Love in the Ruins

A Dantesque Reflection

If the world grows too worldly,
it can be rebuked by the
Church; but if the Church
grows too worldly, it cannot be
adequately rebuked for
worldliness by the world.


AND IF THE CHURCH GROWS too evil? Who shall rebuke it then? The story this book has had to tell is the story of the (often overlooked and belittled) Catholic contribution to Western civilization. In this story, power-mad popes and greedy kings make only cameo appearances. The main subject is what it has been in each volume of the Hinges of History: “the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.”

Dante prayed for a reformed Catholic Church in which clergy would be unable to insert themselves directly into the political process. We, by reformation, enlightenment, revolution, and democracy—the movements that rose in the centuries after the story told in this book—have achieved a (usually adequate) separation of church and state. The pope, for instance, now controls only nominal territory and could not raise an army even if he wished to.

But however necessary this was for the health of society, it has not improved the health of the Catholic Church, now caught like a helpless animal in a trap from which there seems no escape. The priestly pedophilia crisis has enveloped almost all of Catholic life, certainly in the United States, as well as in many other countries around the world. The response of bishops, cardinals, and popes has been staggering in its inadequacy. At first, as we all know, they attempted to minimize the extent of the wound that had been inflicted on the church. They hired aggressive attorneys to defend themselves against poor victims;a they underreported the numbers of perpetrators; they underreported the numbers of victims; they blamed the media. At last, it became clear that for more years than anyone will ever know, bishops have routinely reassigned priestly predators, allowing them to take advantage of fresh crops of child victims, paying off victims in return for their silence, and keeping everything hush-hush.

Bernard Law—Cardinal Coverup himself—forced to flee office as archbishop of Boston, was even rewarded with the position of archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore by a grateful Pope John Paul II. Law’s new position, which permits him to reside in the most luxurious palace in Rome, also prevents his arrest by secular authorities, for Santa Maria Maggiore is extraterritorial, a fief of the Vatican beyond the reach of Italian law. John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger, has dragged his feet for years on prosecuting (or even investigating) notorious pedophile priests. (See the reference to Jason Berry’s Vows of Silence in the note below.) The latest Vatican ploy is to blame the crisis on homosexual priests and to devise ways to root them out. This would be comical to anyone who knows a variety of Catholic priests and bishops (since so many are homosexual in orientation, if not in intergenital activity), were it not for the further destruction such an inquisition is likely to wreak on an already demoralized priesthood.

Though the U.S. bishops have been forced to create a (more or less) public policy for dealing with these outrages, the Vatican has remained remarkably coy. One cardinal—Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, at a press briefing in spring 2002—even suggested that this was a problem confined to the English-speaking world.b The truth of the matter is that the English-speaking world has a tradition of truth-telling in public that is not replicated elsewhere, especially not in Italy, where an admission of forced buggery (like the admission of rape by a woman victim in a Muslim country) would bring such opprobrium on the male victim that he could never hold up his head again but could well expect to be further brutalized. (I love Italy, but I am not in the dark about its limitations.)

Dante bewailed the selling of church offices, describing this practice as “Christ [being] bought and sold the whole day long” in the Rome of Pope Boniface VIII. That was, however, a far less depraved situation than the current one, where, as Dante would be forced to conclude, the twelve-year-old Christ, who conversed with the doctors of the law in the Temple of Jerusalem (in Luke 2:41–52), is made to give blow jobs and rammed up the ass the whole day long by the doctors of the law of the New Jerusalem, while the high priests of the Temple stand guard at the entrances, lest any uninitiated outsiders should discover what is going on. However shocking these words may sound to some ears, there can be no doubt that this is what clerical dissemblers have done to the Jesus they claim to care so much about. For “whatever you have done to the least of these … you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40).

At this point, the church seems built not on the Rock of Peter but on sand—the shifting sand of sexually immature priests and of bishops who lie and fawn for a living. It is not so much the vow of celibacy in itself that has brought this crisis about. But enforced, rather than chosen, celibacy, defended by an episcopate of high priests who need fear nothing either from ordinary priests or from lay Catholics, but only from those hierarchs who can bestow or withhold all offices and favors, has brought the church almost to its death throes.

If this church is to survive, it must return to the practices of its apostolic foundations, when celibacy was optional and all clergy—from deacons to bishops (there were no cardinals or popes in those days)—were chosen by the people. A policy of optional celibacy would attract more sexually healthy candidates to the priesthood (rather than the many self-deceivers who are now attracted) and even restore the glory of monasticism. We all need to know that there remain in our harried world symbolic oases of monastic peace; and we all need monks and nuns, whether we know it or not, people who are free from earthly ties and who in great societal perversions, like the fascist regimes of the Second World War, are available to hide political prey from their predators. Popular election of clergy would put responsibility for the church squarely where it belongs—with the church itself, that is, with the Assembly of God’s people. The only hope is for an uprising of laypeople who refuse to be disfranchised serfs any longer, led by sincere movements likeVoice of the Faithful and Call to Action, which will remove the only power the laity can now claim, the power of the purse, from clerical hands. If this should happen, we will see the political power, which no one gives up willingly, wither. It is only stolen power anyway; it never belonged to the bishops by right. “Vox populi, vox Dei,” as even Charlemagne knew. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

As the preceding chapters have demonstrated, it was not bishops but laypeople who were responsible for the historic glories of Catholicism, given as gifts to the Western world. Of the great figures processing through this book, only a few, like Thomas Aquinas, were ordained, and only one, Gregory the Great, was a member of the higher clergy. The historic role of the higher clergy is to be put in their place by men like Dante and women like Catherine of Siena, who journeyed to Avignon in the fourteenth century to wag her finger under the pope’s nose and to remind him of his neglected responsibilities. Without the clear vision and unwelcome advice of such men and women, the church as it is has no chance of acting in the world in succor or in prophecy. (The Catholic Church in the United States may be doomed in any case, unless the episcopate as a whole resigns, divesting itself of its gorgeous robes and walking off the world’s stage in sackcloth and ashes. For the bishops who now hold office are surely impostors.)

Like tenants on an eighteenth-century estate, we live amid romantic ruins, a chancel arch here, a crumbling lancet window there, awaiting revenant figures of reformation—the return of energizing, enveloping forces like Hildegard and Francis, Giotto and Dante. We might even find ourselves mumbling a prayer like the one whispered by the anonymous bard who once stood looking at the ruins of Kilcash Castle on the southeast slope of Slievenamon in County Tipperary:

    I beseech of Mary and Jesus

               That the great come home again

    With long dances danced in the garden,

               Fiddle music and mirth among men,

    That Kilcash the home of our fathers

               Be lifted on high again,

    And from that to the deluge of waters

               In bounty and peace remain.

What is there left to say but “Amen”?

a This ploy was favored viciously by Edward Egan, the current cardinal archbishop of New York, when he was bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Egan is a clerical insider with almost no pastoral experience. He worked his way up the ladder by adept sycophancy in the Vatican’s curial offices. He has had virtually no impact on New York in the years since his appointment, except for his single public act of changing the name of the nineteenth-century immigrant-built cathedral from “Saint Patrick’s Cathedral” to “the Cathedral of Saint Patrick.”

b Castrillon Hoyos’s exact words were “The language used [by the questioner, i.e., English] is interesting. This by itself is an X-ray of the problem.” He went on to blame the pedophilia crisis not on the church but on society’s “pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness”; and in Vatican circles the term anglo sassone (Anglo-Saxon) is practically a synonym for (to their way of thinking) sick sexual practices. But the cardinal has a history of intervening on behalf of clerical child molesters (see Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, pp. 232–35).

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