It was 1945 and my father -- a Roman Catholic and one-time altar boy who had attended 12 years of parochial school with the mandatory assaults on knuckles by nuns wielding rulers -- had fallen in love with my mother. Although he had become something of a lapsed churchgoer, he wanted nothing more than to have a big Catholic wedding, more for his deeply devout mother than for himself. But that never happened because my mother's father was a goddamned Jew. They had to settle for a simple ceremony in an assistant priest's rectory office that was drowned out by Gene Autry records being played at a high volume by an elderly and nearly deaf priest next door.
The unhappy experience of my mother's father with the church ran deeper still. As the organizer of a fund to bring the children of concentration camp victims to our community from Germany for adoption, he had raised money from every denomination. Except the local Catholic diocese, which refused to give a cent at a time when the big man in Rome with the funny hat was a Nazi sympathizer.
Fast forward nearly 75 years and the anti-Semitism that has pervaded the church for a millennium seems like a quaint anachronism. This is because the Roman Catholic Church has become the largest organized crime group in the world, a festering cesspool of pedophilia, nun rape and abuse of orphans and other vulnerable children in its care that is built upon a flaming pyre of hypocrisy and denial fanned by the church's ultimate weapon. That is the calumny to which the faithful who dare question its teachings are subjected. Sinners all in the eyes of an unbending church hierarchy.
Strong words? Yes, but spot-on accurate and tragically true as Frédéric Martel and Shaun Whiteside make clear in In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.
In the Closet is not just another gossipy potboiler. The authors conducted more than 1,500 interviews with 41 cardinals and 52 bishops and monsignori, among others, in concluding that many Vatican gays -- and in particular the most homophobic -- acknowledge that they treat their vows of celibacy with contempt as they hit on young men, hire prostitutes and throw sex parties.
Two of Pope John Paul II's favorite cardinals -- whose nicknames within the Vatican are Platinette (after a drag queen) and La Mongolfiera -- ran an elite prostitution service that continued through the papacy of Benedict XVI and was financed with church money.
Closer to home and all too typical of the deep rot in the American church is the decades-long cover-up of abuse by as many as 50 church officials in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in central Pennsylvania.
The cover-up was orchestrated, in part, by two bishops who wielded enormous power and was aided and abetted by pubic officials, some of whom remain in positions of power. The stories told by the 250 or so victims of the abuse who came forward have a familiar ring. A prominent monsignor sexually abuses a 12-year-old organ player for two years. When she goes to another priest, he also abuses her, while a third suggests she comfort herself with a candy bar each day, and a fourth who merely tells her to see a counselor.
The omertà of the Vatican closet is, of course, the core reason for the calamitous epidemic of sex abuse that has pervaded the church in the U.S., Europe, South America and Africa, and while ending priestly celibacy would seem to be a way out of the crisis, gay Catholic and commentator Andrew Sullivan argues in a New York magazine essay that it is not that simple:
The crisis is so profound, the corruption so deep, the duplicity so brazen that only a radical change will help. Ending mandatory celibacy is no longer an option. It's a necessity. Women need to be brought in to the full sacramental life of the church. Gay men need to be embraced not as some manifestation of 'intrinsic moral evil' but as human beings made in the image of God and capable of mutual love, care, and support. Gay priests with integrity need to be defended as strongly as the hypocrites need to be exposed and expelled. [Pope] Francis is nudging the church toward this more humane and Christian future, but the more he does so, the more fervently this nest of self-haters and bigots will try to destroy him.Even the simplest reforms will be daunting.
As Pope Francis convened a four-day summit meeting at the Vatican last week to address the scourge of clerical sex abuse, victims and their advocates demanded uniform church laws to impose zero tolerance for priests who abuse minors and for the bishops who cover up for them, regardless of the culture in which they operate.
But Vatican officials say such a demand reflects a misconception that change in a global and ancient institution can be made with the wave of a papal wand, and they're correct. The diversity of legal and cultural barriers to identifying abusers and assisting victims, as well as entrenched denial, makes putting in place one worldwide standard virtually impossible.
Pope Francis, speaking on the final day of the summit, seemed to acknowledge that in calling priests and other Catholics who abuse children "tools of Satan," but in the end coping out in not offering concrete steps to address the crisis.
More praying, it seems, will have to do when it comes to preying.
In a way, it is almost too easy to demonize the Catholic Church because the collision between social realities and religious orthodoxies is inevitably ugly. It just doesn't help when the church's rationalizations for the dire condition of the priesthood keep shifting and the blame is too frequently placed on a government and culture that the church claims infringes on its God-given rights. (Which begs a question: Is a tax-exempt status for its vast U.S. real estate interests God given?)
My favorite excuse being the conclusion of a study commissioned by the church's American bishops that homosexuality is not to blame. It is because priests were poorly prepared for the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, it was the hippies' fault.
Even as diocese after diocese like Altoona-Johnstown is bankrupted because of crushing legal settlements from predatory priest lawsuits (my father's old parish is on its knees after paying out $77 million to more than 140 abuse victims), the church also has done enormous good. This is especially true in inner cities where its schools have provided generations of kids with not just decent educations, but a way out of the ghetto. It also has been a force for advocating economic justice. And I acknowledge that it has been a spiritual haven for many millions of people like my Irish Catholic immigrant grandmother.
But it is the church's appalling hypocrisy, which so often manifests itself as a transparently fake compassion, that is the greatest barrier. And one that my father, mother and her father well understood.
This raises the ultimate question: Is the Catholic Church worth saving before it self-destructs, a process that is underway in America and other first-world countries where it is increasingly out of touch as the modern world passes its anachronistic self by?
I think not, and may God help you if you believe otherwise.