Religion & Beliefs

Priestly Apologies: Notes from a Peculiar, American Catholic

Like far too many of us, I know a woman who was sexually abused as a child. A Catholic then, when she confessed to her Midwestern family priest, in his way he abused her even more. She was in part … Read More

By / April 18, 2008

Like far too many of us, I know a woman who was sexually abused as a child. A Catholic then, when she confessed to her Midwestern family priest, in his way he abused her even more. She was in part responsible, he told her. She was guilty. This, apparently, is what the Church had taught him, and taught him to teach her. She, like all of us, was a sinner.

She was a child.

I’ve been a Catholic my entire life. I’ve sung in the choirs. I’ve taught Catechism to children. I’ve volunteered. I’ve had the honor of delivering a wedding sermon. (And the dishonor of having a priest make a pass at me.)

I’d also say I’m a particularly, and peculiar, American Catholic. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a churchgoer who doesn’t actually believe in God. Yet in my way I’ve always been a Catholic apologist. And like those of many liberal Catholics, my apologies hardly ever refer to Rome. Though skeptical of the Utopian impulse behind pacifism, I'm drawn to the active nonviolence of converts Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, who both, for what it’s worth, had complicated sex lives as far as the Church is concerned. As a monk, Merton carried on a love affair with student nurse Margie Smith. Dorothy Day, a single mother, had an abortion before her conversion. Writer Flannery O’Connor shapes my idea of prophecy more than Pope John Paul II ever did (yet it’s true that I was enamored of the robust, yet humble, pope of my childhood). Academic and cultural critic Gary Wills translates the Gospels in a way that clarifies why I am a Catholic by making the radical stories that have shaped my religious life immediately recognizable, yet somehow refreshing and newly inspiring.

Paul Elie, through both his biography of Merton, Day, and O’Connor, and essays in Commonweal and the Atlantic, has shown just how distinct American Catholicism is and argued that “much of what is best in the Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow” of the papacy, “and much of what is worst has occurred when popes overplayed their role.” In his report on the accession of Benedict, Elie, who suggests the current pope may be too old to “catch up on the work” required to school himself in the American experience, concludes that American Catholics “ought to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe – turning our attention from Rome at long last and back to the world in which the real religious dramas of our time are taking place.” This is hardly what we’ve seen since Benedict arrived. The religious drama has been entirely about the apologies coming from Rome.

Which brings me back to my friend and her religious drama, undeniably a tragedy. There was a time when I tried to apologize for that priest – and really all of Catholicism – by pointing to my Catholic heroes and the liberal religious life I’d carved out for myself. For every scandal there was a Catholic Workers House of Hospitality feeding and giving shelter to the poor. For every priestly sin, a story by Flannery O’Connor. For every hateful word raised against her gay sister, and every condemnation for the abortions sought by her close friends, I had a translation from the New Testament rebutting it all with Jesus’ radical love. My Jesuit church, which had opposed the war from the beginning, represented all that was good about Catholicism. My priests, like me, hardly ever talked about personal sin. And in opening our doors to gays and lesbians we’d had our back turned on Rome for years.

But none of this means anything to her. She’s not only turned her back on Rome, she’s shut the door angrily on Catholicism. And I cannot blame her. I often wonder why, in her defense, I haven’t done the same thing.

For, as much as I’d like to believe that Pope Benedict’s current U.S. trip and his apparent shame over the sexual abuse by priests could set things right and heal the kinds of wounds he keeps talking about, so long as the Church affirms the rightness and faithfulness of its position against sex, against women, against gays and lesbians, and so long as the Church defends a shrinking male priesthood, his apologies, like mine, will always be of the wrong kind delivered with the wrong purpose. He wants to bring her back to a Church that refuses to properly value her. (And of course she’s not alone in being undervalued.)

Catholicism teaches that you can’t truly be reconciled with God or your fellow man (or, of course, woman, in this and so many cases), without confessing your sins completely and in good faith. You must commit never to sin again.

Still, it seems sinful simply to apologize and then expect those who have turned away from the Church to return or, for that matter, even to take your apology seriously when the sinning persists. Many of the abused have gathered their strength and moved on and away. And again, I can’t blame them. As for those of us who remain, we have to stop simply apologizing – perhaps even stop accepting apologies as enough – and like Elie suggests, consider just what it is that we believe and then act on it to make American Catholicism better and truly faithful.

Related: Benedict XVI is "Deeply Ashamed" of the Serial-Rapist Priests He Shielded from Justice, Pope Benedict Loves Jewish Pie