There’s a scene in one my favorite books of all time in which ‘the Boss,’ larger than life lawyer turned Louisiana governor Willie Stark, tells journalist Jack Burden to dig up some dirt on a political enemy. Burden, who secretly idolizes the enemy, protests that the man is clean, but Stark shuts him up real fast.
“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption,” he says, “and he passeth from the stink of the didie* to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
Stark is eventually proved right. Burden finds that his idol has a terrible secret, the exposure of which drives the man to suicide. A letter reveals that the dead man was actually Burden’s father, and the journalist is left holding the pieces of Stark’s corrupt politics.
There is always something. Even in the best of us. I’ve taken a perverse sort of pride in Stark’s quote at other times in my life, but today I feel only sadness. Like Burden I’ve looked up to certain individuals and certain institutions, and I’ve had to acknowledge that some have been corrupted by the dark love of the invisible worm (to quote Blake). By creating giants out of men we ensure their destruction, and yet giants are those we yearn to follow.
I speak in tortured parables of the movie Spotlight, which I saw with a few Christian friends late one night at a discount, mummifying theatre. When we walked out, into the dark winter at midnight, I turned to one of my friends and muttered, “This is how we will be remembered.” He said something sympathetic back, I don’t remember what it was. He hadn’t seen me leave the theatre and lay shaking on a hallway bench, pondering the magnitude of crimes committed.
I’m neither a Catholic, nor a lapsed Catholic, and I realize the events portrayed in the film happened more than a decade ago in 2001. I could point the finger along with everybody else – “They did it! Not us! Them!” – but I fail to see the logic in cutting off the nose to spite the face.
For ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ as the church once was. We are all part of the same body.
I could criticize the movie. I could point out (as the reviewer from First Things did) that the script’s implication that this was a ‘David verses Goliath’ story is ludicrous. In 2001 the city of Boston was controlled by ex-Catholics, many disillusioned, and the church could not, as the film seems to imply, silence such a meek institution as the Boston Globe.
But I doubt that quibbling with peripheral details will obscure that fact that, of 1500 priests in Boston, almost 90 were accused of committing sexual abuse. It won’t erase the list of cities that rolled like credits across a black screen, cities where other priests have been accused of sexual crimes. It won’t erase the dozens of jokes I heard growing up about pedophile priests and altar boys, a connection so firmly fixed in the minds of my generation that I rarely hear mention of one without the other.
The sad truth is that Spotlight is a film about journalists who deserved to be treated as heroes, and a church (made of my fellow Christians) which deserves the role of villain. I’ve seen movies in which the church is portrayed poorly before (it’s much more rare to find a positive portrayal of a priest), but never one so starkly based in history. It’s one thing to laugh at the ridiculous caricature of a latin patriarch in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, it’s quite another to see the scandals of 2001 recreated in all their unholy splendor.
My friend sent me a text later on that night that outlined three questions to ask of movies like Spotlight. I’m going to answer them here as a way of dealing with my emotion, and with the greater evils committed by priests within the church. This answers do not neutralize the damage done to the church’s reputation, nor will they repair the far greater damage done to survivors of predatory priests, but they do help me process the horror in my own heart over the actions of my church.
The Catholic church is arguably the oldest institution still in operation in the world. It has survived empires, civil wars, internal schisms, and even papal assassinations. Its rise, from humble beginnings as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire to the most powerful institution in Europe, is incredible, but also shows (in my opinion) why the church is capable of shielding pedophiles from secular authorities.
We have a deep suspicion of large, rich institutions in the west, but that has not always been the case. The 4th century church father St. Ambrose wrote of the evils of private ownership, while praising the advantages of corporate ownership by the church. Indeed, relatively quickly after the ascent of Emperor Constantine the church became one of the richest institutions in the empire, necessitating an army of officials and administrators to carry out the logistical requirements of an organization blessed (pun intended) in land and assets.
Unlike in our modern states, the church quickly came to hold a sort of parallel place with secular rulers on society’s hierarchy, perhaps even surpassing secular rulers as the emperor’s powers waned and those of the Germanic usurpers waxed. By the time Pippen the Short became protector of the Catholic Church in the 8th century, his role as the first of the Carolingian kings was seen as secondary to the holy responsibilities of the Pope in Rome. The Church existed outside and above the state, and had its own system of taxation and judicial courts.
The church’s humble beginnings as a heterarchical organization that met in private homes have been romanticized in an age where the ‘church’ is often seen as the physical incarnation of power and oppression. I think we in the west often ignore the advantages of our privileged place in society by preferring the nostalgia-tinged lens of history, but it is true that the atrocities uncovered by the Globe’s Spotlight team would not have been possible without the formidable bureaucracy and power of the Catholic Church.
With institution, with bureaucracy, with power, often comes abuse. Also with such elements often comes a sense of persona entitlement and/or helplessness. The maligned Bostonian Bishop Bernard Law did not set in motion the mechanisms that hid the sexual predation of priests from outside eyes, but why did he did maintain it? Did he believe the church should be allowed to operate by different rules than the secular authorities? Or did he simply realize that to become a whistleblower was to set in motion a series of revelations that would shake the entire church? If the number of priests engaged in predation had been fewer, would the church have been more inclined to expose them?
I believe that the invitation of Spotlight is to stop viewing the church as an institutional bastion embedded in the socio-political fabric of the western empire tradition. The church’s function (as Luther was quick to point out) is not to control lands, to run city-states, to build beautiful architecture, and dictate the will of God ex cathedra. These things are indicative of secular power, and the way the Catholic Church clenched onto them for much of its history shows its dual vision as a secular and spiritual authority. Jesus’s ministry did not suggest that Christians should seek after secular authority, and (as a Mennonite) neither Menno Simons nor the great articulator of Mennonite political thought, John Howard Yoder (himself accused of predator behavior), saw any future in Christian-political institutions.
Perhaps one could argue that all organizations are inherently political by nature, but I am talking of the fusion of scepter and throne that for a millennium dominated the European hierarchy. I am talking of the alliance, beginning in the rule of Constantine, that motivated the church father Eusebius to speak of how “by the express appointment of the same God, two roots of blessing, the Roman empire and the doctrine of Christian piety, sprang up together for the benefit of men.” I am also talking of the Emperor Theodosius, who made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and privileged it above all others.
There is an infamous document in the history of the Catholic Church that is often referred to as the “Donation of Constantine.” It tells the story of how, upon being cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester I, the first Christian emperor gives the Roman see dominion over all other branches of Christianity, as well as political control over all of Italy. The document is undoubtedly a forgery, but its popularity in the early second millennium betrays one of the ways in which the Catholic Church sought to create a legitimate foundation for its political aspirations. The Church was trying to use the proclamation of a mere emperor as justification for religious supremacy over its Orthodox rival in Constantinople, as if such a trifle was important in the eyes of God.
The church is not a bureaucracy intent on managing its assets, nor is it a political entity which should rule nations. Christ always spoke of the church as the people who believed in, and his kingdom as a future reality far greater than this dark mirror. The church is meant to be a living, growing thing, not a series of bastions defending the church’s financial and political capital.
It is easy, while watching Spotlight, to be disgusted, shocked, horrified. That is the honest reaction, and that is a good reaction, but it is a mistake to attribute that reaction to the church as a whole. When I told my friend “This is how we will be remembered,” I was expressing the fear that is the seduction of the movie. I was worried that the church will be increasingly seen as an archaic medieval institution full of repressed sexuality and dirty pedophiles. I was worried that the church, my church, might be beyond public redemption.
I ignored, with that fear, all the priests who are fulfilling their spiritual mandate and bringing comfort to masses. I forgot that the church is a broken institution, filled with broken people, and it will never be as ‘squeaky-clean’ as my desire for a pure/impure dichotomy would wish. There are pedophiles and rapists in the church, just as there are pedophiles and rapists in government, in universities, in professional sports, and in just about every other area of life. I’ve known some of them personally, and I empathize with their pain and shame, if not the atrocity of their action. We are a broken people, and sometimes in our brokenness we inflict terrible crimes against those around us.
In history, like our personal psychology, our view perpetually tends towards the negative. We memorize the dates of wars, conquests, revolutions, and genocides, but gloss over the acts of kindness, and the times of peace. We deconstruct, motivated by a fascination with evil and ugliness, and paint the world with a poisonous brush. The long, quiet obediences are forgotten, the ostentatious betrayals are not.
Willie Stark is right. There is something corrupt in all of us. Consequently, there is always something corrupt in the church we have built together. The Catholic Church failed Boston by sheltering its priests from the consequences of their actions, but it is not a failure as an institution. Man may be conceived in corruption, but he is redeemed in Christ.
And Christ will also redeem his Church.