Posted: Jun 24, 2002 12:00 AM
Every now and again, interrupting the daily monsoon recording the work of the miserable priests who have labored so successfully to undermine the Catholic Church, one hears a little beep of protest. Against the iniquitous priests and negligent bishops, of course, but against, also, a lurking and sometimes near-exultant pleasure of the sort that lets you be properly happy when the proud are humbled, the unassailable deservedly assailed.

The Catholic Church is, in some quarters, an institution one loves secretly to hate, to deride, to envy. For one thing, Catholics are Christians who go to church pretty regularly, which is annoying to some Christians who do not make the effort. And their church is a mammoth institutional presence, which provokes jealousy. It is gratifying to have objective grounds for disparagement. It is so, mutatis mutandis, with the Jews. It would be a happy day for lots of people if a generation of Jews grew up illiterate, such are the workings of envy. If God were to reappear on Earth for the sole purpose of disavowing the pope, many people would be persuaded to reaffirm their belief in God.

Thomas Keneally isn't of the class of ignorant critics of the Catholic Church, far from it. He is the learned and gifted novelist with very direct experience as, to use his words, a "questionable Catholic." But his essay in the current New Yorker exfoliates anti-Catholicism of the kind given vibrant life by the scandal of the miscreant priests.

He says it right away in an opening paragraph: He is a young man, the son of a postman in Australia, and decides to enter a seminary. The family doctor tells his mother: "Tom has idealized the church. It's going to be a great shock to him when he finds out that priests are human." That is of course true, though not more so than the shock many young men come upon when they discover that human beings are human.

So Mr. Keneally spends a paragraph or two on his youthful idealism, during which he sang "Faith of Our Fathers" -- "learned from an Irish nun in the midst of a withering Australian drought." (Did he mean during a drought?) A looming pledge to lifelong celibacy didn't distract him. His thoughts about sex were, when intellectualized, that it was something of clinical interest. When considered intimately, "sex seemed a grasping, howling animal thing."

But the life of a priest was not to be. Six years later he was seasoned in the knowledge that priests in the seminary could be "odd or capable of cruelty" -- that much he discovered right away. What he was feeling his way to discovering, after six years, was that behind the "compelling mystery of Catholicism" was "a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution."

For example, when a seminarian got tuberculosis, therapeutic expenses were given over to his family to undertake. "The young men were welcome to return if they recovered, but they received no gesture of sympathy, no gift, no visits from the staff of the seminary." Something is indeed odd here. Can all those TB young men have been unprepossessing?

Then six months before his ordination, Thomas Keneally had "what in those days was called a nervous breakdown." We are left without any clue as to what we would now call whatever it was young Keneally had. And then, "During my final meeting with the rector, I asked him if he could give me a reference in the outside world. 'Oh,' he told me grandly, 'we don't give references.'"

"Although I had willingly tried to satisfy the demands of the church for six years, he was telling me that the institution owed me nothing. It was up to me to remake myself with the few un-useful resources I had acquired (among them an ability to speak medieval Latin). The rector's indifference to my future was not the 'social justice' of which bishops spoke, and I left the meeting furious."

The seminary had provided, free of charge, six years of food, board, education (it takes time and patience to teach somebody to speak Latin). Then, just weeks before the ordination for which the cold rector and staff had devoted six years to qualify him, he has a nervous breakdown, backs away from the vocation, and wants a "reference in the outside world." Attesting to what? That young Keneally could easily be made furious?

He had wondered "whether my increasingly irrepressible desire for women was a sin." Well, the desire may have been (progressively?) irrepressible, but Tom Keneally is married (to a once postulant nun), and has two children and writes best sellers, but has not missed the mood of the season, which is to contribute to the great lore of anti-Catholic sentiment.

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