On Good Friday I went to church. I was raised Catholic, and while the storytelling and fantastical aura of religion suited me well in early childhood, it took a mere 12 years for me to fall out of love with the Church for good. On discovering in Grade 6 that I myself could not be the Pope because I had a dirty vagina, all magic drained out of the Church structure and I saw what I largely still see — a hierarchy that feeds on the vulnerability of the uneducated to maintain an insular kingdom for arrogant men. I didn’t want to be a part of it at 12, and I told my idealist parents that if women can’t lead it, it’s not for me. My mother followed suit a few years later.
So I guess in going to mass on Good Friday I was not what you’d call a neutral observer. Rather I was there mostly to see how the average local church was responding to the sex abuse scandal that has actually reached the Pope — a scandal that some are describing as the "largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history".
So on Friday I went to a reasonably well-known Catholic church in Melbourne. It was half full, the congregation overwhelmingly elderly women of Italian and Hispanic descent, which I can safely assume because parts of the service were in Italian. (In retrospect, the bits in Italian were the ones I enjoyed most as one can’t take umbrage at sentiments one doesn’t understand.) Listening from my seat, I remembered that as a bookish child I loved the Good Friday service: no communion, no redemption, just betrayal and death — classic narrative fodder. The centre of the service, Saint John’s Passion of Christ, is a sharply stylised rendering of Jesus’s last day alive: the kiss from Judas, Peter’s disavowal of his mentor in exchange for a place at the Roman fire, Pilate’s creeping realisation of the innocence of the man he was executing, and at its heart, that motivating myth of Christianity: the dastardly fickleness of the Jews. It’s all there.
As is their wont, the priests managed to make a droning mess out of this gift of a story, and went on with a frothy blancmange of a homily about why Good Friday is "Good" and on Friday. But it wasn’t until the General Intercessions that I got mad. My attendance was, I admit, prompted by curiosity about the way in which the average local priest is dealing with the scandal in Rome. I harboured a small hope that the Church hierarchy was finally allowing recognition of systemic sexual abuse — and, sitting there, I realised that despite my old resentment I was there partially in sympathy for the cause. I guess a part of me wants the Church to clean itself up, so that the people I grew up with no longer have to bear the embarrassment of supporting an organisation that fosters paedophilia.
Instead I was sorely disappointed. Rather than express solidarity with the everyday supporters of the Church who have borne this embarrassment and remained faithful — primarily the women who so frequently maintain religious practice within families — the priest instructed supporters to pray for the Pope in his hour of need. Poor Pope Benedict, having to answer for the Catholic Church, and for his own actions in the mantle of the faith. Poor, suede-loafered Ratzinger; the indignity of having to answer to adults raped as children by the spiritual guides in whom their parents — and even more wretchedly, the state — had placed absolute trust. There was no mention of victims, no recognition of shared doubt, no catharsis.
And after this disappointment of my hope for some small effort in the service of collective redemption, the afternoon delivered another one-two combination that put me out the door, this time I suspect, for good.
First, the priest instructed the congregation to pray for Israel, because "God promised Abraham a homeland for his people". The irony of advocating this Old Testament apology for a political platform, at the very moment that Israel was preventing Palestinian Christians from visiting Jerusalem during Holy Week, and was casting more out of their West Bank homes to exist somehow in restive homelessness, raised an ire in me that I had nearly forgotten. It was precisely this sort of dogma couched as munificence that tarnished my view of Catholicism in the first place.
Then, on my way out the door I was slapped with another reality check. Pinned to the door was an A3-sized copy of a Herald Sun opinion piece by Bishop Christopher Prowse condemning Victoria’s abortion reforms as a "crime no human law can legitimise". Tempted to kick the door in and throw a righteous tanty, I had to remind myself that, unlike in childhood, I had voluntarily attended church that day, and that I believe in the right to religious freedom and free association. But with my intellect, sexuality and gender utterly insulted, I stepped outside that church into the sun with new bad memories to put next to the old ones.
It’s no surprise to the most cursory of historians that the Catholic Church has become expert in the manipulation of simple theological creeds to mean-spirited ends. The hierarchy’s response to the growing stain of paedophilia is, unfortunately, no exception. Millennia into the storyline, the Church hierarchy still treats with breathtaking contempt the lives and intelligence of its faithful in order to indulge the arrogance of a specific set of pompous men.
If it died starved of an audience, it would have only itself to blame, and I, for one, would dance at its funeral. But rather than accept the verdict of its former followers in the Western world who have left it in droves, it moves elsewhere, much like Big Tobacco, to new, uneducated audiences in less-developed countries. It is in Africa, the Philippines and South America that the Church’s trademark child abuse, anti-abortionism and anti-Islamic propaganda are now blossoming.
As the secular West rightly loses patience with the arrogance of the Catholic Church, we would do well to remember its power not in a haze of embarrassment and nostalgia but in the cold light of politics and history, which, as has been noted before, has the darnedest way of repeating itself.
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