|The Pope's Priestly Model: a Rabid, Self-harming Tyrant
By John Cornwell
September 10, 2010
This week we Catholics will celebrate the pope's arrival in Britain. Well, up to a point, and by no means all of us. The victims of priestly abuse still suffer; and the scandal has prompted Catholics of every generation to question the leadership of the church. I am not alone in wanting to take issue with Pope Benedict's particular response to a scandal that is part of a crisis involving the entire Catholic priesthood.
Since the 70s it has been in trouble; 100,000 priests left the ministry in three decades. Today newly ordained priests in Britain leave the ministry on average after only six years. The liberation of the 60s prompted many priests to rebel against enforced celibacy and a way of life that seemed unnatural and impossible in the 20th century.
The Catholic priesthood attracts many good people. But its unearned exaltation also attracts men with unresolved sexual, social and psychological problems. The screening process does not involve laypeople with appropriate expertise. The long seminary formation, with its devotional preoccupations and protected schoolboy communal life, is an unrealistic preparation for the celibate, gregarious solitude that is the lot of most priests. The formation of mature and lasting relationships, known in seminaries as "particular friendships", is actively discouraged.
So what has the pope done about the crisis? What he hasn't done is to initiate reforms based on inquiries into the culture of the total clerical crisis. His solution to the complex problems of clericalism is to ask seminarians and priests to emulate a French priest called Jean Vianney, who died 150 years ago.
Last year Benedict was on the verge of proclaiming Vianney as the patron saint of parish priests, the model for a purer, healthier, irreproachable priesthood. In a scolding letter to the Irish clergy earlier this year, the pope asserted that following the life of Vianney would redeem Ireland's disgraced, abusing clergy. At every opportunity he has promoted Vianney as exemplary.
As a survivor of seven years of seminary training, I find that Vianney is no stranger. When I was a junior seminarian (recruited aged 12), the pope of the day, Pius XII, also routinely proclaimed Vianney as our model. But after the election of John XXIII, the great reforming pope, in 1958, and the second Vatican council he inaugurated in 1962, Vianney was consigned to the hagiographical dustbin (though John Paul II nourished a private devotion). Yet half a century on he has been resurrected as Benedict's big antidote to a failing priesthood.
Vianney, born in 1786, worked as a farm labourer until called into Napoleon's army. He went awol but amnesty was declared for deserters and, though virtually illiterate, he entered the seminary. He was appointed priest of Ars in the Rhones-Alpes – a parish that was, according to his view, sunk in sin. In fact his parishioners were sunk in toil, hardship and poverty. Occasionally they drank and danced in the tavern – for Vianney, "the house of the devil, and the market where souls are lost".
Dancing was a prelude to sexual sin. He paid the bar owner to move away, so that dancing would be abolished. Remove the temptation and you remove the sin, that was his take-home message. When he discovered that village children were scrumping apples from his orchard, he chopped down the trees. He obliged the children to come at six every morning to be instructed in the catechism, to be learned by heart.
To prevent his own susceptibility to sin, Vianney whipped himself nightly with a scourge made of bits of metal, leaving blood up the wall for his housekeeper to clean up. Next to his skin he wore a hair shirt, a metal chain, and a tight cord or discipline. He slept on the stone-flagged floor with a log for a pillow. He rose repeatedly during the night to pray face down in the church.
These activities, he believed, warded off the devil, who constantly, he claimed, tormented him with noises and on one occasion set his bed on fire. For food he would cook a pan of potatoes, and eat them cold through the week. Sometimes he ate grass as a supplement. At the end of the week there would be a few rotten potatoes left which he devoured before boiling up a new pan.
The villagers now spent their free time in church listening to his sermons, which mainly featured the devil and the torments of hell. He convinced his parishioners of the need for frequent confession. Eventually he was spending 14 hours a day in the confessional. If a parishioner was known to have danced he would refuse absolution. Vianney turned himself into a rabid ascetic and his village into a monastic gulag.
What is the holy father thinking of, promoting this self-harming, narrow-minded tyrant as a solution to the problems of paedophile priests? Even by a mild interpretation, we should infer that priests must turn parishes into spiritual ghettoes where all secular influences are banned. Masochistic displacement activity, the punishing of the flesh, is proposed as a substitute for personal maturity and integrity.
The promotion of Vianney seems to me the most backward-looking of this pope's initiatives, which include bringing back the Latin mass, routinely denouncing homosexuality, and declaring the ordination of women a great sin. He makes the profound error of equating criminal and deviant behaviour with "sin", thus appealing to religious antidotes to salve the soul, rather than applying appropriate social and criminal justice measures.
Catholic sexual morality has for centuries concerned itself with the state of the soul of the sinner rather than the consequences for the abused. Recourse to confession for sexual "sins" wipes the soul clean without consideration of the harm done to others. The holy father argues that penitential regimes create purity of heart in a potential perpetrator. He might as well recommend chemotherapy.
The Catholic priesthood, its ethos and formation, is in need of root-and-branch inquiry. A married priesthood, and ordination for women as well as men, would be a start. Encouragement of mature, lasting friendships, a university-style education and on-the-job training, is essential. I don't think it will happen under this pope. But I beg him to desist from promoting Vianney as the answer to the crisis in the Catholic priesthood.
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