Institutions populated by humans are flawed, filthy things, whether families, corporations, universities, or dioceses. The sibilant hiss of that last word stings on the tip of the tongue just now, two raw, ugly weeks after the public discovered what thousands of Catholic children had already learned: Whatever else it was, in the years of our Lord 1947–2017, the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania was a lurid, predatory cesspool.
On August 15, a Pennsylvania grand jury released the results of an 18-month investigation, a 900-page document recounting innumerable credible accusations against more than 300 priests. As the New York Times reports, “Those cases include a priest who the grand jury says raped a 7-year-old girl while visiting her in the hospital after she got her tonsils out. Another priest made a 9-year-old boy give him oral sex, ‘then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him.’” Or take this example, from the Washington Post: “Another boy was repeatedly raped from ages 13 to 15 by a priest who bore down so hard on the boy's back that it caused severe spine injuries. He became addicted to painkillers and later died of an overdose.”
The natural first response (and I write as the father of young children), would be bloodying, bone-shattering blows from the fists, elbows, and heels of the victims’ loved ones. Or something worse. We don’t allow such punishments, officially, being a society of laws and carefully concealed violence, but perhaps we should. In their place the juries and judges will deliberate, and deliver the verifiably guilty to their years of reward in state penitentiaries. In prison, their off-the-books punishment will grow and swell to the point of inhumanity, but cleanly out of sight, tucked behind a wall of willed unawareness. Call it a national genius for hiding our ugliness, especially from ourselves. We’re all smiles, whitened teeth, and proper procedure here in America. Or so we like to pretend.
Of course it’s tempting to look away, to pull a sterile white curtain in front of the horrors—I, for one, didn’t manage to get through that grand jury report. But that’s a problem; we should look. The details of our ugliness matter. That ghoulish rinsing of a boy’s mouth with holy water—it nauseates, elevates the initial violation to a special realm of evil. Not content with craven theft of childhood innocence, the man of the cloth had to mock, with bleachy sadism, a liquid purported to carry the clean, clear tonic of holiness, a symbol of hope for trusting, pious children.
Ghoulish parodies of cleanliness: an apt metaphor for the Church’s response to the epidemic of abuse. Wrist-slaps, confessions, prayers, stern letters, logrolling, cute little treatment programs, all of these employed as gross simulacra of cleansing, handled neatly in-house, quietly, before the predators were sent back into the sheep-folds, these ones fresh and unwarned.
The face-saving rot appears to be widespread. On August 26, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal nuncio to the United States, released an 11-page letter in which he alleges that numerous high-ranking churchmen, Pope Francis included, for years knew about and tolerated the crimes of Archbishop Theodore McCarick, who is credibly accused of a long litany of abuse, harassment, and rape.
The ensuing silence from the men accused has been bewildering and discouraging. The pope himself was asked point blank about Viganò’s allegations, and responded with some cryptic suggestion that Viganò might not be trustworthy. While the hierarchy hides behind the silky skirts of Mother Church, the laity has been apoplectic. With a shocking lack of dignity or taste—never mind Christian humility or penance—Catholic commentators have been spitting accusations back and forth over the left-right divide, with progressives blaming repressive sexual mores for the outbreak of molestation, and conservatives blaming general moral incontinence and the normalization of homosexuality in the Church.
The whole scene is abject. If it didn’t involve the back-breaking rape of innocent young people, one could almost enjoy the spectacular totality of the Church’s implosion this summer.
Recent revelations will have lasting consequences for the American Catholic Church. Last week, Catholic writer Damon Linker published an angry, sad goodbye to Catholicism titled “The Unbearable Ugliness of the Catholic Church.” The core of the scandal, he writes, “isn't personal immorality, or institutional corruption, or hypocrisy. The core of the problem is ugliness.” Almost twenty years ago, Linker explains, he was drawn to conversion by the church’s beauty “in the sense of seemliness, order, and proportion, but also elevation, nobility, and exaltation.” A whole, unbroken edifice undergirded by a story of gut-stabbing hope and, again, beauty:
God sacrifices his beloved son, and his son freely accepts that sacrifice, out of self-giving love for humanity. Out of that breathtakingly beautiful gesture, the church built a new civilization founded on a message of forgiveness of sins, of care for the poor, of beatitude, of salvation and eternal life for all.
I sympathize. In 2006, in headlong flight from the ardent Pentecostalism of my childhood, I was similarly wooed. I devoured words by Waugh, Greene, Hopkins, Aquinas, and Augustine; stared in joyful shock at canvases by Caravaggio and El Greco; spent Easter week in Rome; and was joyfully received into the Church at Pentecost in Oxford, England. It was beautiful. It is. The ensuing twelve years, which brought a divorce and some unresolved doubts, have subsequently complicated my relationship with the Church. Yet I still find her breathtaking. She is still gorgeous, at least from where I stand.
Here Linker and I seem to part ways. Perhaps. This summer, Linker writes, he’s “come face to face with monstrous, grotesque ugliness.” He now sees the Catholic Church “as a repulsive institution—or at least one permeated by repulsive human beings who reward one another for repulsive acts, all the while deigning to lecture the world about its sin.”
He’s not wrong. It’s repulsive. It’s ugly. It really is.
One could almost say that the clean, sleek, exalted beauty that Linker and I thrilled to—soaring baldacchini from Bernini, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, a two-thousand-year history of courage, compassion, study, martyrdom, sainthood—is a lie. Almost, but then not quite. Instead, I think we could say that all this grandeur constitutes an aspiration, perennially unmet by its human beholders. It’s a lie that tells a distant, hoped-for truth. But it’s only a part of the truth, and it’s only one form of beauty.
Beauty, as a general matter, is about unity and complexity. A simple white surface is not beautiful; it is easy and uninspiring to achieve unity without variation. Beauty happens when the flesh of materiality is somehow composed into a thing that gestures beyond itself, that sketches a wholeness intrinsically otherworldly to dying creatures like us, camping out on a dying planet like this one. Beauty on this earth is always interspersed with decaying matter. There is a species of beauty—abject, unguarded, humiliated, emptied out, gently hopeful—that foregrounds the decay. The American Catholic Church should look for it in the days to come. Piss Christ and whiskey priest. Sebastian Flyte, ruined. Caravaggio the murderer. A valley of tears.
Institutional custodians naturally want to defend against attack; they want their houses to look clean and clear, above reproach. And the Church is an especially grand and beautiful house. The bishops who hid the horrendous crimes in Pennsylvania wanted to protect an image of perfection, even as they confessed—as a matter of doctrine—their own sinfulness and that of every clergyman, every human, and every institution. The doctrine is correct. The cowardly, callous denials and cover-ups were lies, motivated by self-preservation and clubbish tribal pride. Whitewashed sepulchers, strutting a clean, shallow prettiness.
If, in 1947, the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania had rent its garments over the first case of priestly abuse, parading its ugliness in front of the world, the next 70 years in that Church would have been different. There are a thousand practical reforms that can and should be undertaken to prevent future abuses—many have already been put in place. But first the concomitant sin of pride needs to be addressed, embroidered vestments traded for sackcloth and ashes—perhaps literally. Spiritual and moral leadership from the American Catholic Church in the foreseeable future will need to be of a radical kind—a Christian kind, you might say. The Church will need to become an institution sui generis in American society, humbly open about the human filth ringing its central spiritual and moral treasures. The Church Penitent. Keeping up the appearance of holiness will no longer work.
This change would be beautiful in a dark, illuminating way. Our society is drowning in self-acquittal, even—especially—in this age of perpetual, disingenuous, PR-composed apologies. Could the Catholic Church be the first institution to present itself as containing simple, undeniable wickedness, and swathed to the point of immersion in the ugliest fluids of our condition? Could it present itself as sibling to sinners, pining for a grace it in no way deserves, wounded but pointing toward the light? This would be a new kind of Church, and also very old. If this is indeed where the American Church is headed, all people of good will should hope that she succeeds and comes back from this self-inflicted wound stronger, because openly, unabashedly, and beautifully weak.