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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

The sadness of a Catholic

12/17/2002

CARDINAL LAW's resignation is a relief in a dozen ways, yet your overwhelming reaction, even as a Catholic devoted to church reform, is one of sadness. Throughout this crisis you have been forced into an intimate relationship with the power structure of the church - something from which, for many years, you kept your distance. You long found it possible to practice the essentials of your religion - belief in God's real presence, reception of the sacraments, a way to think of death, obedience to the hope of justice - without caring much about the increasingly arcane proscriptions coming from the chancery and Rome. But once the fate of vulnerable children became the issue, you had no choice but to confront directly the neurotic mechanisms of abuse, control, and denial that had wrecked lives and poisoned the priesthood.

Suddenly, you faced a horrible truth about your church. Cardinal Law is gone, but you are braced for even more disturbing recognitions. The issue began as one involving, first, a small legion of perverted priests, then a shocking number of complicitous bishops, then a recalcitrant Vatican to whom the victims of abuse remained invisible. But at some point, the issue became the church itself.

This communion of belief, defined by the most precious hope you possess, had become in some essential way an institutionalization of decadence. And until now, for all your complaints about conservative teachings, you had not seen it. The foul slanders of the anti-Catholic bigots of your youth - what the haters said about priests whom you regarded as selfless, about the pope of whom you were proud, about Catholic ''forgiveness'' equaling self-absolving laxity - turned out to be true.

Sexual perversion. Power madness. Indifference to civil law. Endemic dishonesty. The narrow claim to theological infallibility as a virus of arrogance. Far more than the failure of Cardinal Law, you have beheld the emptiness of the thing you thought was sacred. Holy Mother the Church: Her worst enemies called her a prostitute, and now you see why.

Not only the Vatican has been living in denial. You have. And wasn't the false illusion of your faith obvious? At Christmas, what do you celebrate but the coming of a peasant child who defined himself - even at birth - against the imperium of Rome? Yet didn't his church embrace that very imperium the first chance it got? Cardinal Law's Roman palace in Brighton, as much as the pope's on Vatican hill, is thus the perfect symbol of the betrayal. At home with Caesar.

And even now, as the Boston archdiocese ducks and feints behind bankruptcy laws and lawyers, precisely to protect the wealth of its imperial sway, the Christ child comes as an infinite rebuke. Bishops and popes must stop living and acting like emperors. Specifically, the Catholic estate on Lake Street should be cashed in and paid out to suing victims. Not a settlement - a penance.

Abused children can thus be an epiphany of all the sins committed by an imperial church (ask the Jews), and the moral reckoning those now grown children demand can be the occasion of a long overdue dismantling of an imperial structure that is itself a blasphemy. The tradition demands sackcloth and ashes, but modesty and simplicity will do. Until the church trades its silk robes and treasure for contemporary equivalents of the way Jesus of Nazareth lived, his memory will continue to be dishonored. Imperial decadence will reign.

The overwhelming sadness you feel is appropriate to the season. The ''holidays'' always involve a confrontation with the gulf between life as you are living it and the fantasy of life as it is ''supposed'' to be. This time of year weighs you down not only with its darkness and chill, but with a culture-wide nostalgia for what never was. ''A perfect Christmas'' is a destructive fantasy at the service of commerce, and if its impossibility depresses you, imagine what it does to those for whom Jesus holds no meaning. But the fantasy weighs more this year than ever, because now you know that the heroic church for which you feel nostalgia is a false illusion, too.

But here is the odd thing. The Christmas story says it is precisely to this unholy condition - the human condition - that the Word of God is addressed. Why else a stable? Why else a child wrapped in, yes, some kind of sackcloth? The bishops and popes have been in flight from the humanness of the church; the church in flight from the humanness of life on earth. That humanness, contradicting every claim to infallibility, is what Cardinal Law was desperate to cover up. Yet what is the message of which the angels sing if not that God has taken on humanness itself, all its glories and all its limits. Your sadness, too. That faith, this year, is as close as you come to joy.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A31 of the Boston Globe on 12/17/2002.
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