Off the Shelf: History Repeats Itself

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican during Easter Mass, April 1, 2018 (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
In the Catholic Church as in the presidency, institutional crisis has been a long time coming, for those who had eyes to see.

My son masters himself as he masters the language. Every word he acquires means he’s internalizing how to navigate a new social interaction, even obtaining a ritual to reconcile himself to his position in the world and in time. When our sitter used to take him outside and away from me so I could write this column, he would wail, tossing his head back as if he’d been hit. Now he says, “Byeeee! Byeeeee!” and waves at me like a figure skater at the end of a routine, with huge rhythmic motions and a fat smile on his face. “Pooh . . . pee,” he warns, pointing to his diaper, before running away and cackling, knowing I will chase and start the familiar routine for changing his diaper. That’s the joy in this week, watching the baby turn into the boy. And I need that joy now more than ever.

Illness and other trials are afflicting my extended family right now. So I put down the Russian history this week and picked up one of the most enjoyable books of the year, Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck, which chronicles the birth, life, and death of the USFL, a football league that was supposed to compete with the NFL. Pearlman and I are from the same county in New York. Although there is a canyon-sized gap between our political views, he’s one of my journalistic heroes. He puts a ton of work into his books, and it shows. Football for a Buck reunites the author with his best subject, the triumphs and debauches of professional athletes in the 1980s and early 1990s. We’ve seen this before in his books on the 1986 Mets, The Bad Guys Won, and Boys Will Be Boys, about the Dallas Cowboys. To this is added the memorable character who owned the New Jersey Generals: Donald J. Trump.

Pearlman puts the league first in his telling and does the subject enormous justice. It’s not an excuse to write a Trump book disguised as a sports book. Reading through, you constantly find yourself asking the “what if” questions. What if they’d had more patience? What if they’d followed the model that founder David Dixon envisioned? And if the owners had built on the success of franchises such as the Gold and the Showstoppers? But of course, one of the big questions the book elicits from readers is: What if Donald Trump had never gotten involved? Or at least, what if people had just seen through his bluster?

Donald Trump in the 1980s foreshadows quite a lot about Donald Trump in the White House. What jumps out from the page is the way that Trump is able to hype and put a gloss on a product in public but then prove willing to turn on a dime and destroy its value if it gives him a short-term advantage. When he tires of hyping the product, he just hypes himself. And the turn in the book comes when the other owners finally buy that sales pitch and put the league’s future in his hands. If Republicans and America come away from the Trump presidency fully satisfied with the trust they’ve put in Donald Trump, it will be surprise.

Like all his books, Football for a Buck is fun. It whetted my appetite, however, for a book-length treatment of similar reportorial verve on the doomed ABL, the women’s basketball league that was destroyed by the NBA to make room for the WNBA. That’s a story waiting to be told.

Of course, on my mind is another institution being destroyed by its leadership. And it turns out that the most insightful thing written on the crisis of the Catholic Church appeared 14 years ago. It was an address by the Jesuit priest Father Paul Mankowski. He describes a series of interlocking dysfunctions in the Catholic Church. First, there’s the way that the Catholic priesthood’s high status, reputation, and relative material comfort began to attract immoral men. Second, there’s a crisis in the culture of the episcopacy, which in the wake of Vatican II prized “collegiality” so much that it selected for men who were, even if not morally compromised, so deeply conflict-averse as to become co-conspirators with immoral priests.

Mankowski describes the difficulty of reporting abuse of any kind to a man like this:

Occasionally someone manages to break through the insulation and deal with the responsible churchman himself. In this case, another maneuver is typically employed, one I tried to sketch eight years ago in an essay called “Tames in Clerical Life”:

In one-on-one situations, tames in positions of authority will rarely flatly deny the validity of a complaint of corruption lodged by a subordinate. More often they will admit the reality and seriousness of the problem raised, and then pretend to take the appellant into their confidence, assuring him that those in charge are fully aware of the crisis and that steps are being taken, quietly, behind the scenes, to remedy it.

Thus the burden of discretion is shifted onto the subordinate in the name of concern for the good of the institution and personal loyalty to the administrator: a tame must not go public with his evidence of malfeasance lest he disrupt the process — invariably hidden from view — by which it is being put right.

This ruse has been called the Secret Santa maneuver: “There are no presents underneath the tree for you, but that’s because Daddy is down in the basement making you something special. It is supposed to be a surprise, so don’t breathe a word or you’ll spoil everything.” And, of course, Christmas never comes.

Perhaps most of the well-intentioned efforts for reform in the past quarter century have been tabled indefinitely by high-ranking tames using this ploy to buy their way out of tough situations for which they are temperamentally unsuited. 

Mankowski also has a rich discussion of the Church’s wealth and prestige. It has lost the working class in Europe and America, and lost the working-class priests that come with working-class members. It lives in a bubble of comfort. Further, the religious life of monks is also too comfortable. He says it suffers from “Mertonization,” after the famous monk Thomas Merton. Instead of asceticism and holiness, monastic life is reconciled to a journey of the self, and self-actualization.

Lacking the living example of self-sacrifice in healthy religious orders, the rest of the priesthood begins to slide, too. He writes:

The same is true of asceticism and self-denial generally. When laypeople enter priests’ living quarters today, they rarely seem to be impressed by how sparse and severe our living arrangement are. They rarely walk away with the impression that the man who lives here is good at saying no to himself. Yet monks are, or used to be, our masters at saying no to the self. Something went wrong.

Putting the same idea in another perspective, it’s wryly amusing to read commentators on the sexual abuse problem recommend that priests be sent to a monastery for penance. What penance? Is there a single monastic house in the United States where the abbot would have the authority, much less the inclination, to keep a man at hard labor for twenty months or on bread and water for twenty days?

Let me sum up. I believe the sexual abuse crisis represents no isolated phenomenon and no new failure, but rather illustrates a state of slowly worsening clerical and episcopal corruption with its roots well back into the 1940s. Its principal tributaries include a critical mass of morally depraved and psychologically defective clergymen who entered the service of Church seeking emoluments and advantages unrelated to her spiritual mission, in addition to leaders constitutionally unsuited to the exercise of the virtues of truthfulness and fortitude.

The old-fashioned vices of lust, pride, and sloth have erected an administrative apparatus effective at transmitting the consolations of the Faith but powerless at correction and problem-solving.

The result is a situation unamenable to reform, wherein the leaders continue to project an upbeat and positive message of ecclesial well-being to an overwhelmingly good-willed laity, a message which both speaker and hearer find more gratifying than convincing.

The picture of religious life and episcopal life is, as far as I can see, not improved at all. And the culture of therapeutic self-actualization remains ascendant in the Church. Weeks ago, when the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick were still pending but before the Vatican ambassador called out the pope, Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave a jaw-dropping interview in which he said that the McCarrick revelations were not some huge crisis. He then went on to talk about how bishops needed to give one another more support, implying that what they needed was more retreats together. It was astonishing. In the wake of reports about his predecessor’s systematically harassing seminarians in a beach house, Cardinal Wuerl suggested that it was nothing that couldn’t be solved with more vacation time.

Now that the Pennsylvania grand-jury report has exposed him as an enabler of abuse, and the former Vatican ambassador has accused him of being a shameless liar, Cardinal Wuerl has managed to get an audience with the pope, who told him to go home and consult with his own priests about whether he should resign. It’s not as if priests can easily jump from diocese to diocese. They have to live with Wuerl’s decision no matter what. So Wuerl has announced a six-week “season of healing.” No penitence, no accountability. Just an announcement that in six weeks, he expects his image to be rehabbed, and everyone else will have to move on. You weren’t healed during my season of healing? That’s on you, bub. As for me, it’s time for another retreat with the lads. Humanly speaking, the situation in the Church is hopeless.

Which brings up another thought. I’ve always held the suspicion that the authors of Ecclesiastes and the book of Job were heretics. Ecclesiastes in particular seems like a subversive intrusion of royalist stoicism into what is otherwise a canon of nationalist monotheism. Yes, God is in both these books, but the authors seem to warn us against expecting anything out of him in the foreseeable future. Or at least not anything that makes sense to us.

Now, I’m quite sure intelligent biblicists would be able to show me that the acid pessimism of Ecclesiastes, and the inscrutability of Job’s God, do not at all contradict the rest of the Good Book. It would all be reasonable. But I don’t even care to contemplate that right now. Because Ecclesiastes is basically the only consolation I have when I think about the Church these days.

There’s not much new to say about Donald Trump in 2018 that you couldn’t say in 1983. There’s not much new to say about the Catholic Church’s enormities that wasn’t already well said in 2004. “Never ask why the old times were better than ours; a fool’s question” is the terse rendering of Ronald Knox’s translation of Ecclesiastes 7:11. That is the stiff cup of coffee needed during this week of personal and familial trials, this phony season of healing.



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