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I was born and raised a Catholic. I am of that particular guilt-ridden strain of Catholicism known as Irish Catholicism. I wouldn't say I am a devout Catholic or even a good one, in fact, I am a pretty terrible Catholic...but I am still a Catholic. I have had a tumultuous and often-times tenuous relationship with the church throughout my adult life, an example of which is that I would often, in a futile attempt to be witty, tell people I was raised Catholic but that it was in remission.
In 2002, the revelations of priests buggering boys in Boston (my home parish at one point in time - I even met Cardinal Law once...he was a pompous ass and his breath smelled demonic...I am not kidding) erupted as a cataclysmic scandal, but having grown up in the church I knew for a long time something was seriously amiss, and thus that sex abuse scandal came not as a shock to me but as confirmation of my hunches.
Why did I suspect that something was deeply wrong in the Catholic church? Well, for starters, nearly every priest I ever met was a horrible human being. I don't mean they were bad priests, which they were, but bad people.
An example, in my Catholic high school the lone priest there among the nuns was Father Hughes. Father Hughes was a flamboyantly gay man who obviously joined the priesthood in order to escape the perceived demon of his sexuality. How do I know Father Hughes was gay? Well...there were some dead giveaways...for one he was a walking stereotype to the point of caricature of a gay man most signified by his pronounced and audacious lisp and mannered style of speech. Another sign was that he often wore a satin black cape with a pink interior and described this signature fashion choice as being "understated elegance". Another solid clue was that he had a schoolboy crush on the star of the basketball team...so much so that he bought the young man, who was a very devout Catholic and a genuinely good guy, a car for graduation. Yes...you read that right...Father Hughes, who wasn't exactly rolling in dough as a priest at a Catholic high school, bought a male student a car for his graduation. Part of how I knew something was terribly amiss in the Catholic church is that no one, not a single person, said anything about this oddity at all. There were quizzical glances exchanged, but no one dare say aloud what they were really thinking if they even let themselves think it.
The thing that really struck me most about Father Hughes was that he was a vicious and mean spirited man. As stated, it was obvious Hughes was gay, but he would go out of his way to torment and torture the boys in school who seemed effeminate. This was the late 80's, so no one was "out" as gay at my school, but there were plenty of kids who "seemed" gay and sure enough in later years came out as gay, but in high school they were just struggling to survive being different. Father Hughes would constantly and brutally belittle them and mock their masculinity. It was a glaring case of the pot calling the kettle black...but no one said or did anything...most especially the coterie of nuns, many of whom had their own glaring issues...like the principle of the school who took a vow of poverty but bought a new Cadillac, earning her the well-earned and accurate nickname of Sister Anna Cadillac.
After Father Hughes left my school he went to another parish and proceeded to either overspend or steal, depending on who you believe, to the tune of nearly a million dollars....like I said, a good guy. After Hughes was abruptly replaced, the Church claimed that there were no criminal acts committed in this financial debacle, but as we know the Church never likes to admit scandal when it can be swept under the rug.
Father Hughes wasn't alone though, as the vast majority of priests I have known have been total sons of bitches and not even remotely resembling good ambassadors of Christ here on earth. They were all petty, vindictive and arrogant bastards who were the antithesis of Christ's teachings. The exceptions are the ones who have stood out, men like Father Ken, Father LeRoy and Father Felipe, all kindhearted and genuinely decent men...the rest of the priests I have known have all carved out a special place in hell for themselves.
Besides being terrible people, the majority of priests I have met are also more than likely gay...now that doesn't mean they are terrible because they are gay, just that they are simultaneously terrible and gay. Which brings us back to the scandals. The thing that is often muddied in regards to the Catholic church sex abuse scandals is that the majority of the incidents are not pedophilia where priests are abusing little children. The majority of sex abuse has been perpetrated upon males (81%) and the overwhelming majority of those abused boys have been older (adolescent/pre-teen) boys. The fact that most victims of abuse are adolescent boys is a terribly uncomfortable one for more liberal Catholics (and liberal people in general) who are disposed to view any question of a priest's homosexuality as a homophobic attack and who reflexively defend gay people for instinctual identity/tribal reasons.
I consider myself a Thomas Merton/Dorothy Day/Anthony DeMello Catholic, and so for years I have been lumped in as a "liberal Catholic". But after years and years of these scandals from Boston to Baltimore to Ireland, Australia and Mexico and everywhere in between, I think that the labels liberal and conservative Catholic no longer apply...there are only Catholics who are brave enough to see the truth and do something about it, or there are Catholics who prefer the warm embrace of their own self-satisfying and often self-righteous echo chamber.
I greatly disliked Pope John Paul II and found his canonization to be a repugnant public relations move because he was, in fact, an accomplice to sex abuse when he turned a blind eye to it, just as he did with the sins of American capitalism. John Paul II's vehement anti-communism forced him to be blind to the spiritual cancer of American capitalism and also caused him to accept the atrocities committed at the behest of America (El Salvador/Nicaragua etc.) even against his own priests and nuns, in order to be stalwart against the Soviet Union.
I also disliked Pope Benedict, as I found him to be little more than a garish hypocrite as he, like Father Hughes, was obviously as gay as Liberace but was vehemently opposed to homosexuality in the world.
I like Pope Francis, at least in theory. When Pope Francis came to the U.S. in 2015 and spoke at the Capitol building, he mentioned four people, two of which were Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (the others were Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.), two people that some American Catholics consider at best unworthy and at worst heretics, but that I greatly admire. Pope Francis seemed to bring a new energy and light into the Vatican upon his arrival and I welcomed that breath of fresh air.
But now more revelations of sex abuse and scandal are coming into the light and Pope Francis's reaction to them and complicity in them is genuinely disheartening and demoralizing.
The first story to break was the rampant, career long sexual abuse by Cardinal "Uncle Teddy" McCarrick, who sexually abused both adolescent boys and seminarians. McCarrick was eventually forced to resign, but since the Vatican has known about his shenanigans for decades, this was little salve for the wound. It has also come to light that Pope Francis went above and beyond to protect McCarrick even though he was well aware of his depravity.
The other story was the grand jury report in Pittsburgh which revealed rampant and systematic sexual abuse and cover-up by the Diocese for decades. Sadly, Pittsburgh, like Boston and Ireland and Australia and countless other places, was rife with sexual predators and Bishops who aided and abetted their predation. I am willing to bet that if you look hard enough at any Diocese in the world, you will find the same level of depravity as has been proven to exist in Boston and Pittsburgh.
The most disheartening part about the Pittsburgh revelations was that the Church in response basically said..."oh well". The Bishop who was integral to the Pittsburgh scandal is now Cardinal Wuertz, and sure enough he is still a Cardinal and will face no recriminations. Pope Francis has paid lip service by asking for forgiveness...but not demanding accountability or making genuine change.
Pope Francis seemed as though he may very well be the man to turn the church around and root out the abusers and enablers but with the McCarrick and Pittsburgh scandals has proven himself to be a feckless charlatan...which pains my heart to say.
This current crop of scandals has hit me where I live as just this past spring, after much strenuous soul searching, I decided, in no small part because of my optimism regarding Pope Francis, to have my son baptized in the Catholic church. I realize that most readers will find this decision at best misguided and at worst insane, I understand the sentiment, but for me at this time, after going through the greatest battle of my life in which I found great solace, guidance and strength in prayer and was on the receiving end of some outright miracles (a word I don't use hyperbolically), I felt a great spiritual and religious renaissance in my spirit. I wanted to share with my son the same connection to the God who, through his infinite mercy, had given us the glorious life we now share.
As more and more of the cancer on the soul of the Church and on St. Peter's throne in the Vatican has been revealed in the last few weeks, I have grown to regret ever more deeply my decision to have my son baptized a Catholic. Even after all the scandals that is a difficult thing for me to admit to myself. As an Irish Catholic, my Catholicism isn't just religious but cultural. In my lifetime fellow Irishmen and women were murdered simply for being Catholic and breaking my solidarity with those Irish martyrs is gut-wrenching.
The reason the Church is in such decline amidst the turmoil is because it has lost touch with the masculine. Yes, I know most liberal Catholics will be angry with that statement, claiming the Church is in decline because of the Patriarchy...but I vehemently disagree. The Church has been overrun in its ranks by self-loathing gay men who are trying to hide from the truth of their sexuality. These gay men are more in touch with the feminine than the masculine, which certainly isn't a crime but it is the truth. The lack of true masculinity in the Church has led to a feminization of Catholicism that is speeding its decline. The closeted gay men who make up the vast majority of the priesthood are not able to speak to the masculine needs of the men in their flock and so men have stopped going to church.
These gay priests are also, it seems, less able to contain their sexuality than their heterosexual counterparts, or at least less able to contain them around adolescents. This is not only unfortunate in terms of the scandals it creates for the Church but also that it feeds into the stereotypes used for decades by homophobes to discriminate against and punish gay people. But with that said, as much as I dislike coming to this conclusion, the evidence certainly supports it. To be clear, I am not repeating the old homophobic trope that all gay men are predators, but what I am saying is that most of the predator priests are gay...or to be more precise...these predator priests are distorted, contorted and tortured versions of gay men. It pains me to come to this conclusion because frankly, I support gay rights and gay marriage and wish the reality of the Church sex abuse scandals isn't what it is...but it is what it is.
There has long been talk of a Lavender Mafia within the Church and as the sex abuse scandals have come to light that belief has only strengthened as Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals all sided with predatory priests over the children in the pews. One can only assume that these priests, Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals were looking out for one another because they all had a secret that they believed to be so terrible that they couldn't come clean about anyone else for fear of their secret being revealed.
The conundrum for the Church is that their own teaching on homosexuality no doubt led to the scapegoating of homosexuals which in turn led some to want to hide their sexuality in the closet to try and escape the "wickedness" of their sexuality and found a way to do that by becoming celibate priests. Sadly, many of these closeted gay men were so emotionally, sexually and psychologically stunted that they were unable to abide by their vow of celibacy and instead have used their positions as priests to prey upon young men and boys.
There are those, like Father James Martin, who claim that the Church should modernize in regards to homosexuality and he blames the scandals on the Church's archaic view of homosexuality. I think Martin is blinded by his own plight (and sexuality) and therefore refuses to the see truth that is staring him in the face.
As previously stated, I consider myself a Thomas Merton/Dorothy Day type of Catholic, which most would label as being a "liberal Catholic", but my response to the sex scandals will probably alienate both liberal Catholics and conservatives alike. If the Church is to survive in any relevant form, people must put aside the politics of religion and instead look for the Truth and solutions.
Unlike my liberal Catholic cohorts, I do not think allowing women to be priests will help, as I believe that it is a lack of genuine masculinity that has caused this scandal in the first place. I think women are vital to the Church's survival and success, but I think the role of nuns should be expanded rather than women being allowed to become priests. I can see my dearest friend Sheila cringing as she reads this...my apologies Sheila...but I think at this time the addition of female priests would end up being catastrophic to the church in the long run. I think the Church needs to do less watering down of masculinity and more bulking up.
The solution to the Catholic Church's existential crisis will not come about by liberals defeating conservatives or vice versa...both sides have legitimate grievances and insights. Here is a list of things that I think not only should happen but need to happen for the Catholic Church to have any chance to survive and maybe even be relevant again, in a post-Christian era.
1. All offending priests AND Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals who aided and abetted them, should be held accountable and jailed either by the jurisdiction where the crimes took place or by the Vatican itself (yes, the Vatican has a jail, albeit a tiny one). At the end of their prison terms they should be at a minimum defrocked and at a maximum ex-communicated, depending on the level of their contrition and penance.
2. The U.S. government and/or any local communities, should use the RICO statute to prosecute sexual offenders and those in power who cover up for them. The use of RICO (the statue used against organized crime to bring down mafia dons) will be accompanied by threat of a loss of tax exempt status for the Church if their is not cooperation from the hierarchy up to and including The Vatican. If you want to make the Vatican jump, you threaten their tax exempt status and they'll do whatever you tell them to.
3. All new priest hires must be heterosexual. These new priests are eligible to marry and in fact the best route for the Church to take is to hire men who are already married. Doing this will expand the ranks of priesthood tremendously and will in short order revitalize the priesthood and seminaries. The moratorium on hiring gay priests will not be permanent, but is a necessary ill right now in order to bring more balance back into the priesthood/church in terms of masculinity. Eventually in the future openly gay priests will be hired but again they must swear to be celibate in order to keep with Catholic doctrine. Heterosexual priests not already married must remain celibate until marriage.
4. The Church must compel any active priests who are gay to come forward and be open about their sexuality. These priests will retain their positions and will not be discriminated against in anyway. By compelling gay priests to come forward, the Church will be taking a giant step toward minimizing the stigma of being gay in a Catholic community, which is what has led to the aberrant behavior by so many gay priests. The Church will still uphold its current teaching on homosexuality, but it will be recognizing, embracing and protecting the dignity of gay people. The Church will not allow gay priests to marry and will not allow gay parishioners to marry in keeping with Church doctrine. Gay priests will also have to take and keep a vow of celibacy.
5. Any violation of sexual oaths or vows by any priest, regardless of sexual orientation, will result in a review by a board of lay people not connected to that particular parish. The same will be true for Bishops and Cardinals, who if they are accused will be vigorously investigated by an outside panel of independent lay investigators who will have the Church equivalent of subpoena power.
6. The Catholic Church must clean out clericalism thoroughly or burn the place to the ground. The Church can still be salvaged but it requires a complete overhaul...it must both simultaneously modernize and yet embrace its traditionalism. Modernize by allowing heterosexual priests to marry and homosexual priests to be openly gay but celibate in keeping with church doctrine and dogma. Also...a return to the Traditional Latin Mass in all parishes on Sundays where half the masses should be in Latin. Why a partial return to the Latin Mass? Well, because it brings a cohesiveness to the Church across the globe, where you could walk into any Church anywhere in the world on any given Sunday and hear the Mass in the same language. Again, this is not a total return, but partial...maybe the 8 AM mass in Latin and the 11 in the native language of the parish. A return to the Latin Mass will also reconnect Catholicism with mystery and sacredness.
7. And finally...a return to a vigorous embrace of education of Catholic values and history. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic high school and yet my religious education was abominable. The paucity of true Catholic religious teaching is a scandal in and of itself. The Church should embark on a rigorous campaign to educate not only children but ADULTS on the substance of Catholic teaching. Ironically the Church needs to make it harder rather than easier, which will give the Church and Catholic teaching back its value. If Catholicism asks its adherents to make a strenuous commitment to the faith, it will become a sanctuary from the world where easy choices sap the spiritual strength of more and more people everyday. The Church has become little more than another bit of soft white noise in a chaotic world. By making itself into an antidote to the world, being in it but not of it, the Church can once again find its sea legs and be a pillar upon which the suffering, the downtrodden, the frightened and the alone can find strength and community.
Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the Church will do even one never mind all of these things. The Church has grown fat and decadent, not unlike America, and just like America it too will crumble under the weight of its own hubris. Clericalism is devouring the Church as the Pharisees are alive and well and living in rectories in every parish in the world.
The Catholic Church must remove its satin cape with the pink interior, toss away its elegance, understated or otherwise, and get some men with chests among its ranks in order to save itself. If it doesn't do this the Church will fade into oblivion among the plethora of feel good capitalist, faux-Christian/New Age alternatives.
My hope is that after the purging and cleansing of the toxic elements in the church that a more Mertonesque and spiritually serious type of church can grow in its wake. A Church built on service not clericalism, humility not arrogance, for the poor and not the wealthy. The Catholic church needs to be a church of the gutter instead of being a Church with gutter values. The Catholic church at its best is a church of skid row, not wall street, in other words...a church that reflects Christ.
The Church will either drastically change or it will die. The church has alienated true masculinity, and if it doesn't change course, it will reap the whirlwind and collapse in upon itself into the void created by that lack of masculinity.
As for me, these recent scandals have me so furious I am tempted to go to all of my local parishes and pull a Jesus and toss the money changers and the asshole priests out of the temple. The truth is though that I have little hope or faith in the Catholic hierarchy to change things and do the right thing because the rot is so deep, but as I can attest, miracles do occur. You never know, maybe I will be named Pope Mickey in 2019, I've gotten some bumper stickers made up in English and Italian just in case an election takes place (fingers crossed!). But if my run for the Papacy falls through, I have found a Coptic church and an Orthodox church near where I live, and they are in very serious contention to be my new religious home.