January 15, 2020

Bing Crosby Movies Ruined the Church (hot take!)

I had the rare opportunity to hear a priest give a talk recently whom I greatly esteem and who is well-connected to American and European bishops.  The candid talk was downright therapeutic. Really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at much of the corruption in the Church.

He began by reading the gospel passage in Matthew where John the Baptist is languishing in prison and is presumably wondering what happened to the promises in Isaiah of the Messiah such that the lion and lamb would lie down together, the child putting the hand on the adder, etc... and yet this isn’t turning out how he thought it would. And John asked his followers if Jesus was the messiah or should we expect another...

He said this is where we’re at today. “We are in prison. We are not experiencing the success of the message of the gospel." How can the world be this bad despite the grace we’ve been given?

The root cause of much of the problems in the church was created by influential Jesuits in the '60s and '70s who saw the Church’s mission as more one of social justice rather than one of transcendence. If you think about, who is better as leader of an NGO than McCarrick, who was light on transcendence but heavy on fund-raising?

He says people laugh at him for this, but he thinks Bing Crosby's movies ruined the Church by setting up ridiculous expectations of priests in Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary.
"They anesthetized people's common sense. Anybody who couldn't see that was phony couldn't see anything.  And yet they became cultural icons of the Catholic clergy, that you could do no wrong. I don't think any sane priest thinks they can do no wrong;  I know there are priests who do think they can do no wrong but they're not sane. I think that this idea somehow that there was this kind of ethereal clergy did violence to us.  I think it's part of the cultural baggage that we came out of the horrific World War II with, trying to find some peace and security, and in fact not doing that at all."  
Imagine if we laity and media weren't so awed by the priests since the '40s that we nipped the pedophilia scandal in the bud by pushing back hard?

His primary messages:
1) Reform almost always comes from the ground up, not from the hierarchy.
2) You can only do what you can do.
3) Bishops have very complex jobs that hardly anyone can handle.
4) Benedict saw that he could not handle the papacy.  Neither can Francis.
On Benedict's resignation and the woe in some quarters it created:
“But it happened. He did what he thought was right. Many people think it wasn’t right. But you know Benedict was hated in Germany. When he went to Germany the bishops didn’t even shake hands with him. He was more beloved over here than over there. But you’re not going to have a single person anymore who is going to meet all your needs. It’s not possible. Which is why there ought to be a pulling back, into the real focus of the real meaning of their life. They have probably become too activist in world affairs. There’s a book out by Pius XII’s involvement to assassinate Hitler. That might’ve been something justifiable, considering that Hitler was a mass murderer, but Pius made it very clear ‘this is me personally involved in this, not the Catholic Church’. I think that we’ve put too much on the papacy that no one can carry and I think Benedict realized that. I’m sorry he resigned but I think Francis is trying to carry it and obviously he can’t. You shouldn’t try to carry what you can’t carry. You should be what you’re supposed to be and move back. 
There’s a scholarly article by John Watts about how the monarchical papacy got started in the 13th century and how it develops. There are many ways to be pope.

And a very high profile, public, political figure is not necessarily one that suits the age. Because it’s just not possible.”
It’s all coming together: why Benedict left, why Francis was elected. I’m a victim of the same George Bush mentality that expected utopian things to happen in Iraq upon liberation - without the proper culture you cannot reform. Similarly the Vatican, where the culture is noxious.

A 2012 article in Der Spiegel was helpfully prescient, though I wouldn’t have believed it at the time. An insider is quoted as saying: “the Vatican is a ball of wool that's almost impossible to untangle -- not even by a pope." Events have proven the truth of what Benedict already knew. Bergoglio was elected as a “reformer” but reform was no more going to happen in Rome than Iraqis were going to have a healthy, functioning democracy.

Ten years ago Vatican finances were something of a distraction to me compared to the need for evangelization. Admittedly financial corruption, let alone sexual corruption, hurts the Church's ability to authentically mirror Christ to put it mildly. But pre-McCarrick I felt like evangelization was more important than reform, and presumably Benedict felt the same given how much importance he put on writing his books on Jesus rather than knocking heads in the Curia.

But now we’ve seen just how ugly the corruption was, especially with McCarrick and his rise to power. It seemed gobsmackingly crazy that an institution of and for Christ was incapable of meeting minimal secular standards of finance (with the banking) or minimal standards of conduct (i.e. sexual crimes). But the Vatican culture predates the American experiment just as Iraqi culture does and is certainly not immune to the "crooked timber" of all humanity. This isn’t to excuse the corruption but ... you can’t reform from above it seems. No single person, no pope, can do it. Certainly that seems to be the tale from Paul VI to John Paul II on down the line.


Terrence Berres said...

Now I cringe when we learn Father O'Malley has the boys down in the rectory basement.


TS said...

Rut row! yeah can’t see that happening today.

William Luse said...

Good post, TS.

TS said...

Thanks Bill!