Essays - Autumn 2015

Test of Faith

The Roman Catholic Church may forgive us our sins—but can it be forgiven for its own?

By Mark Edmundson | September 7, 2015
Kevin Dooley/Flickr
Kevin Dooley/Flickr


For more in Catholic Church coverage, read Ingrid D. Rowland’s essay from the first year of Pope Francis’s papacy, “4 Popes, 4 Saints, One New Guy.”

“Aren’t you a Catholic?”

People often ask me that question in a gotcha tone. It’s as though they’re saying: I see through you. You pretend to be an intellectual, a more or less secular guy who can maybe lay claim to some sophistication. You want to pass as someone (here’s the rub) who has grown up and is not a child anymore. But I see through all that, the questioner implies. I can tell that you live under the old dispensation. You’re a creature not of light and intellect, light and truth, but of guilt and fear.

Light and truth, lux et veritas, was the motto of the university where I went to graduate school. It signifies the power of enlightened intellect to remake the world—or at least to transform and elevate the individual. Religions don’t generally have mottoes, and it is probably not a good idea when they do. But if the Roman Catholic Church had a motto, it surely would not be light and truth. I spent 12 years, give or take, in the faith, the most influential years of my life. And I was surely a Catholic. But what if anything remains of that immersion? What value does it have here and now?

“I grew up,” says Wordsworth, the poet of childhood, “fostered alike by beauty and by fear.” He is talking about his life in Nature, which raised the poet to adulthood, or so he claims. His parents died when he was young. In a sense the church was my Nature—I lived in it when I was a child much as Wordsworth lived in the wonders of the Lake District. I was fostered in the Church by beauty and by fear. There was beauty, certainly. But the fear was preeminent. It’s not that I came from a particularly religious family: my father was Protestant, my mother a Catholic believer, but no zealot. It was simply that in the 1950s and ’60s, the strength of the Church was so great, its convictions so powerful, its rules so clear, its doctrines so pronounced, that a child like me who entered its world couldn’t help but be consumed by it.

A child like me: what exactly does that mean? I was, I suppose, sensitive, imaginative, slightly indrawn, rather soft, and spoiled. For the first five or so years of my life, I was the darling of not only my mother, but also my dear aunt (who was also my godmother) and my grandmother. They made much of me—too much, maybe. I was the pet of my father, too, who taught me to sing and recite poetry and to read well before the accustomed time. I was, in short, impressionable.

When I learned the doctrine of hell, my mind went furiously to work on it, peopling the infernal region with pointed monsters and devising tortures that even the Inquisition had probably neglected to conceive. Hell burned in me. Hieronymus Bosch spent no more time working out the intricacies of life among the damned than I did—though surely I lacked his visual flare. And I was terrified of what I imagined, too.

My hell fantasia wasn’t independently drawn, no; I had the help of the nuns who for an hour or two after church on Sunday twisted the doctrines of the afterlife into whatever shape they pleased. They were relentless on the life of the present as well. Once a girl entered class with a fresh dye job on her hair, and the nun in charge told her that although it might look alluring now, it would behoove her to know that in time the dye would seep down into her brain and implant cancers.

Hell got quite a lot of attention from those nuns. One said that if you wanted to imagine the cursed state of the soul in the afterlife, you should light a match and touch it to your finger until you feel the singe. Really. Do this. Go home and do it. Hurts, doesn’t it? Makes you jump, right? Now imagine that feeling over the length of your body: imagine it in your eyes, imagine it penetrating to private places. Got that? Are you there? Now conceive this: the flaming torture, which makes being burned at the stake a picnic in the park, lasts not for an hour, a day, a week, but for eternity, a concept that boggles the poor human intelligence.

Then there was confession. My buddies and I went every week almost, trooping down from our corner of Malden, Massachusetts, close by the Everett border. The confessional was a fearful place. We lined up—the four or five of us who made the trek—on kneelers outside one of the coffinlike booths in the downstairs chapel of the Sacred Hearts Church. I kneeled inside in sorrowful fear and heard the mumblings of the priest and my fellow sinner on the other side of the booth as the sinner confessed his wrongs and the priest gave penance and then forgiveness. It was dark in there, unbearably dark. It felt to me, a boy of seven or eight, like the darkness of the grave. I felt buried alive in that box.

Soon came the rustling sound of a priest turning my way. He slid back the screen, and an amber light glowed around his head like a dull halo. “Bless me, Father,” I said, “for I have sinned. My last confession was one week ago. Since then, I have …” Then came the roll call of sins. Father? I was talking to the priest before me, Father O’Banyon or Father Rourke (almost all of our priests were Irish), but also talking, through him, to the heavenly Father. “Since then I have: disobeyed my mother five times; lied twice; and teased my little brother.” The priests sometimes gave me a brief homily on treating my brother better. One told me to imagine the life of Jesus when he was a boy and to try to behave likewise. The priests tended to be gentle, especially to us kids. They gave us prayers to say: “And for your penance, say three ‘Our Fathers’ and make a good ‘Act of Contrition.’ ” Up then to the altar rail and a speedy run through the sacred words.

After my few prayers, I walked outside. And whether the sun shone on that particular day or not, I felt as though I were walking into heaven’s sunlight. The feeling of being delivered from the burden of sin—even if some of my sins were not so radically sinful—was all that it was supposed to be. I was born new. I felt cleaned off. I felt washed again in the waters of the baptismal font.

Every confession made with something like a pure heart reproduces the moment when Jesus turned to this repentant sinner or that, often after healing him from some horrible malady, and pronounced the simple words, “Your sins are forgiven. Now go and sin no more.” A fresh start! A new beginning! It awakened in me the idea of Jesus in his eternal mercy. Here was a God who never gave up on you, unlike everyone else in your life. Your teachers, your friends, even your parents. If you behaved in a dismal way one too many times, you were not only chastised, you were written off. You were that dull, dreary dope of a guy and you always would be. Not to Lord Jesus, though. Lord Jesus took you back from now until the end of time, provided that you were sorry. He had high hopes for you. His hopes weren’t based on brains or good looks or money, but simply on the idea that you understood that it was better to live a kind and modest Christian life than to live any other way.

The setting of confession was no doubt a hoax and a fraud. The sight of children cowering on kneelers would probably have made Jesus wince. The church was a haunted house: the underground chapel was dark as pitch; during Lent the statues covered in purple cloth looked ghostly and accusing; there was the smell of stale incense; the holy water was always going green in the dish. All of the trappings of confession were funereal, but in reality, at the core of the ritual was life, and the belief that the present must not be consumed by the wrongs we have committed in the past. Jesus has no time for ghosts, no time for eternal guilt, no time for needless suffering and pointless sorrow. “Let the dead bury the dead,” the Savior declared. Come on, drop the load from off your back. Repudiate your sins, be truly sorry, and then come and follow me. William Blake’s summary of the teachings of Jesus comes in a memorable piece of doggerel: “And throughout all Eternity / I forgive you, you forgive me. / As our dear Redeemer said: / ‘This the Wine, and this the Bread.’ ” When we left the dark bowels of the Sacred Hearts Church, we were so light and gay that you would have thought we could fly. Tell me that’s not a minor miracle!

Then there was sex. Confirmation time arrived at the moment of puberty. We were 12 years old, maybe 13, and it was time to become soldiers of Christ. It was time to prepare to lay down your life for the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Just as we were entering the stage of hormonal flush, we were required to double and redouble our churchly commitments, coming to the school attached to the Sacred Hearts at least three extra days a week to prepare for the holy passage to come, when the bishop would arrive from Boston, say Mass, slap each of us across the face—sometimes with smacking force, we understood—and declare us ready to struggle for the Church. He would issue us new names, noms de guerre as it were, under which we would strive beneath the banners of Rome in her wars with whatever anti-Christ was then slouching into the world. It felt like preparation for the Crusades, which I had read about repeatedly and often dreamed of what it would be like to join.

But other influences were abroad in the world. The year of my confirmation coincided with the Beatles’ invasion of America, and the country—especially its young—began to repeal the 1950s and Tail Gunner Joe and Liking Ike and fantasias like mine about becoming a knight crusader. I can envision those girls whooping on The Ed Sullivan Show. Why were they crying and grasping at the air and pulling their own (often dyed and so-far-non-cancer-causing) hair up from the roots? I asked myself and may even have asked others—my parents and a friend or two. I asked, but at the same time I knew. “Sexual intercourse began,” writes Philip Larkin, “in nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the Chatterley ban / and the Beatles’ first LP.” And, he confesses, that “was rather late for me.” For me, it was rather early. As I prepared to be confirmed, the larger revolution in morals mirrored the predictable, cataclysmic hormone revolution taking place in me and my contemporaries.

To go through puberty while the whole world seemed to be doing the same—this was a strange sensation, comforting and confusing. Would the world grow calm and stable when we decided to? Would it lose most all ambition at a certain point, retire from the push and toss when we chose? Would the world perish in relative sync with the members of my biological cadre? And there was this, too: slowly, but inexorably, everyone was becoming like us, everyone was beginning to imitate the rockers and their fans—or was hardening over in reaction.

Something new was ascending, and we felt its force. The Church—or at least the local outlet—had no idea what to do. The eruption sometimes made the priests and nuns hysterical, or perhaps more hysterical. When two rather comely girls walked in late to my confirmation class, I gave them the mandatory male once-over. The duty nun, generally half-benign, screamed, “Do you have to stare at every girl who comes into the room!” I gulped and blushed and drummed my feet, and tried to pull my head into my nonexistent but badly wished-for tortoiseshell. I felt blasted, humiliated. Day and night, I repeated to myself that nun’s yelping accusation. I saw my fellow students stare at me with a look of amazed contempt.

Here was the Church’s view of sex in compressed form. Stop it! Cut it out! Don’t look! You should be ashamed of yourself! Repression was the magic elixir. But it was not the age of repression. Even Saint Paul knew that we must marry so as not to burn, and even Jesus might tell you that our gaze may travel as it likes. Even a cat can look at a king, or a queen. But to the nuns of the Sacred Hearts Church, indiscretion looked like rebellion. They gave us to know that sexual stirrings were tantamount to mortal sin, which would send you express to hell if you happened to die with the sin unconfessed on your soul. My friends and I debated the intricacies. What would happen, for example, if you missed Mass—a mortal sin—and as you were on your way to confess, you were hit by a truck while crossing Eastern Avenue a few blocks from church?

If you were heading to hell for an impure thought, or an appreciative glance at Jane Spanelli and Maureen Ryan, then a few things followed. First, the Church fathers and mothers were probably mad. Second, you were doomed to hell anyway, so what was to be done? I had been checkmated by the doctrines of the nuns and priests, and the only thing left was to consider my options. More and more, it seemed like overturning the board wouldn’t be a half-bad idea.

As someone who usually stood to the side of matters, observing and analyzing and issuing comment (but who would occasionally jump in with both feet, surprising all around, myself not least), I was not likely to turn over any tables. Enter Tony Vivante (that’s the name I’ll confer on him here), the lead singer, lead guitarist, and general moving spirit of a local band cleverly called the Kinsmen. The Kinsmen’s main offering was an interminable version of “Louie Louie.” What were the words to “Louie Louie”? The song was the scandal of AM radio. The band that that had made the record, the Kingsmen, slurred the words, but the rumor was that the song was pure one-night-stand sex. “Every night at ten, I lay her again / Fuck that girl all kindsa ways.” At least that’s what we thought they were saying. To this day, I’m not sure anyone knows. But Tony claimed he did, and his group’s version of “Louie Louie” went on for half an hour.

Yet there he was in confirmation class rehearsing the impending day. He had perfect, oil-slicked black hair that shimmered in iridescent rainbows as he walked. He wore shirts with black velvet collars and pants pegged so tight that only his mother could have done it. If you sat near him at the church rehearsal, you could hear him issuing a sub voce running commentary. He did not like nuns, he did not like priests, he did not like church. He was there because his father had promised to buy him a new guitar if he succeeded in getting confirmed.

Tony was a poet in his own way, making more exuberantly vulgar hash out of the already vulgar “Louie Louie.” One day after school, as we sat on a pew inside the church, he applied this talent to the opening phrase of the “Hail Mary.” He popped it right into the first words, and the priest standing behind him managed to hear it. The priest was a diminutive, red-haired man, who looked little older than we did. His kindly, welcoming face—a farm boy, happy-in-the-open-fields sort of face—was deceptive. Tougher and tauter than all the rest of the tribe at Sacred Hearts, he behaved as if he had something to prove, as no doubt he did.

He heard what he heard and rushed to Tony’s row like a fireman entering a burning building. He grabbed the boy by the ear and pulled him out into the center aisle. The Red Father was about to drag Tony, who stood five inches taller, all the way out of the sacred precincts when Tony seemed to have a revelation. It was akin to the one Huck Finn has when he decides to disobey the law and help his slave friend Jim find freedom. It was akin to the revelation R. P. McMurphy has before going up against Big Nurse for the last time, and the one that Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One experiences when asked what it is exactly that he’s rebelling against. (“Whaddya got?”) “All right then,” Huck says to himself, “I’ll go to hell.”

Tony didn’t let himself be hauled out of the church. He flung the father down in the central aisle, put him in a headlock, and—I cannot recall exactly—maybe sent a few fist-pops into the crook of his arm where the anointed red head was pinioned. The kids stood in awe. Some of the nuns wept, and a few tried to help the good father—no dice. Tony held that priest in place with an occasional head tap until the priest made clear that when Tony did let go, there would be no attempt to resume the rumble, and Tony would be free to walk out of the church with dignity, under his own steam. (Louie Louie.) This he did, going out like Shane into the sunset. He strode away like Paladin, the avenger all in black: “Have gun will travel reads the card of a man / A knight without armor in a savage land.”

So what had Tony said?

“Hail Mary, full of grace”—that’s how it’s supposed to go. In repeating it, we were uniting ourselves in one voice to do homage to the Immaculate Virgin, Mother of God. Mary was to us the celestial intercessor. We were to pray to her when we had committed a sin that we thought might enrage God. We were told to petition her directly when we’d been praying for a long time without our prayers being answered—for the health of a brother or sister, sobriety for a father, a new baby for a mother. The sisters told us that Mary had special access to the Father. She sat beside his throne, and at an opportune moment might whisper into his ear. Hail Mary, full of grace. Grace meant forgiveness, understanding, generosity, and kindness of spirit. Grace. But to Tony, on that afternoon practicing for confirmation upstairs in what we called the Big Church, grace was not what Mary was full of.

Tony never returned to confirmation class, though he was back in school the next day, dressed all in black and bragging about the Kinsmen. I never spoke a word to him that I can recall. But at least for me, he was something of a redeemer, though in a dark, Blakean sense. What had he redeemed me from? I can put it in a word: humiliation! I had never stopped smarting from that business about looking at the girls in my class. I’d been made a fool, exposed, my desires unmasked in front of everyone. I played the event over in my mind and each play drove the blade deeper. I was too soft, I suppose, too proud and prim, too ready to take offense. But if the nun who teed off on me had meant to make me blush and shuffle and hate myself, she succeeded.

Humiliation! That’s what Catholicism meant to me. Its message was simple: it was a sin and an embarrassment to have desires and wrong to want money and standing and all the rest. But the greatest sin was sex. The nuns and priests never had to say it outright; the message threaded through all they did and were. The denial of sex was the major fact (or so we thought) in their way of life. Celibacy, chastity: that’s what they represented. Their black cloth was a declaration of death in life—they wore the color of the grave. They did not wear the motley, the multicolor of desire. When they found evidence of sex, of wanting, they stepped on it, ground down their toes and then applied the heel. The priest who tried to kick Tony’s ass hadn’t started hating him at the moment when their opinions diverged on what Mary might be full of. All of the nuns and priests hated Tony for wanting to be Elvis and to sing his songs and shake what in him and on him there was to shake. The idea that day was to humiliate Tony, just as the rest of us were constantly humiliated. They found something offensive in simply being a human being, in experiencing desires and hopes and aspirations, and determined that humiliation was the best way to deal with it.

To tell the world what Mary was full of was to announce that she was mortal, had bodily functions, ate and drank and urinated and defecated, too. She was human. Mary was a mortal girl from Nazareth, full of what the rest of us were. If we were going to be humiliated for being alive, then we (in the person of our savior, Tony) were going to bring the edifice down with us.

Desire always needs to be dealt with, particularly male desire. Left entirely free—untutored, unmodified—it will knock over the civilized world and destroy the individual, especially if his desires are strong. But education through the lash and lecture is surely not the best way to proceed. One day a nun told the girls about the myriad ways that one could get pregnant. Sitting on a boy’s lap fully clothed was one way; riding too close to a boy in a car; kissing a boy in a forbidden way. One was surprised that a girl could walk from home to the 11:30 A.M. Mass without getting herself with child.

Sex. How about understanding it? How about some accurate knowledge? But the Church, or at least its Malden branch, was its stubborn, cruel, blind self and acted like something out of the quadrants of the Middle Ages. Thanks, Tony: you sprung us, at whatever cost to yourself. Or at least you helped spring me.

Don’t touch! Don’t look! Hate yourself for being yourself. It didn’t work for me—and it surely didn’t work well for the Church itself when, in the late 1980s, the great sex scandals began to arise. Were there jokes about priests diddling altar boys at the Sacred Hearts Church? Surprisingly few, but we still made plenty of jokes at the expense of priests and nuns. I remember the first time I heard a neighborhood wag observe that at the nunnery they drove nails through the broomsticks. One priest had a reputation for overtopping the communion cup—at the time, only the priests got to drink the wine—and draining it with earthy gusto.

I do remember showing up at the door of the rectory one day, shivering in my shoes, to ask about becoming—this was before the intercession of Tony—an altar boy. The diminutive, red-haired priest answered, and I stood there at the threshold (he did not invite me in) and asked my question in a trembling voice. The look he gave me, up and down, up and down, was distressing. I felt like a fish being held out by the man at the fish store and turned around and around, though I was quite still. It was, I now can be almost sure, an appraising look. “No,” the Red Father said, shaking his head, “you’re not exactly what we have in mind.” His words said that he wanted only boys enrolled in the Catholic school, but the gaze said something different. Occasionally, only occasionally, there was a joke about befrocked diddlers, but not as often as one might imagine.

And not nearly as often as there deserved to be, for the situation was an astonishing scandal. Whatever went on or didn’t at the Sacred Hearts Church of Malden, Catholic priests all over America and all over the world were busy having sex with young boys. It was epidemic, like a flu. How could this have been? How was it kept quiet for so long? The answer is unavoidable: if you were a priest in America during the past 50-odd years, either you knew about the seductions and said nothing, or you were involved in them firsthand. What had appeared to be a church, with all the trappings of a major religion, sometimes seems to have been nothing better than a child molestation ring. There were the enablers, and there were the perpetrators.

When it came time to settle accounts, the Church turned vicious. Priests and cardinals and bishops lied. They accused the accusers. They brought forward lawyers in briefcased phalanxes and attempted to overwhelm their foes. They told themselves that this horrid entity called “the world” was assaulting them for being the otherworldly institution they were, and they got up on the parapets and began aiming crossbows and tipping pots of black boiling oil.

Had the strategy of denial and denunciation that had been tried with potent effect on me and so many other Catholics, old and young, come back to blast its users? Had the perpetrators and their accomplices refused to come to any understanding about their own desires and the harm those desires might do? I could almost imagine that some perpetrators literally didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t believe they were messing with this boy or that, and after the fact couldn’t quite believe (and then in time didn’t believe at all) that they had done what they had. Sex was to be suppressed and denied. I didn’t do it. It didn’t happen. I’m not guilty. Don’t look at me. They were—all the priests who preyed and those who observed and did nothing—all full of something, and grace wasn’t it.

And yet, what was strange—I would almost say miraculous—was what did not happen. The villagers did not appear outside the walls of every Catholic church in America, or even every one where crimes clearly occurred. They didn’t mass at night, waving pitchforks and scythes and carrying torches. They didn’t burn the churches, which had become in many cases what they were in the old Gothic novels, sacristies for crime. They didn’t tar and feather the priests, apply the pruning knife, or drive silver stakes through foul hearts. For what happened was something straight out of a vampire movie: the black-clothed privileged had gone into the ignorant villages and found the most vulnerable, the young and confused, and then had despoiled them. The Church was supposed to be about the protection of innocence. That was what Jesus said. Instead, the Church preyed on the innocent and protected the guilty—with lawyers and evasions and the moving of assets, and by making records go inexplicably missing.

The Church did not want to punish the wayward priests. Rather than exacting harsh retribution, it asked the offenders to do collectively what it asked me and every other visitant to the confessional to do: confess their sins, do penance, and amend their lives. To confess, you have to know that what you have done is wrong and you have to be sorry for it. To do penance means to pray or sacrifice or work with an eye to making up for the wrongs that you have committed. Your penance may be symbolic (as were the prayers I recited in the chapel), or it may be more hands-on. An erring priest might do community service, for example, or redouble his efforts to help the poor. And then one must amend one’s life. Confession and penance without the resolve to change one’s life are of no consequence. The sinner has got to be sure that he will try with all his might to do what Jesus told so many wayward men and women to do: go and sin no more. Sin no more. The Church is not geared to inflict pain as a form of revenge for wrongs done. No, instead it wants admission, remorse, penance, and the desire to live a righteous life. The guilty priests may not have done this, but it is what the Church asked of them.

Blindness and denial had become the order of the day, embedded deep within the Church. But the Church operated by another ethos, too—that of true confession and true absolution, which had made my friends and me walk with such spring in our steps all those years ago. I forgive you and you forgive me—forever, throughout eternity. True forgiveness—mercy—is at the core of Church doctrine. “The quality of mercy is not strained; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” Shakespeare writes. It is twice blessed, he goes on to affirm in what may be his most Christian lines, for it blesses both the forgiver and the forgiven. Although the Church often took the path of denial and legalistic maneuvering, its salvation was still there in its doctrines: confess your sins, do penance, and amend your life. (Amen.)

I suspect that people stuck with the Church in part because of its commitment to forgiveness. They also stuck with it because it is one of the few powerful bodies that tries to say a resolute No to what is most distressing about worldliness.

The Church is in favor of life. It rejects capital punishment. In a time when virtually no one challenges the rich and no one fights for the poor, the Church, as Pope Francis has dramatically shown, is on their side. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor, the Savior says, and then come and follow me. No other major Western institution says this. No one else has contempt for getting and spending. No one else will befriend the condemned man, or the rapist, or the thief. As long as you are alive and in this world, the Church has hope for you. When everyone else has given up on you, the Church remains open. How many times do you forgive your brother or sister? Jesus suggests that we do this no end of times. For the Church, there is no such thing as human refuse. Everyone matters. Everyone is equal. What you do to the least of mine, you do to me, Jesus says, and sometimes the Church tries to bear him out.

Does the Church fail? Of course it does. The Vatican flows with gold; the bishop knows fine wines; the priest is still ogling your son. But the Church carries within it the answers to its own excesses. You need to examine your conscience, you need to confess your sins, you need to be sorry, you need to vow to sin no more. But if you do, the door is open. The Church may at times outrage its own highest values—blindness, denial, lies. But it will try to right itself in its own way, and it will never give those values up, no matter how large the gap between what it professes and what it achieves.

Looking back, I’m grateful for the education the Church gave me. I walked out, I dare say, with its best principles in my heart, and maybe I left its worst behind. The Church stands yet and probably always will. It tells us that our lives mean something. It tells us that an individual existence has a shape, beginning with baptism and passing to confession, communion, confirmation, and marriage all the way to extreme unction and the grave. Without that inner structure, without some moral code, without forgiveness, what is life? Something closer to the experience of animals that merely eat, couple, and sleep. That the very best wisdom in the world is wrapped up with some of the worst crime is not easy for one to reconcile. But the Church now, even under the guidance of a new and invigorating pope, is a spiritual treasure guarded by a murderous dragon—and it is no less the treasure than it is the dragon.

For a major human riddle—maybe the major human riddle—is this: the worst kind of corruption is the corruption of the highest ideals. Where there are high ideals, there will often be corruption and often of the vilest sort. But without ideals, where—and what—would we be?

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