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By FRANK BRUNI
Published: January 26, 2013 78 Comments
“I HAVE nothing against priests,” writes Garry Wills in his provocative new book, “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition,” and I’d like at the outset to say the same. During a career that has included no small number of formal interviews and informal conversations with them, I’ve met many I admire, men of genuine compassion and remarkable altruism, more dedicated to humanity than to any dogma or selective tradition.
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
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But while I have nothing against priests, I have quite a lot against an institution that has done a disservice to them and to the parishioners in whose interests they should toil. I refer to the Roman Catholic Church, specifically to its modern incarnation and current leaders, who have tucked priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapped them in mysticism and prioritized their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews. I have a problem, in other words, with the church’s arrogance, a thread that runs through Wills’s book, to be published next month; through fresh revelations of how assiduously a cardinal in Los Angeles worked to cover up child sexual abuse; and through the church’s attempts to silence dissenters, including an outspoken clergyman in Ireland who was recently back in the news.
LET’S start with Los Angeles. Last week, as a result of lawsuits filed against the archdiocese of Los Angeles by hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by priests, internal church personnel files were made public. They showed that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s impulse, when confronted with priests who had molested children, was to hush it up and keep law enforcement officials at bay. While responses like this by Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals have been extensively chronicled and are no longer shocking, they remain infuriating. At one point Cardinal Mahony instructed a priest whom he’d dispatched to New Mexico for counseling not to return to California, lest he risk being criminally prosecuted. That sort of shielding of priests from accountability allowed them, in many cases across the United States, to continue their abusive behavior and claim more young victims.
Cardinal Mahony, who led the Los Angeles archdiocese from 1985 to 2011, released a statement last week in which he said that until 2006, when he began to meet with dozens of victims, he didn’t grasp “the full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have” on the children subjected to them. I find that assertion incredible and appalling. It takes no particular sophistication about matters of mental health to intuit that a child molested by an adult — in these cases, by an adult who is supposed to be a moral exemplar and tutor, even a conduit to the divine — would be grievously damaged. The failure to recognize that and to make sure that abusive priests’ access to children was eliminated, even if that meant trials and jail sentences, suggests a greater concern for the stature of clergymen than for the souls of children.
Church officials and defenders note that Cardinal Mahony’s gravest misdeeds occurred in the 1980s, before church leaders were properly educated about recidivism among pedophiles and before the dimensions of the child sexual abuse crisis in the church became clear. They point out that the church’s response improved over time. That’s true, but what hasn’t changed is the church’s hubris. This hubris abetted the crisis: the particular sway that abusers held over their victims and the special trust they received from those children’s parents were tied into the church’s presentation of priests as paragons.
And this hubris also survives the crisis, manifest in the way that the Vatican, a gilded enclave so far removed and so frequently out of step with the rest of the world, clamps down on Catholics who challenge its rituals and rules. Much of what these dissenters raise questions about — the all-male priesthood, for example, or the commitment to celibacy that priests are required to make — aren’t indisputable edicts from God. They’re inventions of the mortals who took charge of the faith.
And yet with imperious regularity, Vatican officials issue their relished condemnations. These officials are reliably riled by nuns, a favorite target of their wrath. And they’ve been none too pleased with an Irish priest, the Rev. Tony Flannery, 66, who wassuspended from his ministry by the Vatican last year and informed, he recently said, that he could return to it on the condition that he publicly express his endorsement of a range of official positions that he had questioned, including the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Last Sunday he broke a long silence to say that the Vatican had threatened him with excommunication and to call its approach toward him “reminiscent of the Inquisition.”
Among the Vatican’s issues with him was his stated belief in a 2010 article that the priesthood, rather than originating with Jesus and a specially selected group of followers, was selfishly created later by a “privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves.”
That may sound like an extreme assertion, but the new book by Wills, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written extensively about Christianity and the church, says that at the start, Christianity not only didn’t have priests but opposed them. The priesthood was a subsequent tweak, and the same goes for the all-male, celibate nature of the Roman Catholic clergy and the autocratic hierarchy that this clergy inhabits, an unresponsive government whose subjects — the laity — have limited say.
“It can’t admit to error, the church hierarchy,” Wills told me on the phone on Thursday. “Any challenge to their prerogative is, in their eyes, a challenge to God. You can’t be any more arrogant than that.”
“We Catholics were taught not only that we must have priests but that they must be the right kind of priests,” he writes in the book, which argues that priests aren’t ultimately necessary. “What we were supposed to accept is that all priesthoods are invalid ones except the Roman Catholic.”
That’s an awfully puffed-up position, and there’s a corresponding haughtiness in the fact that bishops can assign priests to parishes without any real obligation to get input or feedback from the parishioners those priests serve. This way of doing business in fact enabled church leaders to shuttle priests accused of molestation around, keeping them one step ahead of their crimes.
It has also helped to turn many Catholics away from the church, while prompting others to regard its leaders as ornamental and somewhat irrelevant distractions. They cherish the essence and beauty of their religion. They just can’t abide the arrogance of many of its appointed caretakers.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 27, 2013, on page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Catholicism’s Curse.