This may be the hardest post I’ve had to write so far…I’ve made no secret of my Catholic beliefs, and my timing, as always, is impeccable, blathering on about this particular faith in fiction, amid the opening of the movie Spotlight, which focuses on what was perhaps the most evil of evils infecting my church. I saw the movie over the weekend, after avoiding it for the few months it’s been out. I know now I avoided it out of cowardice: I did not want to have to confront—actually re-confront–whatever truths the movie might have to offer.
It is truly a brilliant movie, extremely well made. The whole newsroom atmosphere, the process of accumulating and processing mounds of paperwork and detail to produce a sound journalistic piece, is perfect. Sadly, though, not many newspapers support this kind of excellent reporting anymore, having fallen victim to ‘click-through’ journalism and the bottom-line. The crime itself is presented simply, not in an overly graphic way; and if I had any quibble, it seemed more time and effort should have been given to portraying the victims, and the harrowing effect all this priestly abuse had on their lives. The priests do indeed emerge as the villains here, the baddest of bad guys, but the film does take time to separate the behavior of these sick men and the church leaders who basically ignored them, switching them around from parish to parish, from the basic tenets and goodness of the Catholic faith. It takes pains to show the effect on the real Church, its laity, ordinary Catholics, such as myself, who were not victims of their so-called ‘shepherds’ but deeply shamed and pained by the actions of that six-percent of men unable to control themselves, often to the point of leaving the Church they had been born into and raised within.
I do not take this topic lightly: It was this whole controversy that led me, too, to abandon the church myself in the early 2000s, when my daughter was growing up. I did not, thank God, have any personal experience of abusive clergy, but as a mother, I was sickened—literally, to the point of actual nausea—reading the revelations of what grown priests would do to small children, to satisfy deviant sexual desires. As a woman, it led me to question all men, and their seemingly ungovernable sex drives in general: WTF? What do you idiots think you’re doing? How do you find pleasure in this kind of thing, how can you rationalize this behavior with your morality, your vocation? And as for the bishops and higher-ups who turned a cold, blind eye to this, thinking more of the Church’s reputation than the irreparable harm done to its victims… I wanted no part of any of it. I was not going to put money into the weekly envelopes the parish sent me; and forget the Bishop’s Appeal. It is surely why my daughter is not a practicing Catholic today: While she had the required childhood sacraments, I stopped taking her to church just after she made her first communion, not wanting my precious daughter to be part of a faith that not only seemed to condone the sexual abuse of children, but also did not respect her gender enough to allow women to seek the priesthood. I hated the church’s dismissal of its women, and its bizarre repressive 5th-century attitude toward sexuality, which has led, no doubt, to the problems it’s facing today. It seemed to me then that the only moral choice was to walk away, totally reject what I saw as a basically corrupt and immoral institution. I walked away from it all.
And I came back very slowly, not with the convert’s infatuated glee, but rueful and wiser, in the realization that I could not excise what had become a very real part of myself. That is, the basic belief in a divine wisdom and power, and the teachings of Christ, of love and charity. Imbued as I was in a very strong Catholic culture, I came to realize the Church was not the buildings, was not the Pope, not the horrible men who switched sick, abusing priests all about their dioceses to hide their actions, but it is simply, those of us who worship; it is a community. And when you live within a community, you can’t keep walking out in disgust: You have to stick around, and be noisy and active and hope somehow you’re being heard. You have to call for change. And the Church must change. It absolutely must.
It would start with a married clergy. In fact, I think all priests should be required to be marry. Why should they be excluded from what might arguably be the most important sacrament? Then, we must have women priests. And they should be allowed to marry as well, and have children. And then we have a clergy that is us, fully integrated, fully functioning members of the Catholic community, and perhaps closer to the earliest and maybe best versions of the Catholic religion.
I think this still relatively new pope of ours, Francis, offers us hope. He was elected as I was undergoing an emergency appendectomy. When I awoke, in the recovery room, literally the first thing I heard was, “We have a new pope!” (It was a Catholic hospital) It was astonishing: I left the world for a couple hours and when I returned, it had changed in a seismic way. It was the kind of ordinary miracle (another being the birth of my daughter after years of infertility) that helps push me along, although I don’t base my faith on miracles or other fanciful, sentimental things. But such events do nourish my spiritual side, which in turn helps me to remain in the fold. And movies such as Spotlight give me renewed hope for popular culture, reminding us that movies (and books and fiction) can play an important role in helping shape our own moralities and world view, and also a sense of fairness, and goodness.