In Birmingham, Alabama, a Roman Catholic priest has apparently strayed from his vows. In a story that has slowly developed over the past few days, the father seems to have been carrying on a relationship with the wife of another man. Apparently this relationship continued even after the priest was warned formally to cease and desist by his superiors. He declined to do so, and was recently severely beaten by what is likely to have been the woman’s husband. The sordid aspect of the case may obscure several larger issues. The Catholic Church, or for that matter, any church or faith group is often loathe to make needed internal reforms.
I have always believed that any religious gathering that insists upon clergy celibacy is operating on an assumption of wishful thinking. I recognize that Paul of Tarsus chose to stay a virgin for the whole of his life, but the liberal Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong has provocatively suggested that Paul may have been a closeted homosexual. One has no way of knowing this for sure, but it is a compelling argument to be made. The focus on remaining an virgin at all costs is a discipline of inward purity, but discipline aside, inward urges and human desires supersede even that. The same chastity vows that right-wing young adult Christians routinely espouse are evidence of this effort in self-denial.
For a time, I attended a church where virginity and abstaining from sexual conduct of any form were desired states. Naturally, I overstepped those boundaries without much in the way of guilt or remorse. I was caught sexually experimenting with my girlfriend of the time. What I did not receive, thankfully, was fury and anger. Instead I received a calm lecture explaining that I had been wrong and to not sin again.
I’m not sure what it is about religious gatherings and the greater organizations to which they belong. They seem to be compelled to sweep as much as they can under the rug. Quakers, of which I am a member, function on a curious premise. We have long fuses with people and notoriously short fuses around politics. This may be because it’s easy to argue about something that is abstract and safe. When real people with whom we have real interactions are involved, we often take the path of least resistance. But ultimately, someone’s got to step and draw the line. People have postulated for years why this is, and I have a theory or two.
One of them is the dread fear of litigation. Bad press in any form should be avoided. This goes for government agencies, public school systems, and organized religion. It is true that we live in a society where we’d rather pay someone to help us fight someone else than step in and do healing and reconciliation ourselves. Or, if we choose another path altogether, duke it out with our adversary with dueling pistols, fists raises, or sword in hand. That an extensive profession exists to assist us with properly airing our grievances and separating winners from losers explains how far we’ve progressed. Sometimes I question if there really is such a thing as a necessary evil, world-weary pragmatism aside.
Trust and care is what we’re seeking. We have always been in search of these. But the larger we grow as a people, the farther that divide grows. We live in a hierarchical world where everything and everyone has a place and a basic function. This way, we can separate what matters from what is unimportant. When it concerns a vocation, that’s one thing. But when those attitudes color the very human contact we need, it is something else entirely.
The other day, for example, I ran into someone from my Quaker Meeting, purely by chance. I was in a part of town I ordinarily would not have been at that time. She was quite pleased to see me and both of us enjoyed the five minute conversation that ensued. The first words out of her mouth were “I never run into anyone in DC!” And this is indeed true. Even in a relatively moderate sized city, we are all too busy running to very specific places on specific paths, such that the only people we really see are those with whom we work closely.
To return to the story of the adulterous priest, he may well have been beaten within an inch of his life even if he had been allowed to have relationships with women. It’s easy to jump to conclusions. The comments left underneath news articles reporting this event are full of posters seeking to derail the subject. They want to talk about the way that pedophile priests are shielded from prosecution. It’s a worthy topic, but has nothing to do with this specific event. It’s less problematic to speak about an issue in which one can be validated by others. My father, for example, was proof positive that it is easier to argue about irrelevant topics first, in place of the greater issues that are at the real heart of the matter.
But to speak to the heart of infidelity, in any context, that’s an issue more inclined to introspection than knee-jerk moralizing. We owe it to ourselves to place the focus where it needs to be, especially if that places us in uncomfortable states. These would have us do the difficult work of looking within ourselves first. Nothing can ever really proceed if brave inward listening is not part of the greater plan. We should not obscure truth by hairsplitting or by speaking only to that which promises little to no pain or even less emotional involvement. We are not robots. We are thinking, feeling, intuitive beings. We now need to act like it.