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Katie van Schaijik

Power corrupts

Apr. 8, 2010, at 6:13pm

That persons are from Love and for Love and that the human condition is plagued by a post-Eden master/slave dynamic is perhaps the central theme of Christian personalism. 

Hence, I found an op-ed piece by a former priest (who is still a practicing Catholic) in today’s National Catholic Reporter identifying power as the ruination of the Church compelling, as is much of the rest of his analysis.

[P]ower is ruining the church I love. And by this I do not mean authority, which is what holds us together in unity and keeps us tied to the sources of the church’s apostolic legitimacy, the Bible and Tradition.  What I mean by power is what Jesus so masterfully dodged in the desert when Satan tried to guarantee his success as messiah by getting him to use political ascendancy, the option to work miracles of bread and spectacle in order to ensure the respect and fear all leaders need if they expect to stay in office longer than one term.

He is exactly right there.  Right that power and authority should not be conflated; right to point to the link between power and fear. 

This power for good or evil comes with a price, hidden like a coiled adder in a basket of lush fruit. Each time an idealistic leader exercises special privilege, accepts automatic respect, even guarded adulation for his holy role among sincere but lesser folks, stained by the world…each time a young priest sees himself as set apart and possessing mystic insight and ontological superiority, he is within the seduction of power.

This is true of lay Catholic leaders as well.  I have seen it in operation.  They begin to imagine that the great responsibilities they bear in their work for God somehow put them in a class apart. For instance, their leading might involve keeping others in the dark about things they wouldn’t understand.

I know this because I once shared in the clerical state, part of a proud tradition that has given the church brilliant religious communities of saints and scholars. Of the almost 20 years I spent with an order, 10 years were in ordained ministry, and I wouldn’t trade the formation and fraternity these men gave me and continue to affirm in me as a former priest, now a husband and father, a practicing Catholic and the editor of a very good worship resource that promotes the vision of Vatican II.
It is because of this experience that I know that when it comes to pedophilia, celibacy is not the issue, nor is homosexuality, nor clerical bachelorism per se.

Right again.

But power corrupts. Isolation and lack of human affection, the absence of real friendship with both men and women, all profiles at one time or another for the ideal priest, can produce trouble in a person. Loneliness, thwarted desire and a structure of obedience that renders a man impotent before his superiors to his own responsibility to choose his life at every stage, all of these dynamics can and do converge on a priest to force the question: Who am I? Who loves me? Why am I so angry and frustrated on the one hand, and so compulsive in my personal needs on the other?

I note that the personalism of JP II puts strong emphasis on friendship, including between the sexes, and on self-dtermination.  His way of pastoring was as far as can be from an authoritarian “I am the priest; I know best,” ethic of obedience and submission.  Those who were closest to him as a spiritual director say that his constant refrain was “You must decide.”  It came from his deep-seated respect for uniqueness of each person and his sense that a person (in interior dialogue with the Holy Spirit) “creates himself” in his choosing and acting.

None of this makes a pedophile, any more than marriage makes a man mature (Ha!). But the institutional template will attract and incubate those who seek the refuge of automatic respect and a façade of maturity without the painful work of growing up and getting beyond adolescent fixation and fantasy, the eroticizing of others close at hand, easily dominated, innocent and vulnerable to special people who offer special situations of attention and secret play. The diagnosis is not unknown, nor help impossible, but the failure to recognize the problem has created monsters, and institutional denial and secrecy have, it seems clear now, let criminals and serial child rapists move freely and repeatedly in the flock to victimize its most precious and innocent members.

Amen, amen, amen!

No one escapes the long loneliness except by love, love in community. No man ever came to terms with his sexuality, his spirituality, his personality, without the help of a woman, even if it is only his mother.

And again I say, amen.
How we need a much stronger, more self-standing laity!


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