In the 1980’s we worked in agricultural development in a remote region of the Issan region of Thailand in SE Asia. We went there because of our love for God. We found it deeply rewarding. During our time there we made many friends. Some were Thai; some were foreigners. Three of our best ex-pat friends were Americans. These three were Roman Catholics – two men and one woman – who lived together under the supervision of the church and who each worked in their own assigned areas of social relief. They ranged in age from their late-twenties to their mid-forties. As a married couple we often had them over, which they enjoyed very much. Having a western-style home open to them was a familiar social comfort. And we often went to visit them. We saw one another at least once a week over the years we lived in the region. We were good friends. All three were from the states of either Pennsylvania or New York.
One of the common differences between western and Thai culture is in the area of sexuality. While Thai private home life is austere when it comes to their personal sex life, the socially acceptable public outlets for male sexual behaviour outside of the home are plentiful and varied. Anyone who has lived in Thai society for any length of time knows this. And being so different it is a common topic of conversation among westerners who try to come to grips with this cultural difference, which can at the least be disconcerting and at the most shocking, producing a range of emotional responses from humour to disgust depending on the foreigners’ own social values and assumptions. In the end it is inevitable that conversations among westerners will broach this topic. The same was true with these friends.
While having a meal at our home one day one of these friends made the observation that this double standard for men in Thai society was not unique in his own experience even as an American. Growing up he told of having attended both minor and major seminaries as he discerned whether he felt called to the priesthood. As a heterosexual our friend said how he had come to realize just how much he looked forward to being married some day, disqualifying him from a life of celibacy. Then he stated quite bluntly how unfair it had seemed to him as a student that while heterosexual behaviour had been severely scrutinized in the major seminary he had attended, homosexual behaviour had been openly practiced among seminarians and was readily tolerated by seminary authorities.
This post is not about homosexual behavior. Nor is it about any inferred link between homosexuality and pedophilia. But it is about being reminded of the overly apparent double standard that exists in the church when it comes to sexual promiscuity, which does encompass and include heterosexual behavior, homosexual behavior, and pedophilia, and the psychology that operates in the minds of men who form policy and police sexual behaviour as a part of their own privilege.
I visited with a good friend this week after the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released his findings concerning charges involving over one thousand reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in his jurisdiction. My friend is a priest. I began our conversation by simply asking him what the effect of this report had been in the diocese in which he served? He began his response by stating that these acts had taken place over a period of seventy years and that the media had a way of presenting things in a way that made things look worse than what they are. I was shocked. What?!, I thought to myself. He went on to remind me that he had been raised by an alcoholic father and had come to the conclusion at an early age that that was just his father and that there were too many good things awaiting him once he left home for him to dwell on the abuses of his past. What!?, I again found myself incredulous. I sat there in stunned disbelief. In our thirty-plus years of close friendship I have never gotten the sense that he is covering something up. No. In fact he is a skillful pastor who has been helpful in innumerable crises in the churches he has served precisely because he has the ability to help people to focus on the future and what they need to do in order to get there. He has always impressed me as a career counselor of the spiritual life. And he definitely eschews any role in official church authority believing that outside of the sacraments his role is to help his parishioners discern their call in life. Why was this the best that he could offer in response to this failure?
I have a friend. They are one of my closest friends. Our closeness came about when they decided that I was to be the first one to whom they would confide that they had been sexually abused and sexually assaulted both in adolescence and in their marriage. They are a wonderful, loving person. We cried together then. We still cry now. I carry them regularly in my heart. Nowadays we visit often and share the joys of later adulthood together. But the abuse they suffered will never go away. Healthy people remember. It takes little to trigger those memories. There is forgiving. There is not forgetting. The key becomes learning the art of finding joy in the greatness of life as it presents itself to you here and now. It is a tension that can bring strength rather than to live solely in despair. This person’s abuse did not happen at the hands of the church. Their love of God has been a wellspring in their daily life. Their experience of priests in their church, however, has been anything but supportive.
In spite of my own friendships with priests – some of whom are truly loving and magnanimous men – I also find a dullness about the rest of their gang. And any more I do see even religous affiliations somewhat gang-like. There are rites of initiation, privileges of membership, degrees of loyalty, rituals of punishment, and vows of silence that rival any gathering of malicious, protective, and power-hungry young men on the streets of any major urban area in the world. A decade ago I sat enthralled by the videos put out by Rev. Robert Barron on the history of the Roman Catholic faith. But this past week in response to clergy sexual abuse in this one diocese alone he simply asked to not have all priests be judged by the actions of a few. But that is the same line used by the spokesmen of the NRA whenever it comes to justifying the ongoing proliferation of guns, gun culture, and gun violence in the United States. These NRA fools reserve the right to maintain this ongoing structure of violence, and children and women and non-members of this gun-gang suffer. It is the same with the church. Any member of the church who does not have their heart broken by the life-long suffering inflicted on its members by both those who are in leadership as well as other church members is simply not Christian, for God is love. And herein lies the problem, that from the first centuries people have stolen into the church who have not experienced the love of God and committed their lives to living that out, for God is love.
We go to church for the sacraments. It is in them that we directly experience the love of God. There are people there who are there for other reasons.
We are Catholic Workers because it is the outpouring of Christ’s love in us that compels us to respond to the world through the works of mercy and to witness to that non-violently in the world. There are other Catholic Workers who are Catholic Workers for other reasons.
We believe that it is important to at least name this, which is the first step in changing structures. Truth telling. For without truth there can be no trust built. And trust is the foundation for positive social behavior. It was something we tried to teach our children when they were growing up. It was a dynamic we brought to leadership in all of the churches we served. And in contrast to the society in which we live, it is how we make decisions and live our business lives in regard to the various governments with which we are forced to deal. And lest anyone think that the Roman Catholic Church is alone in this I can guarantee you as someone who served three Protestant denominations over the course of thirty years in ordained ministry, it is not. Each of these others also had their own abuses and cover ups, which is precisely why I not only quit ministry, but resigned my ordination ten years ago, not wanting any more to be a member of their gangs. And while the state is now pursuing these church criminals, William Stringfellow is right in discerning that all states and their supporters are by definition unable to discern moral right and wrong…don’t expect morality from principalities.
Our hearts go out to the abused. But the most heinous element of it all is the cover up that happened that allowed others’ lives to continue to be destroyed…and undoubtedly has happened in other areas, is still covered up, and continues even as we write.
We live in order to radically serve others out of the love that God has for us and to give everything away. That should be the only loving servant-standard for leadership in the church. Where are the people who embody this?