Thursday, May 21, 2009

Angels, Demons & Old Men in Bathrobes

Walking home from the movie theater just now--beneath the glorious sun filtering down through the overlapping translucent dark-veined jade of a thousand leaves exhaling praise for root, water and earth towards the endless cloudless cerulean sky--I couldn't help but admit to myself that I have a deeper anger with the Catholic Church than I'm usually willing to acknowledge.

What else could explain the tears of relief? Quickly blinked away, of course, but still. When that bomb of antimatter exploded miles above the Vatican, and the walls themselves which men had made, the sculpted columns and stone angels, the repressive brick and dusty mortar, trembled to their very foundations and almost fell.... there were tears of relief in my eyes. I almost cried, watching a Dan Brown movie. Starring Tom Hanks. Of all the ridiculous things!

But this morning started out poorly, when it comes to the Church. The report released yesterday about the thousands of cases of child abuse in Ireland, actively covered up by this corrupt and decrepit institution, was weighing heavily on my heart, as was the continuing controversy about the Frosts mentioned in T. Thorn Coyle's blog recently. What we human beings sometimes do out of a sense of tradition and institutional order. The day was already hot by the time I left my apartment for lunch, and I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere dark and cool for a little while, somewhere where I might find an hour or two of relief from grief and that creeping feeling of helplessness. I walked past the movie theater on my way to the vegan restaurant and noticed they were showing "Angels & Demons," the new film based on Dan Brown's prequel novel to The Da Vinci Code. I decided to catch the 2:50 PM show. Why? Because I'm a fan of Dan Brown and his work? Certainly not. Frankly, I think his writing is irritatingly trite, his plots contrived (seriously, the butler did it? that's your surprise ending?), and his "puzzles" obvious; not to mention his terrible disregard for even basic historical research. (Before you object that "it's just fiction!" let me say this: there is no reason why good, well-written fiction can't also include accurate information about the histories and mythologies it invokes and portrays.) So, why see this new movie, then? F**k the Catholic Church, that's why.

To be fair, the movie was quite passable as entertainment. Happily, I know absolutely nothing about the Illuminati legends the plot centered on, and so I wasn't tortured by the constant interruption of my academic background in comparative religious studies about the rampant inaccuracies and misinformation (as I had been when I read The Da Vinci Code several years ago). I was just another ignorant movie-goer, enjoying a hot afternoon in the air-conditioned theater, munching on my Junior Mints and sipping my Pepsi, indulging myself. Sweeping camera shots of Vatican city and the breath-taking architecture of the chapels and cathedrals dotting the maze of streets had me aching to travel to Europe. To see history. Real history, not the fledgling kind we have here in the United States. Thousands of years of history, thousands of years of humanity thriving and writhing, moving and breathing and living together, building things and tearing them down again, rejecting and incorporating bits and pieces of the past into the ever-evolving mishmash of the present. The setting alone was worth the six dollars. Well, that and Ewan McGregor in a priest's collar.

Still, the ending left me disappointed. (For those of you concerned about spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph.) I was grateful that the Illuminati threat turned out to be an elaborate ploy of the real antagonist, intentionally playing on the fears of the Catholic Church to throw off suspicion. Yet there was something about the noncommittal twist revelation that left me cold: no, there was no institutional conspiracy, just a single man, one crazy extremist. The Church was flawed but well-intentioned after all, and all those creaky old men in their lace bathrobes and slippers were justified in the end.

But the truth is... those same creaky old men are the ones who, in real life, sit comfortably behind their gold-adorned doors, shuffling papers and blocking investigations into abuse scandals. They are the ones who, when electing a new pope in real life, chose a man known for his theological rigidity more than his ecumenical openness, a man who has gone on to pronounce statements of dismissal and intolerance against several of the world's religions, a man who has retracted and undermined most of the progress made since Vatican II towards more inclusive, feminist language and symbolism within Church writings and ritual. The truth is, it takes no crazy extremist kidnapping cardinals and calling in bomb threats in the name of strengthening the Church; the men who justify child abuse and corruption for the sake of the institution appear mild and innocuous, doddering old men in bathrobes and funny hats. Movies like "Angels & Demons" play on the flash and flair of the single maniac, when the truth is much more subtle, much more insidious.

The funny thing is, for a long time I was the first one to speak up, to defend organized religion and even the Catholic Church itself against my more vehement atheist friends. I understood the metaphor of the garden lattice screen, offering a basic support over which the organic life of the spiritual laity could grow. I appreciated and admired the complex mythologies, art and ritual of organized religion; really, I still do. I tried for a long time to be a "good Catholic" as well as a good follower of Christ, a good Druid, a good person. But the grief and pain of disjoint and contradiction weighed too heavily. How could I remain part of the Church, how could I intentionally choose to be a member of a religion that rejected me, rejected my calling because of my gender, and rejected my basic sense of decency in the name of some greater need for institutional preservation? How could anyone knowingly choose that?

IMG_1689.JPGWalking home from the theater, breathing in sunlight and the sighs of trees, I kept thinking that the Catholic Church has so little faith in the God they claim to worship, and so little faith in us. I found myself pleading--with the Church, with myself, with all of us--to trust. Trust. Trust in human beings to preserve that which is good and beautiful and meaningful, trust in Spirit to work its own way out in the hearts and minds of people living their lives with love and kindness and hope. Trust that huge, sprawling, stagnant institutions are not necessary, and never have been, that they cannot protect us and they rarely serve anyone but themselves. The world is so beautiful, messy and wild and utterly full of light, and we all seem to spend so much time trying to build up walls that shield us from that understanding. If only we could find it in ourselves to trust, to let go a little more, to relinquish our need to control and to be certain. If we could admit to our mistakes, our flaws and our abuses, instead of pushing them off on others or striving to conceal them. If we could trust ourselves and each other to be strong enough to face a world untamed by institution and authority, if we could pull down our own idols of power and remember instead our empathy for the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the suffering. If only... if only....


My father called just now as I was writing. He is a good person, a loving, gentle man and a supportive father; he's also Catholic, born and raised. I asked him what he thought of these abuses, about the cover-ups and reluctant apologies that come only long after denial and obfuscation have ceased to be an option. He grew quiet, almost bashful, and could only say, sadly, that it was something he had to deal with, that he had worked through his own anger about it, and that it helped to remember it was only a few, not everyone in the Church, not even the vast majority. Then, he put my mother on the phone, who warned me against my "judgmental tone." But this is not judgment--this is my expression of sorrow and anger, and I cannot apologize for it.

What sorrows me deeply is not that the whole of Catholicism is corrupt and misguided. There is so much good there, really, in its mythologies, its rich art and music, in its Mysteries and in the good, kind people who live peacefully and decently in their own ordinary ways. What grieves me is precisely that such abuse and suffering are caused by a few, a few men with power, who then use the goodness and kindness of others as a justification and a shield to hide behind. What confuses me is why, in the face of such corruption, that kind and decent vast majority doesn't rise up in angry protest and denounce and reject and rebuild anew, rather than shuffling their feet and submitting passively to the whims of its leaders. This is the downfall of hierarchy: that nothing will change simply because the majority hopes and prays and wishes for change. This is not a democracy: the laity doesn't get a vote, they do not have a voice. And while there are many ways to respond to and address the corruption of those in power, I cannot see my way to the choice made by so many, to remain silent and sad instead of taking action. I wish I could better understand them, but I have made my choice, the only one I felt I could make in keeping with my conscience: I chose to leave.

And in some ways, I know that inside of me is still an angry child raging against a parent Church that, in a time of most pressing need, turned away and chose the selfishness of self-preservation over the love and acceptance it had always promised. That gave me no choice but to leave, to strike out on my own. The child in me is angry and sniffling back her tears, and squaring her shoulders, and promising to herself that she will be stronger for it, that she will face the world with courage even in her solitude, and grow up to be the kind of woman who will not turn her back on those in need.


  1. Ali,

    I've watched individuals beg and plead for acceptance within the Church, jumping through hoops to be permitted to once again receive sacrements following a divorce, desiring to be considered just as important as Catholics despite their gender. It saddens me. To hand over so much control over one's own life to an organization that has been proven less than worthy of the position is senseless in the "information age". Despite all of the knowledge out there about their corruption, abuses, and slippery foundations - in an age when it's become passe` to be a sheep, so many still want to remain one of the "flock".

    Not that it's any consolation, but at least you have the awareness, intelligence, and compassion to be able to look at these things objectively. You also have the courage to consider your own position and state it without apology now that you've freed yourself from the chains of the Church.

    I don't know if we get much more than that... other than the sweet taste of freedom that is.

  2. I hear you loud and clear. I, too, was raised Christian (Presbyterian). I left when I realized that if I took JC's teachings to their utmost conclusion, I couldn't be Christian anymore. The label was too small for the type of love I saw being hinted at. There are times when I think the Church is a violent reaction to love, an accretion of primitive, limbic-system fears in response to a universal (non-Christian specific) truth. Reading that report on Ireland's schools is one of those times.

  3. Pom,

    I know what you're saying. Both my mother and father, while on the phone with me that night, made references like, "Well, you know how 'old Europe' can be," and "They've always had trouble over in Ireland"... As if this was primarily a matter of a bad government or an ignorant population. As if we weren't having the exact same abuses here in the United States and only began admitting to it about a decade ago.

    But it wasn't the public school system allowing the abuse of students, and it wasn't the government attempting to block the report from coming out. It was the Church. The same Church my father belongs to, the same Church that has in its very theology a doctrine about the nature of the Church as a catholic, universal community that transcends local cultures and governments. Trying to somehow blame Ireland for the abuses the Church committed seems not only unjust, but heretical and hypocritical according to their own religious beliefs. And it frustrates me, as you said, that in this age of wide-spread information, that such small-minded nationalist thinking is still going on.

  4. Yvonne,

    What you describe--about taking the teaching's of Jesus to their furthest natural conclusions--is exactly what I experienced. When I get into debates with my father (whether about religion or politics or education), I often times end up quoting Biblical verses and Church teachings to him! It's kind of a running joke in the family that I'm a better Jesus-follower than most of them, even though I no longer call myself Christian. ;)

    Last night, I had a dream that my family was out to dinner, and my order of mixed vegetables came drenched in beef gravy. I was upset and refused to eat it (I'm a vegetarian), and my father grew incredibly angry at me, insisting, "They're vegetables! You eat vegetables! As a vegetarian, you're all about the vegetables! It would be insulting not to eat them!" And my response was, "I'm not going to eat vegetables that are smothered in dead animal juices!" After I woke up and was explaining the dream to a friend, I realized that it was about this conflict over the institutional abuses of the Church. I think my father doesn't leave the Church because he finds a lot of good at its core, but he's convinced himself that the only way to get that "good stuff"--the metaphorical vegetables--is to accept that it comes served up smothered in all the abuse and hierarchy and patriarchy of an archaic, corrupt institution. "If you don't like it, just wipe it off..." tends to be his approach to life.

    Which misses the point! It's not just about making the best of what you get, it's about understanding the processes that connect you to others and then acting in ways that also benefit them. I don't eat meat not only because it's healthier for me, but because it's better for the animal. Likewise, I reject hierarchy, patriarchy and vast socio-political institutions not just because those things are bad for me personally, but because I honestly believe they're bad for all of us. Sometimes I feel bad saying that, since I also want to preserve the right of individuals to choose for themselves what kind of social structure they prefer, and maybe some honestly believe that institutional hierarchy is best, or at least necessary. But then, there's a reason why such people are called "lemmings."