.

This abuse should never have been permitted, nor should its revelation have ever been covered up. The perpetrators of both the abuse itself and the subsequent cover-up should be brought to justice.

What that justice looks like is subject to debate, however, and is beyond the scope of my short essay here.

Also subject to debate is why all this abuse happened in the first place. Contrasting the Carroll narrative is an alternate chain of causality put forth by, among others, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Just this past April, Benedict published a widely distributed article in which he identifies the source of the sex abuse crisis as follows:

#1) Moral laxity of the 1960s
#2) Godlessness of contemporary culture
#3) Existences of homosexual cliques in seminaries

Mr. Carroll is having none of it, however, and dismisses the Pope’s remarks as “a diatribe that was extraordinary as much for its vanity as for its ignorance.”

Now, one may be inclined to think an unflattering thought or two in the wake of Benedict’s all-but-unprecedented “retirement” from the papacy. But describing this humble servant – a truly modest man possessed of a towering intellect – as “vain” and “ignorant” is woefully off the mark.

James Carroll is out to kill two birds with one stone. Abolishing the celibate all-male priesthood eliminates what he sees as the source of the sex-abuse crisis. And this, in turn, will open the door to the “theological recasting of the Catholic imagination” young James had such high hopes for back in the 1960s.

Then, at last, Catholicism will be free to finally and fully adopt the ethos and norms of the pluralist, democratic order, which was first introduced by the ideology of “classical liberalism” some five hundred years ago, and which the Catholic hierarchy has been wrestling with ever since.

This belated adoption would immediately result in equality for laypeople – especially women – as office-holders in the Church.

Once we rid ourselves of the toxic notion of priestly celibacy, the “broad transformation” the moribund Catholic community is so desperately in need of can at last get underway:

”Yes to female sexual autonomy; yes to love and pleasure, not just reproduction as a purpose of sex; yes to married clergy; yes to contraception; and, indeed, yes to full acceptance of homosexuals. No to male dominance, no to the sovereign authority of clerics; no to double standards.”

Carroll has his sights set on The Full Monty, as it were, as his argument clearly hinges on the meaning and purpose of sexual behavior.

For an intelligent Catholic writer to suggest the Church believes sexual intercourse should be strictly limited to reproduction, to the exclusion of “love and pleasure,” gives this intelligent Catholic reader pause.

Granted, Church teaching on the special bond created by the unitive and procreative aspects of the coital act, between one man and one woman in a committed relationship for life, has been successfully drowned out by society.

When even casual advertising of the most mundane consumer products is often blatantly pornographic, when promiscuity is readily promoted via mass entertainment, and our pluralist public square relentlessly preaches we are entitled to “follow our bliss” at all times, without consideration for the ones we may be hurting by our wonton selfishness, the Church’s stubbornly counter-cultural message can be difficult to decipher.

Regarding this long list of suggested improvements, the obvious reaction is to wonder why anyone would spend time advocating for such broad-based reforms in the Catholic Church, when there are over 200 distinct Protestant denominations one can choose from that have already implemented the very changes Mr. Carroll is so enthusiastic about.


trying to fit a square peg in a round hole…


And that’s the ultimate take-away here. Why are you trying so hard to fit a square peg into a round hole? It’s as though our old friend James Carroll just needs to get out for some fresh air and clear his head.

How can someone come up with the slogan: “To save the Church, dismantle the priesthood” as a response to the sex abuse crisis, when that same person observes “a relatively small number of priests are pedophiles.”

How can one rail against a fetid hierarchy in one breath, and cite the fruits of the Catholic faith that are overseen and administered by that same hierarchy in the next breath:

”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 world-wide community of over 1 billion people. North and South, rich and poor, intellectual and illiterate – it is the only institution that crosses such borders on anything like this scale.”

”Around the world there are more than 200,000 Catholic schools and nearly 400,000 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities, mostly in developing countries. The Church is the largest nongovernmental organization on the planet, through which selfless men and women care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good.

Reading this inspiring passage one wants to cry out, “Well done, Mr. Carroll, I couldn’t have said it any better.”

But such optimism is in short supply, and is dispensed with quite early in the article. The overarching theme here is “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Unfortunately, being a prisoner of his age limits Carroll’s ability to see the big picture.

For more on this big picture, we have Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis. This short 105-page book was just released in May by Bishop Robert Barron, who is an “auxiliary” bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Barron reminds us that when it comes to sexual immorality and licentiousness on the part of our clergy, we have been here before, and we have survived. Throughout our history there have even been Popes whose behavior was so notorious one historian described Benedict IX (1032-1045) as:

“…a demon from hell, in the disguise of a priest, (who) occupied the Chair of Peter and profaned the sacred mysteries of religion by his insolent course.”

Victor III, a papal successor, spoke of Benedict’s “ rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy.”

There were plenty of other profligates, and Bishop Barron mentions a few of them. Like John XII (955-964), who died in a married woman’s bed. And Alexander VI (1254-1261), who fathered a string of illegitimate children with numerous woman.

For additional perspective, Barron quotes a letter Saint Peter Damian addressed to the then Pope in 1049, on the subject of clerical sex:

” The befouling cancer of sodomy is, in fact, spreading so through the clergy, or rather like a savage beast, is raging with such shameless abandon through the flock of Christ.”

Then this saint, in the same letter, directed his anger at bishops who had sexual relations with seminarians and younger priests.

These florid historical anecdotes are not intended to make us feel any better about today, about what Bishop Barron calls “the storm of wickedness that has compromised the work of the Church in every way and has left countless lives in ruins…”

In fact, Robert Barron aggress with James Carroll there are many good reasons to criticize ordained and consecrated representatives of the Catholic Church, and to be angry with the corruption, stupidity, careerism, cruelty, greed, and sexual misconduct on the part of certain Church leaders.

But the two men part company in one very important respect. Barron quotes Hillaire Belloc to help draw the distinction:

”The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine – but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such lavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

Mr. Carroll is no longer subscribing to Belloc’s famous line of reasoning, and is advising the rest of us to abandon it as well. He wants Catholics to detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy, and in the process take the faith back into their own hands.

He himself wants to “be part of what brings about the liberation of the Catholic Church from the imperium that took it captive 1,700 years ago.”

His vision of this impending liberation is suitably romantic:

“What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from – and renounce – the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that the power structure is not the Church?

The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a compliant bishop rip my faith from me.”

Okay, one wants to reply, then don’t let them…

“Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy… will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship – egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders…”

“In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commensensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing.”

There you have it, folks. We don’t need no stinking priests, all we need are commensensical believers…

In the end, if you will allow a friendly euphemism, James Carroll’s beautifully articulated proscription is also a bit of a hoot.

He recognizes how no non-governmental organization has more power to promote change for the better around the world than does the Catholic Church. But he tells us that good work can only continue if the calcified institution becomes enlightened, reforms itself, and gets with the pluralist democratic program.


the need to fend off Catholic “triumphalism”…


If it can manage this overdue transition, “the Church will still have a world-wide reach, with some kind of organizing center… but that center will be protected from Catholic triumphalism by being openly engaged with other Christian denominations.”

One hardly knows where to begin by way of response.

As if sexual abuse is non-existent in the rest of society, outside the Catholic clergy. As if the earnestness of everyday believers, insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing, is all the encouragement any of us need on the road to salvation. As if belief in the “one, holy, and apostolic Church” is somehow holding us back.

For the record, I share Mr. Carroll’s obvious enthusiasm for the word “egalitarian,” and his equally obvious disdain for the word “hierarchy.” I like to keep to myself, go my own way, and take pride in strange behavior.

But whether we like it or not, an organization of any size requires some sort of chain of command to accomplish anything at all. Otherwise total chaos ensues. In other words, as appealing as egalitarianism might be to our rugged sense of individualism, it has its built-in limitations.

And can’t we all agree an organization with one billion members is a lot to corral? There will inevitably be some serious problems along the way. Let us not forget that people everywhere, in every time and place, will always be susceptible to the seven deadly sins. Those who have chosen of their own volition to wear a collar or a habit are not magically exempt from such temptations.

Having said that, my money will always be on the “selfless men and women” who serve the Church, many of whom happen to also be ordained or consecrated. The problem is not the priesthood, Mr. Carroll, it is with men who fail to live up to their vocation, or fail to take it seriously.

We should pray for the former, for the continued strength of our servant priests to deal with the occasional bouts of isolation and loneliness, as they dedicate their lives to helping us gain eternal salvation.

And by the way, this prayer intention extends to all of us, not just ordained men who are indeed “ontologically changed” by the sacrament of Holy Orders. We are all called to live the virtue of chastity, even married men. Not many of us have managed to do so recently, in this our sexually liberated age.

Here’s a thought to close with: Just because the publishing houses that print his books and feature his articles in their magazines happen to agree with James Carroll and consider him a cutting-edge prophet, doesn’t mean we have to.

Saving the Catholic Church does not require dismantling the priesthood.

What we lay believers need to detach ourselves from is not the clerical hierarchy, but rather the egalitarian impulses of the pluralist democratic order that have infested our thinking, and undermined our belief and practice, lo these many years.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
August 23, 2019

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