“The Murder of a Soul”
To feel relief at my mother’s being dead was once unthinkable, but then the news came from Ireland. It would have crushed her. An immigrant’s daughter, my mother lived with an eye cast back to the old country, the land against which she measured every virtue. Ireland was heaven to her, and the Catholic Church was heaven’s choir. Then came the Ryan Report.
Not long before The Boston Globe began publishing its series on predator priests, in 2002—the “Spotlight” series that became a movie of the same name—the government of Ireland established a commission, ultimately chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, to investigate accounts and rumors of child abuse in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, nearly all of which were run by the Catholic Church.
The Ryan Commission published its 2,600-page report in 2009. Despite government inspections and supervision, Catholic clergy had, across decades, violently tormented thousands of children. The report found that children held in orphanages and reformatory schools were treated no better than slaves—in some cases, sex slaves. Rape and molestation of boys were “endemic.” Other reports were issued about other institutions, including parish churches and schools, and homes for unwed mothers—the notorious “Magdalene Laundries,” where girls and women were condemned to lives of coercive servitude. The ignominy of these institutions was laid out in plays and documentary films, and in Philomena, the movie starring Judi Dench, which was based on a true story. The homes-for-women scandal climaxed in 2017, when a government report revealed that from 1925 to 1961, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam, County Galway, babies who died—nearly 800 of them—were routinely disposed of in mass graves or sewage pits. Not only priests had behaved despicably. So had nuns.
In August 2018, Pope Francis made a much publicized visit to Ireland. His timing could not have been worse. Just then, a second wave of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal was breaking. In Germany, a leaked bishops’ investigation revealed that from 1946 to 2014, 1,670 clergy had assaulted 3,677 children. Civil authorities in other nations were launching investigations, moving aggressively to preempt the Church. In the United States, also in 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury alleged that over the course of 70 years, more than 1,000 children had been abused by more than 300 priests across the state. Church authorities had successfully silenced the victims, deflected law enforcement, and shielded the predators. The Pennsylvania report was widely taken to be a conclusive adjudication, but grand-jury findings are not verdicts. Still, this record of testimony and investigation was staggering. The charges told of a ring of pedophile priests who gave many of their young targets the gift of a gold cross to wear, so that the other predator priests could recognize an initiated child who would not resist an overture. “This is the murder of a soul,” said one victim who testified before the grand jury.
Attorneys general in at least 15 other states announced the opening of investigations into Church crimes, and the U.S. Department of Justice followed suit. Soon, in several states, teams of law-enforcement agents armed with search warrants burst into diocesan offices and secured records. The Texas Rangers raided the offices of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which was presided over by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. DiNardo had been presented by the Church as the new face of accountability and transparency when he came to Galveston-Houston in 2004. The rangers seized an archive of abuse—boxes of sex-allegation files along with computers, including DiNardo’s. The cardinal was accused of protecting a particularly egregious predator priest.
These and other investigations will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come. As all of this was unfolding, Pope Francis responded with a meek call for a four-day meeting of senior bishops, to be held in Rome under the rubric “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” This was like putting Mafia chieftains in charge of a crime commission.
Before, during, and after his trip to Ireland, Francis had expressed, as he put it, “shame and sorrow.” But he showed no sign of understanding the need for the Church to significantly reform itself or to undertake acts of true penance.
One of the astonishments of Pope Francis’s Irish pilgrimage was his claim, made to reporters during his return trip to Rome, that until then he had known nothing of the Magdalene Laundries or their scandals: “I had never heard of these mothers—they call it the laundromat of women, where an unwed woman is pregnant and goes into these hospitals.” Never heard of these mothers? When I read that, I said to myself: A lie. Pope Francis is lying. He may not have been lying—he may merely have been ignorant. But to be uninformed about the long-simmering Magdalene scandal was just as bad. As I read the pope’s words, a taut wire in me snapped.
The wire had begun to stretch a quarter of a century ago, when I was starting out as a Boston Globe columnist. Twenty years earlier, I had been a Catholic priest, preoccupied with war, social justice, and religious reform—questions that defined my work for the Globe. One of my first columns, published in September 1992, was a reflection on the child-sex-abuse crimes of a Massachusetts priest named James Porter. I argued that Porter’s predation had been enabled by the Church’s broader culture of priest-protecting silence. Responding to earlier Globe stories about Porter, an infuriated Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, had hurled an anathema that seemed to come from the Middle Ages: “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” It took a decade, but God’s power eventually came down on Law himself.
In tandem with the “Spotlight” series and afterward, more than a dozen of my columns on priestly sex abuse ran on the op-ed page, with titles such as “Priests’ Victims Victimized Twice” and “Meltdown in the Catholic Church.” I became a broken record on the subject.
I bring all of this up to make the point that, by the summer of 2018, as a still-practicing Catholic, I harbored no illusions about the Church’s grotesque betrayal. So it took some doing to bring me to a breaking point, and Pope Francis—whom in many ways I admire, and in whom I had placed an almost desperate hope—is the unlikely person who brought me there.
For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.
The Trappings of Empire
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 worldwide community of well over 1 billion people. North and South, rich and poor, intellectual and illiterate—it is the only institution that crosses all such borders on anything like this scale. As James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake, Catholic means “Here Comes Everybody.” Around the world there are more than 200,000 Catholic schools and nearly 40,000 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities, mostly in developing countries. The Church is the largest nongovernmental organization on the planet, through which selfless women and men care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good. The world needs the Church of these legions to be rational, historically minded, pluralistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice.
That is the Church many of us hoped might emerge from the Second Vatican Council, which convened in the nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica from 1962 to 1965. After the death, in 1958, of Pope Pius XII—and after 11 deadlocked ballots—a presumptive nonentity from Venice named Angelo Roncalli was elected pope, in effect to keep the Chair of Peter warm for the few years it might take one or another of the proper papal candidates to consolidate support. Roncalli—Pope John XXIII—instead launched a vast theological recasting of the Catholic imagination. Vatican II advanced numerous reforms of liturgy and theology, ranging from the jettisoning of the Latin Mass to the post-Holocaust affirmation of the integrity of Judaism. Decisively, the council defined the Church as the “People of God,” and located the clerical hierarchy within the community as servants, not above it as rulers. The declaration, though it would turn out to have little practical consequence for the clergy, was symbolized by liturgical reform that brought the altar down from on high, into the midst of the congregation.
I was a teenager at the time, living with my family on a military base in Germany, but I paid close attention to the impression Pope John was making in Rome. He stopped his car as it passed the city’s main synagogue one Saturday and informally greeted the Jewish congregants who’d been milling about after services. He ordered the anti-Jewish adjective perfidious deleted from the Catholic liturgy. As the apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece during World War II, he had supplied fake baptismal certificates to hundreds or perhaps thousands of Jews, aiding their escape; now, as pope, he met with a noted Jewish historian who had accused the Church—rightly—of complicity in Nazi anti-Semitism, and endorsed the historian’s work. In calling his council, Pope John had instructed organizers to put the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people high on the agenda—a result of his intimate experience of the Church’s failure to forthrightly defend the Jews during the Holocaust. When he received a Jewish delegation at the Vatican, he came down from his elevated platform to greet its members, saying, “I am Joseph, your brother”—a reference to the biblical Joseph greeting his long-lost family.
In one area after another, the council raised basic questions of ethos, honesty, and justice, setting in motion a profound institutional examination of conscience. I was very much a part of the Vatican II generation. In due course I would become a priest—a member of a liberal American order known as the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists redefined themselves around the vision of Pope John, and made me an advocate of that vision.
What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.
Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.
This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman 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. It also 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.
The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascetic monks and hermits, 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. It also had a pragmatic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.
The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism 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 competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself.
Pope John XXIII’s successors were in clericalism’s grip, which is why the reforms of his council were short-circuited. John had, for instance, initiated a reconsideration of the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception—a commission he established overwhelmingly voted to repeal the ban—but the possibility of that change was preemptively shut down by his successor, Pope Paul VI, mainly as a way of protecting papal authority. Now, with children as victims and witnesses both, the corruption of priestly dominance has been shown for the evil that it is. Clericalism explains both how the sexual-abuse crisis could happen and how it could be covered up for so long. If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.
I know this problem from the inside. My priesthood was caught up in the typhoon of the 1960s and ’70s. Ironically, the Church, which sponsored my civil-rights work and prompted my engagement in the antiwar movement, made me a radical. I was the Catholic chaplain at Boston University, working with draft resisters and protesters, and soon enough I found myself in conflict with the conservative Catholic hierarchy. It only gradually dawned on me that there was a tragic flaw deep inside the institution to which I’d given my life, and that it had to do with the priesthood itself. My priesthood. I heard the confessions of young people wracked with guilt not because of authentic sinfulness but because of a Church-imposed sexual repressiveness that I was expected to affirm. Just by celebrating the Mass, I helped enforce the unjust exclusion of women from equal membership in the Church. I valued the community life I shared with fellow priests, but I also sensed the crippling loneliness that could result from a life that lacked the deep personal intimacy other human beings enjoy. My relationship with God was so tied up with being a priest that I feared a total loss of faith if I left. That very fear revealed a denigration of the laity and illustrated the essential problem. If I had stayed a priest, I see now, my faith, such as it was, would have been corrupted.
“A Tiny Opening”
Still, the fact that Vatican II had occurred at all, against such great odds, was enough to validate a hope, half a century later, that the Church could survive the contemporary moral collapse of its leadership. That was the hope kindled by the arrival, in 2013, of the pope from Argentina. We would do well to step back from Francis’s apparent failures, six years into his pontificate, and recall what made those early possibilities so riveting, not just for believers but for many who had left religion behind.
Pope Francis seemed to me, in the beginning, like a rescuer. I think of his surprisingly simple first words from the balcony of Saint Peter’s right after his election: “Fratelli e sorelle, buonasera!” He had no use for the red-velvet slippers or the papal palace, and made a point of chastising rank-conscious prelates. He cradled and kissed the blistering feet of a Muslim inmate in a Roman prison and made a pilgrimage to the U.S.-Mexico border. He opened the door to Cuba and shut down the ancient Catholic impulse to convert the Jews. He has argued that religion is not a zero-sum enterprise in which the truth of one faith comes at the expense of the truth of others. (“Proselytism,” he told a journalist, “is solemn nonsense.”) He issued an encyclical urging care for the global environment, and gave that effort a theological underpinning.
The pope began as a man of science, which scrambles the old assumptions about the clash between religious belief and rational inquiry. The chemist turned Jesuit is presumably familiar with the principle of paradigm shift—the overturning through new evidence of the prevailing scientific framework. Settled ideas are forever on the way to being unsettled. So too with religion. Francis holds to the “fundamentals” of tradition, which is why a large population of the traditionally devout recognize him as one of their own. But he holds to the fundamentals loosely. In his book The Name of God Is Mercy, Francis explores the connection between specifically religious ideas and the concerns that all human beings share. By publicly measuring what he says, does, and believes against the simple standard of mercy—“God’s identity card”—Francis has consistently transcended the constraints of his position.
There is an undefined horizon of—let’s call it by an old name—the holy, toward which human beings still instinctively move. But today such longing for transcendence exists beyond categories of theism and atheism. Francis somehow gestured toward that horizon with innate eloquence. He offered less a message that explains than an invitation to explore. For Francis, an understanding of his role comes not from ideology (he is not a “liberal”) but from long and intimate relationships with the poor and the homeless. In the discarded people of Buenos Aires he recognized, as he put it, “all the abandoned of our world.”
Francis’s critics have found many reasons to push back against his initiatives. He has been attacked by proponents of unfettered free-market capitalism and by bigots who despise his appreciation of Islam. Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, has attacked Francis for his criticism of nationalist populism (and Francis draws fire in some circles as the embodiment of anti-Trump conviction). But inside the Church, the fiercest opposition has come from defenders of clericalism—the spine of male power and the bulwark against any loosening of the sexual mores that protect it. Among the broader community of Catholics, the wedge issue has been the question of readmitting the divorced and remarried to the sacrament of Communion. The issue has sorely divided the hierarchy, and Francis has sided with those who would change the rule. “The Church does not exist to condemn people,” he has said, “but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.” To deny beleaguered people the consolations of Communion for the sake of an abstract doctrine verges on cruelty. “Even when I have found myself before a locked door,” Francis once explained, “I have always tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening so that I can pry open that door.”
But this particular door—Communion for the divorced and remarried—opens onto the whole range of questions raised by the sexual revolution, which has been dramatizing the limits of the Church’s moral theology for a century. When the Catholic imagination, swayed by Augustine, demonized the sexual restlessness built into the human condition, self-denial was put forward as the way to happiness. But sexual renunciation as an ethical standard has collapsed among Catholics, not because of pressures from a hedonistic “secular” modernity but because of its inhumane and irrational weight. The argument within the Church hierarchy on divorce and remarriage has amounted to an overdue attempt to catch up with the vast population of Catholic laypeople who have already changed their minds on the subject—including many divorced and remarried people who simply refuse to be excommunicated, no matter what the bishops say.
The pope’s critics among his fellow prelates have engaged in intrigue, rumormongering, leaks, and open defiance—a desperate rearguard effort aimed at weakening a pope deemed insufficiently committed to the protection of clerical power. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, formerly the Vatican nuncio in Washington, D.C., ambushed Francis during that pilgrimage to Ireland, publishing a letter claiming that the pope himself had covered up the abusive behavior of clergy. Viganò had ambushed Francis before, during his 2015 visit to Washington, by arranging a private meeting with the Kentucky court clerk who had refused to certify same-sex marriages. Viganò is supported by the pope’s American nemesis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has paired with Bannon in promoting a right-wing school for theological “gladiators” in Italy. Foreshadowing these events was a letter addressed to the pope—and later leaked—by 13 cardinals ahead of a synod in 2015, warning against any change on the question of divorce and remarriage. Critics such as these worry that a shift in Church discipline on this single question will pave the way—even if Francis and his allies do not quite see it—to a host of other changes regarding matters of sexuality, gender, and indeed the entire Catholic worldview. On this, the conservatives are right.
All of which, again, points a finger at the priesthood itself and its theological underpinnings. That is the crux of the matter. For years, I refused to cede my faith to the corruptions of the institutional Church, but Vatican bureaucrats and self-serving inquisitors are not the issue now. The priests are.
A Culture of Denial
The body knows when it’s in love, and the body knows when it’s ensnared in something beyond endurance. My body knew last summer, as the revelations in Ireland provoked a visceral collapse of faith.
Pope Francis, challenged by the disgrace of his close ally, the now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington; by accusations, like Viganò’s, of his own complicity in the cover-up of sexual abuse; and by the moral wreckage of the Church around the world, responded with silence, denial, and a business-as-usual summoning of crimson-robed men to Rome.
Events in subsequent months only magnified the scale of the Church’s failure. With maddening equilibrium, Pope Francis acknowledged, in response to a reporter’s question early this year, that the rape of nuns by priests and bishops remains a mostly unaddressed Catholic problem. In Africa, once AIDS became common, priests began coercing nuns into becoming sexual servants, because, as virgins, they would likely not carry the HIV virus. It was reportedly common for such priests to sponsor abortions when the nuns became pregnant. “It’s true,” Francis said calmly. “There are priests and bishops who have done that.” Nuns have come forward in India to charge priests with rape. In April, a bishop was charged with the rape and illegal confinement of a nun, whom he allegedly assaulted regularly over two years, in the southern state of Kerala. (The bishop has denied the charges.) The nun said she reported the bishop to the police only after appealing to Church authorities repeatedly—and being ignored.
In February, a Washington Post report suggested that early in his pontificate, Francis learned about the systematic priestly abuse of institutionalized deaf children in Argentina, decades ago. The abuse had originally been brought to light not by Church officials but by civil authorities. The deaf victims reported that they were discouraged from learning sign language, but that one hand sign often used by the abusive priests was the forefinger to the lips: Silence.
That same month, the Vatican was forced to acknowledge that it had long-established secret protocols for handling “children of the ordained.” According to this policy, a priest who violated his vow of celibacy and fathered a child was encouraged to resign from the priesthood in order to “assume his responsibilities as a parent,” but was in no way required to do so. A Vatican expert stated that a priest’s fathering a child was “not a canonical crime.”
As for McCarrick, the cardinal was found guilty by a Vatican tribunal of abusing minors and was punished by being stripped of his clerical standing. A “reduction to the lay state” was described as the clerical equivalent of the death penalty. In truth, this supposedly humiliating punishment meant only that McCarrick would now share the secular status of every other unordained person on the planet. Here, too, clericalism rules: Because a defrocked priest retains his “ontological” superiority, the humiliation consists in his being made to appear, and live, like everyone else, which in itself reveals how the clerical caste perceives the laity.
A signal of what to expect from the meeting of bishops in Rome came in February from Francis himself, who, on the eve of the gathering, turned on those he called “accusers.” He said, with pointed outrage, “Those who spend their lives accusing, accusing, and accusing are … the friends, cousins, and relatives of the devil.” His spray-shot diatribe seemed aimed as much at victims seeking justice as at the right-wing critics who have clearly gotten to him. At the meeting, the bishops dutifully employed watchwords such as transparency and repentance, yet they established no new structures of prevention and accountability. An edict promulgated in March makes reporting allegations of abuse mandatory, but it applies only to officials of the Vatican city-state and its diplomats, and the reporting is not to civil authorities but to other Vatican officials. Francis proclaimed “an all-out battle” against priestly abuse and said the Church must protect children “from ravenous wolves.” But he said nothing about who breeds such wolves or who sets them loose. Worse, he deflected the specifically Catholic nature of this horror by noting that child abuse and sexual malfeasance happen everywhere, as if the crimes of Catholic clergy are not so bad. Coming like a punctuation mark the day after the Vatican gathering adjourned was a full report from Australia on the matter of Cardinal George Pell. Formerly the head of Vatican finances and one of Francis’s closest advisers, Pell had been found guilty of sexually violating two altar boys in a sacristy right after presiding at the Eucharist.
In the Americas and Africa; in Europe, Asia, and Australia—wherever there were Catholic priests, there were children being preyed upon and tossed aside. Were it not for crusading journalists and lawyers, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would still be hidden, and rampant. A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless. According to one victim, Cardinal Law, of Boston, before being forced to resign because of his support for predator priests, attempted to silence the man by invoking the sacred seal: “I bind you by the power of the confessional,” Law said, his hands pressing on the man’s head, “not to speak to anyone else about this.”
A priest did this. That is the decisive recognition. The abuse of minors occurs in many settings, yes, but such violation by a priest exists in a different order, and not simply because of its global magnitude. For Catholics, priests are the living sacrament of Christ’s presence, delegated above all to consecrate the bread and wine that define the soul of the faith. This symbol of Christ has come to stand for something profoundly wicked. Even as I write that sentence, I think of the good men on whom I have depended for priestly ministry over the years, and how they may well regard my conclusion as a friend’s betrayal. But the institutional corruption of clericalism transcends that concern, and anguish should be reserved for the victims of priests. Their suffering must be the permanent measure of our responses.
While a relatively small number of priests are pedophiles, it is by now clear that a far larger number have looked the other way. In part, that may be because many priests have themselves found it impossible to keep their vows of celibacy, whether intermittently or consistently. Such men are profoundly compromised. Gay or straight, many sexually active priests uphold a structure of secret unfaithfulness, a conspiracy of imperfection that inevitably undercuts their moral grit.
At a deeper level, Catholic clerics may be reluctant to judge their predatory fellows, because a priest, even if he is a person of full integrity, is always vulnerable to a feeling of having fallen short of an impossible ideal: to be “another Christ.” Where in such a system is there room for being human? I remember retreat masters citing scripture to exhort us priests during our seminary days “to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Moral perfection, we were told, was a vocational mandate. That such hubristic claptrap came from blatantly imperfect men did nothing to lighten the load of the admonition. I know from my own experience how priests are primed to feel secretly unworthy. Whatever its cause, a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition. That subculture has licensed, protected, and enabled those malevolent men of the cloth who are prepared to exploit the young.
The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too. The habit of looking away was general enough to have taken hold in me back then. When I was the chaplain at Boston University, my campus-ministry colleague, the chaplain at Boston State College, was a priest named Paul Shanley, whom most of us saw as a hero for his work as a rescuer of runaways. In fact, he was a rapacious abuser of runaways and others who, after being exposed by The Boston Globe, served 12 years in prison. It haunts me that I was blind to his predation, and therefore complicit in a culture of willed ignorance and denial.
Insidiously, willed ignorance encompasses not just clerics but a vast population of the faithful. I’ve already noted the broad Catholic disregard of the Church’s teachings about divorce and remarriage, but on the issue of artificial contraception, Catholic dissent is even more dramatic: For the past two generations, as Catholic birth rates make clear, a large majority of Church members have ignored the hierarchy’s solemn moral proscription—not in a spirit of active antagonism but as if the proscription simply did not exist. Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way.
“There Am I”
Pope Francis expresses “shame and sorrow” over the sexual abuse of children by priests, yet he instinctively defends perpetrators against their accusers. He has called clericalism “a perversion of the Church.” But what does he actually mean by that? He denounces the clerical culture in which abuse has found its niche but does nothing to dismantle it. In his responses, he embodies that culture. I was never surprised when his papal predecessors behaved this way—when, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, prohibited bishops from referring cases of predator priests to civil authorities, binding them under what he called the “pontifical secret.” Even now, as a supposedly sidelined pope emeritus, Ratzinger is still defending the old order. In April he published, in a Bavarian periodical, a diatribe that was extraordinary as much for its vanity as for its ignorance. Benedict blamed sex abuse by priests on the moral laxity of the 1960s, the godlessness of contemporary culture, the existence of homosexual cliques in seminaries—and the way his own writings have been ignored. His complaint offered a barely veiled rebuttal to the pontificate of his successor, and is sure to reenergize the present pope’s right-wing critics. But alas, the pope emeritus and his allies may not have real cause for worry. That an otherwise revolutionary pope like Francis demonstrates personally the indestructibility of clericalism is the revelation.
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. He has failed to bring laypeople into positions of real power. Equality for women as officeholders in the Church has been resisted precisely because it, like an end to priestly celibacy, would bring with it a broad transformation of the entire Catholic ethos: 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.
The model of potential transformation for this or any pope remains the radical post-Holocaust revision of Catholic teachings about Jews—the high point of Vatican II. The formal renunciation of the “Christ killer” slander by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality. The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished. The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged. Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now.
It likely won’t. Francis will almost certainly come and go having never reckoned with the violent corruptions of the priesthood. Clerics on the right are determined to defeat him, no matter what he does. The Church conservatives know better than most that the opposite of the clericalism they aim to protect is not some vague elevation of laypeople to a global altar guild but democracy—a robust overthrow of power that would unseat them and their ilk.
But Catholic clericalism is ultimately doomed, no matter how relentlessly the reactionaries attempt to reinforce it. The Vatican, with its proconsul-like episcopate, is the pinnacle of a structure of governance that owes more to emperors than to apostles. The profound discrediting of that episcopate is now under way. I want to be part of what brings about the liberation of the Catholic Church from the imperium that took it captive 1,700 years ago.
I know that far more is at stake here than the anguish of a lone man on his knees. In North America and Europe, the falloff of Catholic laypeople from the normal practice of the faith has been dramatic in recent years, a phenomenon reflected in the diminishing ranks of clergy: Many parishes lack any priests at all. In the United States, Catholicism is losing members faster than any other religious denomination. For every non-Catholic adult who joins the Church through conversion, there are six Catholics who lapse. (Parts of the developing world are experiencing a growth in Catholicism, but those areas face their own issues of clericalism and scandal—and the challenge of evangelical Protestantism as well.)
But to simply leave the Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged and its best ones unsupported. When the disillusioned depart, Catholic reactionaries are overjoyed. They look forward to a smaller, more rigidly orthodox institution. This shrinkage is the so-called Benedict option—named for the sixth-century founder of monasticism, not for Benedict XVI, although the pope emeritus probably approves. His April intervention described an imagined modern dystopia—pedophilia legitimated, pornography displayed on airplanes—against which the infallible Church must stand in opposition. Benedict’s Catholicism would become a self-aggrandizing counterculture, but such a puritanical, world-hating remnant would be globally irrelevant.
The renewal offered by Vatican II may have been thwarted, but a reformed, enlightened, and hopeful Catholic Church is essential in our world. On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no nongovernmental organization has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church. So let me directly address Catholics, and make the case for another way to respond to the present crisis of faith than by walking away.
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 that 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 complicit bishop rip my faith from me.
The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority.
I brought up James Joyce earlier, and his declaration that Catholic means “Here Comes Everybody.” But, referring to the clerical establishment, not to that “everybody,” Joyce also said, less sweetly: “I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” That spirit of resistance is what must energize reform-minded Catholics now—an anticlericalism from within. That is the stance I choose to take. If there are like-minded, anticlerical priests, and even an anticlerical pope, then we will make common cause with them.
Joyce was a self-described exile, and exile can characterize the position of many former Catholics, people who have sought refuge in another faith, or in no faith. But exile of this kind is not what I suggest. Rather, I propose a kind of internal exile. One imagines the inmates of internal exile as figures in the back of a church, where, in fact, some dissenting priests and many free-spirited nuns can be found as well. Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.
Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It 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. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”
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 commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken.
The Vatican itself may take steps, belatedly, to catch up to where the Church goes without it. Fine. But in ways that cannot be predicted, have no central direction, and will unfold slowly over time, the exiles themselves will become the core, as exiles were the core at the time of Jesus. They will take on responsibility and ownership—and, as responsibility and ownership devolve into smaller units, the focus will shift from the earthbound institution to its transcendent meaning. This is already happening, in front of our eyes. Tens of millions of moral decisions and personal actions are being informed by the choice to be Catholics on our own terms, untethered from a rotted ancient scaffolding. The choice comes with no asterisk. We will be Catholics, full stop. We do not need anyone’s permission. Our “fasting and abstaining” from officially ordered practice will go on for as long as the Church’s rebirth requires, whether we live to see it finished or not. As anticlerical Catholics, we will simply refuse to accept that the business-as-usual attitudes of most priests and bishops should extend to us, as the walls of their temple collapse around them.
The future will come at us invisibly, frame by frame, as it always does—comprehensible only when run together and projected retrospectively at some distant moment. But it is coming. One hundred years from now, there will be a Catholic Church. Count on it. If, down through the ages, it was appropriate for the Church to take on the political structures of the broader culture—imperial Rome, feudal Europe—then why shouldn’t Catholicism now absorb the ethos and form of liberal democracy? This may not be inevitable, but it is more than possible. The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb govern may apply less than serve. There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as priests. They will include women and married people. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior. Catholic schools and universities will continue to submit faith to reason—and vice versa. Catholic hospitals will be a crucial part of the global health-care infrastructure. Catholic religious orders of men and women, some voluntarily celibate, will continue to protect and enshrine the varieties of contemplative practice and the social Gospel. Jesuits and Dominicans, Benedictines and Franciscans, the Catholic Worker Movement and other communities of liberation theology—all of these will survive in as yet unimagined forms. The Church will be fully alive at the local level, even if the faith is practiced more in living rooms than in basilicas. And the Church will still have a worldwide reach, with some kind of organizing center, perhaps even in Rome for old times’ sake. But that center will be protected from Catholic triumphalism by being openly engaged with other Christian denominations. This imagined Church of the future will have more in common with ancient tradition than the pope-idolizing Catholicism of modernity ever did. And as all of this implies, clericalism will be long dead. Instead of destroying a Catholic’s love of the Church, the vantage of internal exile can reinforce it—making the essence of the faith more apparent than ever.
I began this long reckoning with an unwished-for sense of relief that my mother did not live to see the Church’s grotesque unraveling, but I understand now that if she had lived to see it, she too would recognize in this heartbreak the potential for purification.
What remains of the connection to Jesus once the organizational apparatus disappears? That is what I asked myself in the summer before I resigned from the priesthood all those years ago—a summer spent at a Benedictine monastery on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I came to realize that the question answers itself. The Church, whatever else it may be, is not the organizational apparatus. It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to him—or it is nothing. The Church is the fellowship of those who follow him, of those who seek to imitate him—a fellowship, to repeat the earliest words ever used about us, of “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.”
This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood.”