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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

Redefining the 'bad Catholic'


''THE NOVEL is a Protestant art form, requiring the free play of the mind,'' George Orwell wrote. ''There are few Catholic novelists who are any good, and most of them are bad Catholics.'' Orwell did not know the work of Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor. I'll leave assessments of my own novels to others, but in truth I can't read that phrase ''bad Catholic'' without a shudder. What is a bad Catholic anyway?

Once it was clear. Orwell probably had Graham Greene in mind, or perhaps Evelyn Waugh - famously unbridled Catholics. Late in life, writers Eugene O'Neill and Allan Tate were haunted by their status as bad Catholics. Because of an early alienation from the church, even as exalted a figure as financier and first secretary of defense James Forrestal rebuked himself as a bad Catholic not long before his suicide in 1949. Both O'Neill and Forrestal asked to see a priest at the end, although neither did. Bad Catholics were in ''bad marriages,'' or they were openly gay, or they had had abortions, or they practiced ''artificial birth control.'' They were condemned by their own heart-rending personal choices.

It is different now. Members of reform groups like ''Voice of the Faithful'' or ''Call to Action'' are labeled as bad Catholics by some. So are priests who organize without permission of the bishop and lay people who want women ordained. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma would seem to be a good Catholic, since the US bishops appointed him head of their National Review Board on Clergy Sexual Abuse. Yet Keating has presided over dozens of death row executions, while Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical ''Evangelium Vitae,'' said justification for the death penalty is ''rare, if not virtually nonexistent.''

Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia is regarded as a good Catholic, yet he is openly contemptuous of the pope's teaching here. And what about Catholics who support George W. Bush's war against Iraq despite the grave misgivings expressed by church leaders? And among church leaders themselves there is now divergence - as the Vatican's rejection of the American bishops' sex abuse policy suggests. Not long ago bad Catholics were also known as ''cafeteria Catholics,'' choosing beliefs as much by conscience as by authority, but it seems now that every Catholic is approaching the line.

This confusion is a good thing. It undermines the moralistic polarity that infected the church's thinking about itself. Because there was an identifiable group of ''bad Catholics,'' those not in it could smugly bask in the self-approval of being good. But at bottom, the division's real purpose was to protect the pyramidal authority structure of hierarchy. That is why the label ''bad'' was reserved for those attitudes and behaviors that challenged Rome's own emphasis, especially regarding sex.

You could be excommunicated for having an abortion - but not for being a Nazi. You could be homosexual in the church, but not in a public way that would call into question church prohibitions. You could remarry after divorce, but only if your divorce could be labeled an ''annulment.'' You could practice birth control, but only the method deemed ''natural.'' Administering such distinctions from the confessional, the church controlled the inner lives of Catholics by making the sexual ethos the one area of moral absolutism. That is why abortion still trumps the death penalty as a matter of Catholic concern, why condoms draw church fire and napalm doesn't.

As the girder of a power structure, the system was ingenious because sexual restlessness defines the human condition. Once that restlessness was made a matter of eternal damnation or salvation, every lay person, even a Forrestal or an O'Neill, became psychologically subservient to every priest. No more. This power structure depended on the myth that priests are creatures set apart from the human condition, and that myth is broken. With a few priests revealed to be sexual predators and many bishops exposed as their enablers, who are the ''bad Catholics'' now?

The operative category has moved from ''sin'' to ''crime,'' ending church exemption from power administered by others. Thus, canon law must yield to civil law, the secrecy of the confessional must yield to the transparency of the court, and the sly exploitation of neurotic self-doubt must give way to the fact-based rationality that alone determines guilt or innocence. The Vatican may not know it yet, but the priest-administered moralism of sexual repressiveness will never work again as a tool of Catholic control.

That there was ever such a category as ''bad Catholic'' at all obscured the basic truth that every Catholic is a sinner, because every human being is. Our noblest impulses come attached to opposite inclinations that betray them. That is why the main note of this community must be repentance, the main hope forgiveness, and the main purpose an unending reform that will protect children and check power.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 10/22/2002.
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