Saturday, August 21, 2010

COLM TOIBIN AND THE POPE

I’ve Posted on this before* but the material now comes (with a new twist but still the same gravamen) in a book review by the Irish author Colm Toibin and in no less a venue than ‘The London Review of Books’, so I am going to briefly say it all again, with some attention to the new twist.


Toibin is setting himself a difficult task in this review of a book entitled “The Pope Is Not Gay”: he has to keep his liberal-progressive creds by going along with their agenda, while also adding this new spin of being ‘gay-positive’.

The ‘gay-positive’ bit means that he has taken it upon himself to somehow make ‘gay clergy’ not-look like the folks responsible for all the sex-abuse (and in this I agree with him and support him) while also making gays – even gays in the priesthood, even ‘active’ gays in the priesthood – look good in and of themselves.

It makes for some interesting twists and turns.

The first point, then, is to point out the massive and fatal incoherence in the liberal-progressive agenda: using the ‘sex abuse crisis’ (with or without the ‘gay’ bit) as a reason for doing away with both clerical celibacy and a male-only priesthood in the Catholic Church.

Serious sex-offense studies have established that a huge percentage of all child sex-abuse occurs in families, perpetrated by family members or relatives; much less than 10 percent is perpetrated by the now-classic cartoon of the ‘slavering and monstrous and incorrigible stranger’.

Therefore, the liberal-progressive effort to propose a married clergy is not only inaccurately grounded but also – in light of the actual known dynamics and demographics of sex-abusing – places a child in more rather than less danger.

Whether a non-male clergy, married or otherwise, might be any ‘safer’ would depend on just how much females engage in sex abuse, whether they are straight or lesbian. Curiously, there is little statistical information to go on here; nobody seems to be tracking it, although all the male-related possibilities in sex-abusing are heavily explored in the research.

Which segues rather quickly into his derisive recitation of the many comments by Church functionaries and supporters that the Catholic Church is being somehow singled-out. I can’t see how you can avoid that conclusion: the presumption of sex-offending in its classic formulation is that all males are prone to this (indeed some radical-feminist thought holds that all sex is rape and all males are potential – and probably ‘probable’ – rapists simply by virtue of their sex-drive).

Yet little coverage, comparatively speaking, is given to clergy of other faiths, or to such other functionaries as teachers, counselors, and assorted care-providers.

The reasons for this ‘singling-out’ no doubt range along a spectrum: outside the Church, the liberal-progressives are engaged in a major struggle to either supplant or at least discredit the Church’s moral stands against such major elements of the lib-prog agenda as abortion, the sanctity of marriage, the importance of the Family, and in general a stubborn bearing witness to the authoritative role of any Higher Law or Law-giver, the authority of Which (or Whom) can stand in judgment on human laws and practices.

The Rightist, nation-worshipping Fundamentalists (more or less Protestant) seek to supplant the Church’s moral authority as it stands against ‘preventive war’, torture, and many other elements that have now become Standard Operating Procedure by a government that in the Fundamentalist view is pretty much God’s Deputy and therefore authorized by Him to ‘do whatever it takes’ and to do so with His full support and approval.

And the Church – especially since Vatican 2 – has been concerned for ‘the poor’, precisely as the Beltway has been quietly pandering to corporations and Wealth. (And you might want to look here to get an idea of how dangerous THAT was to the Beltway strategy).


Recall that in the early 1980s the Catholic hierarchy of the day took strong stands for social justice (especially as economically defined) and against nuclear war.

Within the Church there is a strong ‘liberal’ (as the term is used nowadays) tendency against celibacy, against males as priests, and against hierarchy in general. (Although whether such an aversion would survive if a Popess were to be on the Throne of Peter is an interesting question.)

So, given the confluence and synergy of both Leftish and Rightish objectives, inside and outside the Church, you can see that there is more than enough richly-manured earth from which a selective focus on the Catholic priesthood and hierarchy might indeed spring.

As always, I am NOT saying here that no sex-abuse (however that term is defined) occurred NOR am I trying to smuggle in any sort of approval for the imposition of sexual-experience on any human being by any other human being.

With Church supporters, there are – as Toibin notes and quotes – ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ elements who insist that the whole problem stems from ‘gays’ in the priesthood. And – queasily – there are some in the hierarchy who are quite happy to go along with this ‘explanation’ if for no other reason than to offer up some sacrificial lambs to stave off further incidents of the aforementioned selective obloquy. In fact, you might almost say that some hierarchs are trying to use the gay-clerics much as Chamberlain used the Czechs: as sort of an appeasement to the monster, acceptable collateral damage because – and this was feculently untrue even when Chamberlain uttered the phrase – they were “a people of whom we know little”.

The Catholic priesthood, as Toibin notes and quotes, has a rather substantial gay contingent. He observes that in his own experience he saw a large number of what he describes – very nicely and vividly – as “male flutterers” who were given to doing a lot of “male fluttering”, swanning about with swishy and sequined vestments.

Indeed, in a nice by-the-by, he lets it be known that when in the mid-2000s the Archbishop of the US military forces conducted, on orders from Rome, a serious survey of American seminaries, he reported that anywhere from a quarter to a half of all seminarians and priests were gay (whether ‘out’ or ‘closeted’ is left un-discussed by Toibin). I don’t know how much of the Sisterhood (the nuns, that is) is lesbian, and that matter wasn’t examined … a point I raise here only to note that a female priesthood might well include quite a few ‘gays’ itself.

Anyhoo, Toibin then gets on to the current Pope and to the hierarchy. He reports himself shocked, shocked, that whereas in 1991 he observed mostly nuns helping prelates take their liturgical vestments off at large religious events, more recently he has noted that it is mostly good-looking males attending to the prelates.

This is a stretch that exposes a queasy elasticity. If there are gays in the Church they were surely there in the early 1990s. Indeed, he quotes one highly-placed Church source as saying that such stuff has been “going on for centuries”. So Toibin’s effort here to establish his creds as one of the Shocked is too much of a muchness.

It’s true that there are stories alleging that the late Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, Spellman – much like his contemporary Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD and Commissar for Internal Affairs under Stalin – used to troll the city streets late at night in his official limo; the difference being that the Commissar was looking for young girls.

Which might put paid to any fantasies – however pious – of a Golden Age when all priests were Bing Crosby or Barry Fitzgerald (also contemporaries of the Cardinal-Archbishop).

I have no definite information on the late Cardinal-Archbishop. And while just about any excuse would have done to justify the erasure of Stalinist Communism from the earth, I don’t recall anybody suggesting the erasure of the US Congress or the Pentagon when this or that Member or official is entangled in sexual crimes or misadventures.

But Toibin is going for the gayness-of-the-hierarchy here, as part of his effort to not-disapprove of even those gay priests who consider themselves “more free to consult their consciences and break the rules of celibacy should they see fit”. Which he apparently considers a laudable exercise of conscience and individual freedom.

So, building on his ‘1991’ trope, he observes that even the current Pope himself has a stunningly handsome younger friend, a 40-ish priest from the same part of Bavaria as the Pope himself. I’m not sure about the “handsome” part; one man’s handsome is another man’s ‘beefy’, and surely the classic Enlightenment image of male beauty – that florid, well-fed type bursting out of its satin breeches – proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholding era.

Two points come to mind though.

First, it’s an established point in military history that generals have often chosen good-looking young officers as their aides-de-camp. Grant had one such on his staff, and Shelby Foote recounts a story of Lee playfully pulling down toward his cot a young aide who had come in with a late-night message from some commander on the front lines. I am making no innuendoes about Grant or Lee or anybody else in that rank and capacity, but it seems to be a typical human trait to enjoy the presence of physical beauty, especially youthful, in any form, especially by older members of the species.

Second, there is that under-appreciated (and highly ‘transgressive’) possibility that the Greeks considered females insufficient soul-mates for an adult male, who required the close companionship of another adult male for such soul-sharing. (The sex stuff was only between teens and early 20-year-olds, perhaps as a sage nod to the fact that among the young, biology pretty much dictates some form of sensual element to any relationship.)

Were the Greeks accurate in their surmise as to soul-mates? Was their ‘solution’ effective? Questions too big for me to resolve, but to suggest or imply that the Pope must be gay because he has a close and younger male friend (half his age, but with the Pope at 80-plus a friend half his age is still well into adulthood) does not at all convince.

But Toibin also notes that the Pope favors Prada for the red leather pumps required to go with the white-cassock that is his uniform of the day. Yes, some types of gays – and Imelda Marcos – are into the lotsa-shoes thing, but unless the Pope has a hundred or so pairs of pumps in an expensive closet where he retires to admire them late at night, I’m not impressed by the ‘evidence’.

And for that matter, the Pope may simply have the typically Germanic concern for good uniforms. Teddy Roosevelt, let’s not forget, prepared for the rigors of field command in the Spanish-American War by ordering a specially-designed uniform from Brooks Brothers, with very picky instructions on quality of cut and tailoring and on the amount of gold-bullion and rank insignia and so forth. And most gentleman officers of the era did exactly the same thing. And who can forget George Armstrong Custer with his personally-designed uniform that featured gold braid up to his elbows? Grant, in contrast, was a model of sartorial sobriety – although there was the matter of the youthy aide-de-camp. And Sherman, come to think of it, was said to become notably goo-goo in the presence of early-adolescent females visiting with their parents. And Lee had both gold-braid up to his elbows (as did all Confederate officers) and that come-to-my-cot moment. Go figure.

It is repulsive that Toibin would use as a closing flourish the statement to the effect that Alas, it hurts and stuns to think that “many of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we once listened to sermons about how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters”. Yet even at the height of the 3rd Phase of the Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis (initiated in early January 2002) the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in its official Report on the matter, could only point to 4 percent of all the priests in the United States who were accused of some form or other of the widely-elastic ‘sex abuse’, and the vast majority of putative victims were not children even at the time of the alleged incidents.

And this was with a stampede-driven loosening of rules of evidence and statutory limitations and other classical legal protections. Nor can one presume that all were guilty, since there were very few trials (such as could be fairly conducted under the conditions imposed) and many hierarchs took the prudent way out by simply settling civilly with huge amounts of cash to forestall the even greater expense of individual trials for each accused priest (those, that is, still alive).

So I don’t think that a whole lot of Catholics grew up learning their religion from “child molesters”.

Lastly, he covers the conventional ground conventionally, claiming that Ratzinger’s refusal to prosecute a priest who was close to death (and subsequently died) for child sex abuse offenses is proof-positive of a cover-up. I don’t think that would stand as the primary or only motivation for such a decision: after all, when you are firmly convinced that a) there is a God and that b) He will judge far more surely than any earthly court, and that c) given the certainty of (a) and (b) there is little to be gained from subjecting an old man’s dying-time to an ecclesiastical trial for matters that happened long before, especially when – again in light of (a) and (b) – the old gentleman is going to be facing a Judge far beyond (to use Lincoln’s phrase) “our poor power to add or detract”.

But this of course reveals the darkness at the heart of so much of this abuse-crisis material: somehow the existence of God and Judgment and Hell doesn’t seem to be an operative factor in the views or calculations of an awful lot of the folks who otherwise claim themselves such good Catholics.

There are many possibilities for that fact, but I leave those in your capable hands.

NOTE

*See, for example, here, here, and here.

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