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Power, truth and the Catholic church

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

While the gales of scandal buffet the Roman Catholic church, I’ve been reading a timely and provocative novel, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada).

The book was a surprise winner of the Giller Prize, Canada’s top literary award. It’s a timely and sensitive work that could only have been written by a journalist of MacIntyre’s stature who has also mastered the structural skills needed to create a fine work of fiction. As a cost-host of CBC’s the fifth estate,  MacIntyre has loads of experience in investigative reporting and it shows in The Bishop’s Man.

MacIntyre tells his story in a leisurely yet engrossing manner as he gives us the first person account of Father Duncan MacAskill, a troubled man who must deal with a troubling subject — child sex abuse by his fellow priests.

Reporting to an insensitive bishop, Father MacAskill becomes known as The Exorcist for his work in rooting out sexually abusive priests — only to see them camouflaged by a church leadership more intent on preserving status than correcting sin. He is exiled to a Latin American outpost where he encounters his own difficult relationships, involving a woman and the death of another priest. Back in Nova Scotia, he is assigned to a parish near his home. There, he must deal with a legacy of sexual abuse as well as his own troubled past and his predilection to alcohol.

The novel’s failure to offer up a resolution to Father MacAskill’s problems troubled me at first. On reflection, I realized that The Bishop’s Man could end no other way. Therein lies the book’s ultimate truth.

As I broke off reading the book to read the accounts of the Vatican’s dismal response to the spreading scandal of sexual abuse within the church,  I was struck with the commonality between them.

The latest round of revelations illustrate again the inevitability of the linkage between power and perversity.  From Pope Benedict’s declaration that he would not be “intimated by petty gossip” to the  likening by his personal preacher to criticism of the church to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,” it can be seen that the Roman Catholic church is still a church in denial.

How could it be any other way? No institution founded on the invincibility of its power can admit to imperfection, especially in matters of faith. Join this with the cult of celibacy — itself a denial of natural human behavior — and the awful matrix is complete.

The righteous anger of Catholic faithful against much of church leadership is understandable but also saddening. Understandable because how else can one respond to such a massive betrayal of trust, other than with anger? Saddening because despite the good works of thousands of church faithful, the dogma of Catholicism offers no resolution to the problem of priestly abuse of children.  Power and perversity are unlikely to be separated. A church more fearful of scandal than of sin will continue to suffer both.

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