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Spotlight Report

  Eugene Cullen Kennedy  

Church's wound stays unhealed


The infection of conflicted sexuality in the Roman Catholic clergy, its festering long veiled like a leper's sore, has now been publicly lanced. How, people ask, could it have been left unattended for so long? While church leaders say that the doctors never told them how serious the condition was, and victims find their voice and lawyers file their claims, the most important question remains not only unanswered but unasked: If sexual abuse of children is the tainted surface symptom, what is the underlying wound?

We find both the healing question and the answer in Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of Parzival, who sets out to find and cure the Grail King. Like other mythic figures, the king's wound is sexual in nature. He sustained it on his search for the Holy Grail, the cup of the Last Supper that represents Western emphasis on the spirit.

Before becoming king, the Grail seeker from the West, who symbolizes the spirit, encounters the Black Knight riding out of the East, who represents nature. In a clash, the future king slays the Knight of the East but is wounded by a spear that passes through his genitals. In vanquishing nature, spirit sustains a wound that will not heal. His court members fear to speak of it lest they say something that may endanger their places of preferment.

Having imitated the silent courtiers on his first visit, Parzival returns to ask the simple human question that heals the king's wound: "What is it that ails you?" Thus Parzival rends the court's cloak of self-serving silence by speaking the plain truth that so threatens its members.

Myths are the tales in which we store the truths of our human condition, protected by poetry from the effects of history. In this "Parzival," we find the story of the official Catholic Church in the aftermath of this sex abuse crisis. The latter flows from the wound this earthly church suffered when it lost sight of the wholeness with which its founder, Jesus Christ, viewed human beings.

The priest pedophilia crisis is but one symptom of the unhealed wound that resulted from the official church's strike at the unity of human personality. That blow divided the person into two warring components: spirit and nature, soul and body. Spirit and soul were good while nature and body were evil. Human beings were made to feel guilty for being human and sexual, and the organizational church has controlled its people by keeping that wound open and manipulating them through the false guilt they feel for being human. This official church, seeking to overpower nature, wounds itself and its people whenever it blindly enters or boldly distorts the most intimate area of their lives.

The members of the church's ecclesiastical court are afraid to speak about this great sexual wound oozing beneath their bureaucracy. Nor can they recognize, in the sexual abuse of children, the same pattern of behavior that some of them employ in their everyday dealings with people.

The wound has, therefore, become systemic in the officialdom of Catholicism. In the way some church officials deal with dissidents, or those seeking annulments of their marriages, for example, we observe the same dynamics that are present when a priest seduces a child. Both are exercises of power, both insist that the other "submit," both demean and debase the other, the child by sexual assault, the dissidents by an emasculation that renders them impotent. Modern dissenters, such as theologians Hans Kung and Charles Curran, and minister to gay Catholics, Sister Jeannine Gramick, are forbidden to call themselves Catholic or to teach, preach, write, and in any way express themselves in church work.

In myriad ways, church officials have dominated women for centuries, elevating them in the abstract, while treating them as inferior in concrete daily life. Women are demeaned when they are told that they cannot be priests because they do not look like men and therefore do not reflect Jesus, a classic but weak theological argument to preserve the all-male priesthood. The officials who behave this way are gratifying their own displaced sexual need just as pedophile priests do, rationalizing it so as not to face its essential truth.

This is a failure of the organizational church, not the pastoral church. The church as a religious mystery, as a family for believers, does not hold the divided view of humanity that its officials do. The church as a source of the sacraments embraces sinners, affirms life, and encourages lovers. That is a different church from the one still trying to please its wounded king by silence and circumlocution.

This wound may be clearly seen. For this style of sexually abusing the innocent that goes unnamed by those powerful members of the church court who commit it is the same one observed in every squalid seduction of an innocent by a troubled priest who cannot name it but asks for the same future silence about the manipulation that has occurred.

Many good bishops hesitate to ask what ails the official church that it has kept its silence and demanded it of others for so long on such primitive use of others. That is what is at the heart of the confusion and uncertainty in so many chancery offices. They cannot disentangle themselves from the officialdom to which they have been asked to give, at a price they never understood before, their unquestioning support.

What is it that ails this officialdom if not an asexual bent that finds women unacceptable in the priesthood because they are not men? What is it that ails it if not an asexual disdain for human sexuality that motivates such hostility to homosexuals that they are branded as bearing an intrinsic disorder within themselves?

This problem cannot be settled by lawyers, new policies, or promises that attention will be paid in the future. A wound has been exposed to sunlight and fresh air. The church, of which its officialdom is a prominent but lesser part, is ever ready to face the truth that it knows will make it free. What it needs are churchmen as true as Parzival who will risk their careers and save their souls by asking of the bureaucratic church, What is it that ails you?

Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a psychologist and former priest, is the author of "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality."

This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 3/10/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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