Sunday, April 04, 2010

Catholic Church

I've long since let go of any religious affiliation or belief in a deity. Still, I recognise that a religious faith is an unchallenged article of life for the majority of people at this time in history. I can understand how it might give meaning and reason to existence and at least provide a framework for responding to some of life's intangibles.

However, for the first 12 or 14 years of my life, I was carted off to mass every Sunday and made to go through the Catholic sacraments until I finally rebelled with enough early teenage militancy to be allowed not to go. Early on, for most of the 1980s, we lived in Toronto and the bulk of my experience was probably anomalous for a typical Catholic childhood. We went to the hippie-Catholic (at that time at least; and not all were Catholic by any stretch), Newman Centre chapel on the U of T dowtown campus.* The congregation was an odd collection of intellectuals, writers, musicians, and lefty all-sorts who would gather every Sunday in the mediaeval-inspired stone Newman chapel (note: it did NOT look like this gaudy place in 1984) with this great grey timber cross carved with a vine. Lots of Birkenstocks, wool, mandolins, and braided hair (to this day I have a thing for women in braids); an ancient friend likens it to a Renaissance Fair. Mass would be said, and then we'd all gather at the old mansion across the from the chapel for coffee, juice and doughnuts. We kids would sugar-up on fried pastries and Tang, then tear around the great big house with its turretted windows and endless rooms, and the grownups would gossip and flirt, plotting affairs and social justice.

Sometimes there would be house masses and parties, which were essentially giant wine-fueled (for the adults of course) potluck feasts in some great big house in the city. Once, I was at a house mass celebrated by this guy. I'd stuff myself with food, and then spend the rest of the evening trying very hard to hide my shy crush on the twins with the long brown hair, or much more so, the blonde and braided one with the writer-father. At Easter we'd do Seder suppers.

I have almost no memory of the priests from that time and place. Or anything else resembling the big, formalised manipulative Church I was to encounter later. Neither of those mattered, and were quite often challenged or outright ignored by that church community.

In the late 1980s, my family left Toronto for a much smaller southern Ontario city. I was again enrolled in Catholic school and church and for the first time really met priests and rigid Catholic doctrine. There would be periodic visits from priests to class, where they would tell us stories of the evils of things masturbation and Jehovah's Witnesses, implying eternal hell for those kids who strayed. I also remember how upset my mum, a lifelong Catholic, was when the priests at mass failed to mention the fourteen women murdered on 6 December 1989 in their call to pray for various suffering peoples locally and globally. In the former place, the entire mass and conversation would have been somber and have focussed on the events in Montreal.

This, my first real dose of Catholic guilt and fear, was completely alien and alarming. It was probably my first proper encounter with priests and the power they wield in the conventional church. They were not a focus earlier and I was barely aware of them before, but now they were the voice of the church. And many of them were quite frankly creepy in their manor and deportment. If I had kids, I would not let these people near them. Although they never touched me or anyone else that I am aware of, it has since struck me that having strangers, creepy men in black, talk to impressionable early adolescent children about their sexuality, and threatening burning hell for doing what biology compels, is a little problematic.

Not least because of an unhealthy obsession some of these apparently celibate men seemed to have with children's sexual practices. The conditions for paederasty exist in the Church's teaching. The absence of sex, the vow of celibacy that Catholic priests take, and the declaration that sexual practice outside of a Church sanctioned marriage amounts to sin and after-life punishment, actually binds sex in Catholicism in a disturbing and manipulative way. Priests charged with enforcing and teaching doctrine are confronted with it constantly. The fact the institution protects its paedophiles also allows safe haven for molesters who join it. Its theology of forgiveness through confession is corrupted to allow an antidote to the guilt and protection of molesting priests might feel for abusing their charges. How may priests have admitted to abuse in confession to their peers? Confessions are secret and cannot be reported to anyone.

It therefore comes as no surprise to me that child rape is systemic in the Catholic Church. The conditions for it are structurally embedded in the institution major. And the sooner it falls, the better.

Given the extent of abuse and mass coverups, there is good reason for parents to now start asking careful and disturbing questions of their children and their Church.

*if any readers were part of that little group, feel free to drop me a note.

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