In Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter, the title character’s lifetime of piety culminates in a saintly death as a lay resident of a convent. Although Undset, like her fictional alter ego, was a devoted Catholic, the clergy and religious in her novel span the moral gamut. Early in the book we meet nuns who are petty and worldly, others who are holy, and some who are a bit too holy—those who sin by taking pride in their own holiness.
The churchmen in the novel (set in 14th-century Norway) exhibit a similar array of virtue and immorality. The wandering friar Brother Edvin is a truly holy man, while Kristin’s childhood priest Sira Eirik is weak, greedy, and unchaste. Sira Eirik is a father, even though priestly celibacy was canon law by that point. Ubiquitous flouting of clerical celibacy corrupts not just Eirik but the Church in Norway as a whole. The bishops even have a custom of granting dispensations to men with the ecclesiastical bastard surname “Prestesøn,” even allowing them to take holy orders. In this way, the theory of celibacy becomes the reality of a hereditary caste. The corruption metastasizes with Bentein Prestesøn—Eirik’s grandson and the most evil character in the story—who tries to rape teenage Kristin and subsequently murders her friend Arne. Despite this, Kristin does not hate the Church nor even Sira Eirik.
Undset’s most powerful illustration of the clergy’s failings involves not the evil Bentein but the petty Sira Solmund. Late in the novel, Kristin and her ne’er-do-well husband Erlend are estranged, but they unite briefly and conceive a child. After the birth, Erlend comes home to defend Kristin’s honor against gossip that the child is illegitimate. In a confrontation, he kills a man and is mortally wounded himself. Though dying, Erlend refuses to request absolution and last rites from Sira Solmund—because Solmund falsely accused Kristin of adultery. Erlend does not doubt that Sira Solmund’s administration of the sacraments would be valid and preserve him from Hell; he simply refuses to accept sacraments from a slanderer, despite Kristin’s pleas. There is no other priest available, so Erlend’s choice is to accept the sacraments from a priest he hates or not accept them at all. Erlend Nikulaussøn does not die committing the error of Donatism, but the sin of pride.
All Catholics are now in Erlend’s position. Most of us have multiple priests available, but we have only one Church, and we all have reason to hate it. We see a Church and an episcopate more interested in collegiality, patronage, and covering up scandal than in protecting the faithful. We see a Church in which systematic sexual harassment of seminarians by theoretically chaste clergy was seen as unobjectionable as long as everyone involved was old enough to buy cigarettes. And so we hate the Church, but it is also the only Church that can provide us with the sacraments. This invites the question: Do we hate the Church enough to deny ourselves the sacraments?
On August 14 the Pennsylvania Grand Jury released a report on sex abuse which indicated mistreatment had occurred at a much larger scale than previously realized. August 15 was the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; instead of attending Mass, I chose to spend that day reading the John Jay Report and trying to figure out how the Church had gone so wrong.
Saturday evening, I confessed I had deliberately and willfully missed a holy day of obligation and explained why. Then, in the brief interval between confession and Mass, I knelt and prayed and almost immediately found myself crying at the thought that we are stuck with this Church, with its overseers who choose to overlook mortal sin. But then the Mass began. I winced a bit at the line about “the Order of Bishops,” but the sacraments were still valid. The body and blood tasted like God.
And then I got out of Mass and checked my phone and saw that Carlo Maria Viganò had published a letter.
Gabriel Rossman is associate professor of sociology at the University of California—Los Angeles.