For a while now I have spent most of my waking hours working and then watching the baseball games of four of my children. Many things have happened in the wider world and while I haven’t had time to write about them I have been musing. I have especially been viewing the devastation of the Gulf of Mexico with horror.
First, a little background.
A branch of my father’s family, the Lintons, originally from northern,Michigan, lives near the Alabama coast. (Well, actually, originally from Scotland, then Michigan by way of Ontario). The story is that my great uncle, the brother of my grandmother, lit out for the Gulf Coast when the local draft board was breathing down his neck during World War I. Later his father, a carpenter, and his family joined him, eager for a climate that enabled year round work. My grandmother had wintered in Alabama near her family for many years, and after the death of her second husband she just stayed. In 1977, when she was ill with the cancer that eventually would kill her, I hitch-hiked south to spend time with her. One of my sisters was married to a sailor who was stationed in Pensacola, about a half hour east of Foley, where the Lintons lived. I stayed a few days at my sister’s house and then hitched to Grandma’s, where I found my niche as a handyman for the Pentecostal widow ladies from her church, where my second cousin was the preacher. A couple of days a week I would hitch out to the coast, buying a couple of ripe cantaloupes from a roadside stand on the way, and spend the day eating melon , body surfing, and daydreaming in the sand.
The Alabama coast in 1977 was mostly deserted, long pure white beaches the color of sugar, with only a few cabins here and there. When I returned only 7 or 8 years later, visiting my new friend, Alabama writer Maclin Horton, the place was unrecognizable: high rise hotels completely covered the oceanfront, and the only place one could now access the beach was at the state park. But at the park the beaches were still white and shining, stretching to the horizon. In subsequent years I have returned many times, most recently a few years ago to attend the wedding of Ellen Horton, Maclin’s daughter and my godchild. I always find time to drive down to the beach, to walk the white sands and swim in the turquoise waters.
It is heartbreaking that these pristine sands are being sullied by our folly. As I do not watch television, I only last week saw a color photo of the spill. Reddish brown, it looks like nothing else but an ooze of blood unfurling in the Gulf waters.
It is stunning to realize that neither BP nor the federal government has the slightest idea of what they are doing. They are making this up as they go. Mr Obama says that his mistake was in assuming that the oil company knew what to do in a worst case scenario. Huh? You assumed? You didn’t ask? You didn’t demand a comprehensive plan just in case the worst happened before you allowed them to drill? I don’t know that I have ever seen such a perfect convergence of corporate recklessness and governmental negligence.
There are two good things that may come of this catastrophe. The first is that we as a nation may finally get serious about the need for clean and sustainable energy. Mr Obama says that this is what he intends to do, with the seriousness with which we once set our sights on the moon. Let us hope this is not hype; time will tell.
The second is that perhaps we can bury once and for all the myth of the market, the idea that unregulated corporations will benevolently work for the common good, or at least that their pursuit of profit will result in the common good, that all will be well if the government does not interfere with the Magic Market. Let the oil spill choke this stupid idea the way it is choking wildlife in the Louisiana wetlands.
But there has been another dark ooze much on my mind of late. I speak of the deepening sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
When such sins first came to light in the mid 80s, I was in the seminary. At that time the Catholic religious establishment in the United States was dominated by the forces of doctrinal and moral dissent. At first it was easy to believe that this was the problem, that sexual abuse of the young was perpetuated by Those Liberals. There was a certain logic to this, but I did not entertain this illusion long. A guy a couple of years ahead of me in the seminary was arrested shortly after ordination and convicted of sex crimes committed against a 13 year old boy. We were not friends; he was very conventional and conformed to seminary expectations, while I was always butting heads or otherwise not fitting in. He considered me a weirdo and a radical, but he served as deacon in the parish where I was a catechist, the year after I left the religious community I had entered after leaving the diocesan seminary. So I knew him fairly well and was shocked when a right wing Catholic newspaper did a story on his case. They portrayed him as one of Those Liberals, and it simply was not true. He was conservative by conviction and temperament and professed loyalty to the Holy See. I became deeply suspicious of the “Those Liberals” narrative, and time has only confirmed my suspicions. In recent years priests from the new Latin Mass orders have been jailed for these crimes, as have prominent retreat masters, Mother Teresa’s confessor (!), and in an unprecedented development in Church history, the founder of a influential new religious order. A particular shock came when I heard that “my” community, a new and vibrant Franciscan reform group, suffered the wound of seeing one of its young friars convicted of molesting young boys.
Many Catholics will point out that there is no evidence that such crimes are more common among religious celibates than in any other group, that they are in fact more prevalent among schoolteachers. But this is a weak defense. That such sins are as common among those supposedly devoted to the Gospel and committed to sexual purity as among worldlings is scandal enough. Others will point out that the secular media hate the Church and relentlessly report the crimes of priests, crimes it would ignore in any other demographic group. And while I grant that one is unlikely to see a headline about a schoolteacher convicted of sexual abuse in Italy, the way one sees stories about clerics, it isn’t hard to see that the anomaly of a professed celibate committing such crimes is newsworthy in a way that the story of a regular schmuck committing the same crime is not. Don’t get me wrong; I concede that the world hates the Church. It’s just that I wish that the members of the Church wouldn’t make the world’s job so easy. And for a while there scarcely a day went by without some hierarch opening his mouth to utter the most ridiculous and tone deaf things imaginable. The closed world of the clerical elite must be far removed indeed from reality. As details of the history of coverups and the protection of criminals emerges one can hope that the shattering of this closed world may be one small good thing that the crisis will force.
Other Catholics get defensive when some speculate on a causal relationship between clerical celibacy and the sexual abuse of the young. As an Eastern Catholic I do not favor mandatory celibacy for the diocesan clergy. But neither do I see some intrinsic link between celibacy and sexual abuse. After all, apparently such things are more common among schoolteachers and scout leaders than clerics. On the other hand it would be naive not to recognize that a state of life that eschews marriage might attract a certain number of men who, because of homosexuality or immaturity, are incapable of intimacy with an adult woman.
Too, we ought to recognize that the state of the average diocesan priest has changed dramatically in the last fifty years or so. Once, if you were a solitary priest you were in a small town or country parish, a respected member of a tight community. Priests in the cities lived with other priests, often with common prayer. Today most priests live alone and even in large parishes they often live “alone together” with their fellow priests, isolated by factionalism or eccentricity. Most priests in fact are as lonely as hermits, though very few have that rare vocation. And instead of being surrounded by the silence of the desert or the forest, like the hermit, they are surrounded by the noise of the modern world, with cable and internet and all the distractions of technological life. Sexual sin is only the worst thing that can develop among lonely priests; alcoholism, gluttony, and other destructive habits are more common.
So if the Latin Rite is unwilling to reconsider mandated celibacy, it ought at least consider ways of reconstructing priestly life. Perhaps parish priests could live in community with common prayer and serve their parishes from some central location. Or perhaps other forms of common life could be explored in the parish. Every church has a core of spiritually minded elderly people; you see them at daily mass. Many of them are widows or widowers. Some may enjoy their solitude, but many would welcome living in community with a priest.
I do not doubt that some good may come of this crisis. But it is like that other ooze, the one in the Gulf, in that at first the extent of the catastrophe was underestimated. And it is like it, too, in that the damage may be permanent, the stain no easier to remove than the sludge in a Louisiana bayou or on a once shimmering Alabama beach.