God Against Libido

Stephen David is a Bengaluru-based writer specialising in public policy, politics and religion
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Where’s the reformer who will nail a thesis on the door of the Catholic Church?

FROM FOGGY BOTTOM in the American capital Washington DC to giving spiritual pep talks for world leaders at the Alpine town Davos to a globe- trotting Vatican roving ambassador, New York City-born Theodore Edgar McCarrick, 88, had seen it all over the six decades of his clerical service. But only on February 16th did the head of the world’s one billion Catholics, His Holiness Pope Francis, crack the whip that every God-fearing priest actually dreads. A punishment worse than a ticket to hell.

The Pope defrocked McCarrick, a former bishop and a cardinal, who had been under a sexual-abuse cloud for many years but because of his charismatic public leadership and networking acumen managed to stay afloat through four papacies since his 1958 ordination as a priest. Son of a ship captain and an auto industry worker, the Irish American cleric (a Fordham University PhD in sociology) will continue to live in a friary in a small Kansan town called Victoria although the victims of his abuse over the years—some of them paid off big bucks to remain mum a la Playboy centrefold Karen McDougal—will continue to live in shame and as emotional wrecks for the rest of their lives.

A December 2018 report by a state general’s office in the US outlined abuses by 300 clergymen involving 1,000 victims, blaming the authorities for choosing not to ‘thoroughly investigate’ the allegations. The report stung further that the Catholic Church was not fulfilling its ‘moral obligation to provide survivors, parishioners and the public a complete and accurate accounting of all sexually inappropriate behavior involving priests’.

Former Vatican Ambassador to the US Carlo Maria Viganò had called for Pope Francis’ resignation in a September 2018 letter in which he alleged that senior prelates have been complicit in covering up alleged sex abuse by McCarrick. Viganò accused the pope of rehabilitating McCarrick from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI.

But why did the action to defrock—ban the priest from liturgical duties at the altar—come so late? Pope Francis, the former Argentine Jesuit bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the first from the Americas to zip into the Holy See in March 2013, wants to clean house. Pronto.

From February 21st to 24th, the pontiff at the 110-acre Vatican City state in the Italian capital of Rome will host a high-stakes summit of nearly 200 top ecclesiastical leaders, abuse survivors and experts from around the globe to chalk out a timebound roadmap to contain the damage of clerical sexual abuse. The meet will have a liberal dose of prayers, liturgy, mass and heart-to-heart to discussions. But the key takeaway would be to get the priests back on their knees to fulfill their calling. The calling of being a good shepherd, like Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The world headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, critics say, should not have vacillated. If the McCarricks had been put to pasture when the cloud of accusations was the size of a fist, the papacy need not have waited for so many decades to fend off the downpour of complaints and negative stories popping up all over the world. The same day Kansas-based McCarrick was defrocked from Vatican, thousands of miles away in south India, a Thalassery court sentenced a Catholic priest, Robin Vadakkumcherry, 51, for a 20-year jail term and Rs 3-lakh fine for raping a minor girl when he was a manager at a Catholic school. The minor delivered a baby in February 2017, which became evidence for the prosecution, but the journey to indicting the priest—arrested by Thrissur police when he was about to flee to Canada—was not easy because witnesses turned hostile at every turn. The doctor who delivered the baby stood his ground. The nuns supporting the priest didn’t, according to the prosecution. Even the young mother’s own father falsely claimed that he had impregnated his own daughter to save his padre. The Vatican, however, did not defrock the priest.

As has been the case with the Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is out on bail while his accuser, a nun from a Kerala convent has been crying hoarse for years—including appealing to the Vatican—to crack down hard. Mulakkal maintains he is innocent, but the Church shows a shattered visage. It is time for a renewed, Biblically faithful Rome raj to crush predator priests before their basic instincts go overboard and damage some more lives. As McCarrick’s mangled reputation shows, Victoria’s secret should have been outed long ago.

That is why clergy abuse survivors like Denise Buchanan from Jamaica, who will make a special presentation at the papal summit this week, will appeal for Vatican Curia to act fast to stem the rising tide of sexual scandals around the world. In her 2013 book Sins of the Fathers, she wrote how a local priest who would come home for dinner at the invitation of her parents eventually seduced her into having penetrative sex and later organising an illegal abortion for her. Scarred, she penned all her anguish in that book which she had mailed several times to the Vatican hoping the papacy would defrock her abuser. That didn’t happen.

At the end of the day, it’s not the Pope’s reputation that is on the line. It is the credibility of the Church—the most potent change agent that Jesus Himself employs—that is at stake. Pastoral damage can be caused only by pastors—shepherds—who have scant respect for the flock. The sheep that are defenceless need a strong shepherd to fight, nurture, guide and lead them to greener pastures.

At the end of the day, it's not the Pope's reputation that is on the line. It is the credibility of the church—the most potent change agent that Jesus himself employs—that is at stake

Israel’s greatest king ever, David, is called ‘the shepherd-king’. He learnt the heart of caring, tending, shepherding as a young boy tending his father’s flock. He fought wild animals even as he learnt the art of war (which came in handy when he used his sling shot to knock down a giant Goliath with just one stone from the stream and armed himself with the sword from the enemy’s scabbard).

That is why Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd. It is this picture of shepherding that the priests must get back into. The Greek word ‘kalos’, for ‘good’, covers a wide span: noble, wholesome, good and beautiful. The good shepherd protects, guides, nurtures, leads,serves and is willing to die as he protects his sheep.They are markers to help them see the sheep in the right perspective. Otherwise, it is painful to imagine how McCarrick, who was an altar boy in the 1940s, ended up abusing altar boys just a few decades later.

In a sit-down discourse with his disciples, Jesus pointedly told his close follower Peter—the first bishop at Rome and Pope Francis’ forebear—that on the rock, ‘petros’ in Greek, He will build the church and that the gates of hell will never prevail against it. In another chat with Peter, post-Resurrection, Jesus exhorted him to “feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep”. He was tasked with taking care of minors and adults, giving them the spiritual nourishment and nurturing needed to make the flock catalysts in social change.

Dogmas help, but they don’t dictate behaviour. But looking at Jesus will bring an inner transformation for outward behavioural change. As shepherds of a vital voluntary organisation—if you have to see the Church from another prism—priests must work overtime to prevent both the erosion of Biblical values and corrosion of canonical laws.

Despite the brickbats facing the church, a University of Florida professor of political science, Kenneth Wald, who has been studying religion and politics in the US for many years, says that the clergy has regularly outdistanced other occupational groups in public estimates of honesty and ethical standards. For example, Americans give about $40 billion—$1 billion is equal to about Rs 7,000 crore—to churches every year, which is spent on a host of community, education and do-good works. Catholic Charities’ budget in the US was second only to the American government in welfare activities.

Such being the reputation, it is time for another wave of Reformation within the Catholic world. It is time to nail the theses of changes with the times—spiritually appropriate, theologically sound, but culturally relevant—on to the doors of the new castle in Vatican City.

On February 16th, a Kerala court sentenced a Catholic priest Robin Vadakkumcherry for raping a minor girl when he was a manager at a Catholic school

An Augustinian monk Martin Luther, enlightened by the revelation of the scriptures, did so in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church castle door, 100 km east of the east German town of Berlin, fighting the abuse of indulgences orchestrated by the papacy itself.

It is always the case of diminutive Davids fighting huge philistine giant Goliaths. Just as Luther found his epiphany from the writings of the apostle Paul, the great evangelist and most prolific author of the New Testament, today’s religious faithful and the laity must find a fresh meaning from the Word. And take the papal bull by the horns, if necessary. Luther got fellow agents of change on board, and leveraged the print platform, courtesy Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing machine around that time, to spark a raging wildfire of reformation and transformation across the globe. Corruption in the Catholic Church during the last centuries of the Middle Ages also saw new reformation agents like Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and Guillaume Farel, to name a few, who did their best to infuse strict moral codes.

It was Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome—‘the just shall live by faith’—that wrought a revolution in Luther’s soul, giving him the inner courage to pen those theses and fight like David the might of the Goliath. In the case of John Wesley, an Oxford don, he had his epiphany when he went to a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street, London, in May 1738 where he experienced his heart strangely warmed while Luther’s commentary to Paul’s letter to the Romans was being read. Luther was just 34 when he nailed the truth on the door. Wesley was just 35 when he renewed his vision and mission for life.

Way back in the first century, scandalous sex rocked the church in Corinth, breaking Paul’s heart. But he didn’t allow the issue to be swept under the carpet. He asked the shepherds there to repent on their knees in tears. To confront the predator head-on. And if necessary yank him out if he is going to be a corrupting influence like yeast, which though a small thing, works its way through a whole batch of bread dough pretty fast. Get rid of the yeast to clean house.

It is important to look back at Paul’s masterpiece of pastoral theology to the church at Corinth, located on the six-km wide isthmus separating the Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean Sea. It was a key transit point for trade between Europe and Asia. The Mecca of merchandise was also home to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation, worshipped atop the Acrocorinthus, the mountain overlooking Corinth. The city reeked of sex, a culture of promiscuity even as it metamorphosed into an epicentre of the Roman Empire, spewing its own ideas and values.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal is out on bail while his accuser has been crying hoarse for years—including appealing to the Vatican—to crack down hard

So, when a sex scandal rocked the Corinth church, he advised the elders there to crack it by grounding it in Jesus’ teachings. ‘Be imitators of me, just as I am of Christ,’ wrote Paul, asking them to remove the small yeast of evil before it spoilt the whole dough.

Whichever way one looks at it, Reformation agents have left their mark around the world, especially in the developed nations across the Americas, Europe and Australia.

As the papal meet on clerical abuse concludes this week, dogma must give way to healthy debates, anchored in the Bible Way. Compassion must replace callousness. As justice must jingoism. If McCarrick’s is a fit case of deus ex machina—an unexpected, good ending to a bad situation—the Vatican needs to do more.

The Pope need not look further. There are instructions in the Bible itself commanding priests and shepherds how to do the right thing; and not just things right. ‘Shepherd (‘poimanate’ in Greek) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.’ Words from St Peter, the first bishop at Rome.

THE POPE MUST ALSO revisit the school of thought for celibacy if the priests are not able to channelise their passions in the right way. In fact, there is no Biblical mandate for celibacy. Paul, in exhorting his flock in Corinth around CE 54, simply wrote: ‘… because of the times we live in, I do have pastoral reasons for encouraging singleness.’ One of the most powerful public intellectuals was making a valid point.

If a priest or a nun is burning with sexual passion, why break chastity vows? Why wrestle with lust and libido? Luther, after marrying an ex-nun Katharina von Bora, wrote, ‘There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.’ Both Luther and Katharine were echoing a trend across Europe at that time as former nuns and monks tied the knot to serve their Master as families. Luther and his wife had an open home for students who were in financial dire straits. Their house was a city on the hill.

As the Pope Francis prepares to enter his sixth year of papacy in March 2019, he could, in addition to the great help from Pauline theological milestones, draw inspiration from some of his predecessors. Being a pro-active interventionist like Pope St Leo I the Great, who stared the hell out of Attila the Hun in 452 to save Rome. Continue to draw inspiration from St Gregory I the Great, serving from 590 to 604, who called himself ‘servant of the servants of God’. Heights of humility! A pastoral pope, a people’s priest, a lowly shepherd. Blessed John XXIII, who served from 1968 to 1963, was a Reformation agent when he called the Second Vatican Council that ushered in a series of reforms. Like using the local language for the liturgy instead of Latin. And issuing a document on the fundamental rights and dignity of all human beings.

Pope Francis’ maiden visit to the Arabian Peninsula early this month did more than get him to admit there were black sheep in the fold. The world saw a ‘Pravda moment’ with his outspoken and candour somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea aboard an Etihad Dreamliner Abu Dhabi-to-Rome papal plane.

As the Russian novelist and 1970 Nobel peace winner Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Or as they say in Latin, veritas vos liberabit. The truth will set you free. The stakes are high. The issues are deep. And it is time to nail the new theses and nail them hard on the Vatican’s doors.