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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

A human, humiliated church


Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." In Christian services all over the world tomorrow those words will be proclaimed above bowed heads, but they will resonate with special poignancy in Catholic churches in Boston. The meaning of Ash Wednesday has never been more to the point than during this hour of remorse and urgent change.

The clue is in the dust. The priest is reminding us mortal believers of our identity with "humus," the decayed matter from which life on the earth comes and to which it goes. And what is a "human" being but a creature tied to that natural cycle, indeed, named for it?

But human beings constantly imagine otherwise, aspiring to be angels free from the limits of life on earth. And when human beings are brought, as we say, back down to earth, what do we call it but "humiliation" -- which is only the experience of being reminded that we are humus and unto humus we shall return.

The Catholic Church is in the throes of the greatest humiliation in memory. An uncounted number of abused Catholic children were humiliated. An unimagined number of Catholic priests, now exposed as abusers, are humiliated. Innocent priests, falsely charged or feeling guilt by association, are humiliated. Leaders of the church, who, but for the Globe, would still be putting institutional interests above the welfare of children, are humiliated. Every Catholic, feeling betrayed and braced for more, is humiliated.

That is why Ash Wednesday is different this year. No priest, including the innocent majority, can impose ashes on the foreheads of the faithful from a position of superiority. And not only priests. The church itself is being reminded that it, too, is of the human condition.

This entire crisis has its roots in the church's failure to understand and accept its own humanity and, especially, its own fallibility. Even now, church spokes people, as they have done with other crimes of the church like anti-Semitism, want to distinguish between the acts of "sinful members" of the church and those of the "church as such."

According to a prevailing theology, the "church as such" is the "Bride of Christ" and therefore incapable of sin. The church has defined itself as the "Perfect Society." If failures occur, those are always the result of aberrant behavior of individuals, never of the structural or institutional characteristics of Catholicism.

The church simply does not make mistakes in matters of "faith and morals." The pinnacle of this assertion is the dogma of papal infallibility. That dogma, dating only to 1870, is narrowly applied, but its aura infects the entire exercise of authority in the church.

It is out of this conviction of Catholic exceptionalism that church leaders, when faced with obvious failure, whether the "silence" of Pius XII before the Holocaust or the abuse of children by priests, put such priority on "avoiding scandal," which really means covering up anything that might call the sinlessness of the "church as such" into question. If sins are nevertheless exposed, they are blamed on "members," leaving the blameless church unchanged.

Any authentic reading of the history of church failure during the Holocaust, like any reading of the current church failure in Boston, simply blows this fantasy away, like dust. And there's the hope. The church, too, is mortal. The church is not divine. If the church is the "Bride of Christ," it is the unfaithful bride of whom Hosea speaks -- an image not of human faithfulness, but of God's.

The wonder of Biblical faith -- what Christians call the Good News -- is that God has chosen human instruments as a way to be present in history. Our humanity is the point. When we pretend to be angels, we are not only committing the classically defined sin of pride; we are dangerous. It is not incidental to the present crisis of the priesthood that such angelic thinking involves an inhuman repressiveness when it comes to sexuality. That, too, is dangerous.

Until now the church has treated its own humanity like a dirty secret, yet it should be the opposite of that. If the church were less conflicted about its limits, the church could deal with its failures more forthrightly, with an eye on something besides "avoiding scandal." This would mean, after the Holocaust and after priestly child abuse, to stay with only these two examples, that the elimination of anti-Semitism and the protection of children would be absolute priorities. In both cases, real reform would follow.

That is why the "church as such" so needs to hear those hard words tomorrow: "Remember, church, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." The penitent church, like each of us, should hear those words in hope.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 2/12/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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