The bottom line on Cardinal Law

Posted: Apr 16, 2002 12:00 AM
Imagine telling a Roman Catholic cardinal he should be in prison. Nevertheless, that's how one protester at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross put it last Sunday: "Prison for the man who wears a red hat," meaning, as we all know, Bernard Cardinal Law. The cardinal is widely blamed for tolerating sexual abuse by priests. It is the biggest mess on view in American religion, both outside and inside New England. Monday's New York Times filled a whole page with stories about sexual abuse by variously located Roman Catholic priests. This is how we operate in journalism: When we uncover something, we really uncover it, especially when that something concerns sex or money. Contrasting data, we hardly bother to remark, such as the reality of faithful priests by the thousands, living faithful lives in service to the Lord and their appointed flocks. And yet the sex stories sicken. The priests in question could rightly be called lousy hypocrites or hypocritical louses, injuring those to whose care they were divinely called and sworn. The shepherd who tortures the sheep for fun bears a family connection to Andrea Yates. Violation of solemn trust is the connective thread. All of which underscores a vexing point about supernatural religion -- that it is not only supernatural but also human. Religion points to God, but who (except on Very Special Occasions) does the pointing? -- humans do; priests, prophets, preachers, and teachers. One thing these varied humans are supposed to teach -- assuming the religion they profess is Christianity -- is the fallenness of us all: every last living one of us. We're just generally messed up, the orthodox Christian presumption goes. That means laity. It also means priests, prophets, preachers, and teachers. The old Book of Common Prayer rightly compelled Anglicans to "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty." Not a pretty story, no; so un-pretty that over the past couple of centuries we undertook to soften it. Ah, yes, sin -- well, you see, my son, those old understandings grew out of Social Injustice and Patriarchal Domination. Lately, the tendency has been to downplay what were formerly called the sins of the flesh -- lust, cupidity, fornication, and adultery. As one overadvertised Episcopal bishop indignantly expresses it: "For centuries sexual attitudes, sexual taboos, and sexual practices have been used by dominant groups in society to keep others subordinate." Sex, including the homosexual variety, was for fulfillment. Go for it! Well, do tell. No small number of Christians -- on both sides of the pulpit -- have gone for it. There must be lots of fulfillment going on all around us, because there seems to be a lot of sex such as older Christianity forbade or warned severely against. The homosexual violation of a young man by his priest would certainly fall under this heading. The Roman Catholic Church's scandal is in some sense modern society's scandal. When word gets around that sex is all the rage, and that not to have all you want, and whatever kind you want, and whenever, and wherever -- well, you start to get the general idea, even if you're wearing a round white collar. Is it possible the Church had it right all along about sex and sin (e.g., lifetime heterosexual monogamy as the Christian norm), and that the sacrifice of sexual endeavor through celibacy (if you were a Roman Catholic priest) was better, higher, stronger, and sweeter than all that has come our way since then? That would be a stunning affirmation, if true. It might actually prompt rethinking of where we now stand and what we deserve in relationship to a God with higher, as well as kinder, expectations for us than may have been rumored. And so -- the bottom line on Cardinal Law? Some recommended caution in consigning this prelate to the pokey. In what looks like his muddled indifference to duty, he had help - altogether, too much of it.