Priestly Power

Whenever you see evil committed on a grand scale and wonder how such a thing is possible, when the world gnashes its teeth and beats its breast trying to understand, when committees convene and editorial boards up their output of opinions as to the genesis of the atrocities, here's a shortcut to the answer:

It's always about power.

(Sometimes it seems to be about money but that's just a smokescreen, and is easy to prove: Why would Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or the Medellin cartel or OPEC need another billion dollars they can't possibly use? They wouldn't. It isn't about the money. Money is just a scorecard for who has more power when you measure power with money.)

The Holocaust, 9/11, every war, McCarthyism, racism…they're all about power.

And guess what: the current scandal in the Catholic church is about power, too.

I'm not talking about the priests who have been raping by the thousands children entrusted to their care. Those are individual horrors that should be dealt with as such, with additional penalties laded on for crimes committed "under cover of authority." (I wonder if part of the reason that the clergy doesn't seem to be too horrified about what's been happening is that, being celibate, none of them are parents and can't really comprehend the magnitude of the evil.)

I'm talking about the higher-ups who have been doing everything they can to suppress disclosure. How did this come about?

There are few religions whose caretakers are obsessed with power to the same extent as the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Vatican intrigue rivals that of the US Senate or the old Soviet Politburo, and the desire of the executive level to control the daily lives of 600 million adherents, on everything from birth control to the manner of praying to how sex is performed, even the perception of death and the manner of burial, is well-documented.

The church even has the ability to throw you out of the religion altogether, which is pretty interesting when you give it some thought.

The clergy, like the clergy in all religions, loves this power. They’ve loved it for a very long time. One telling example involves the Bible itself.

Before the 17th century, the Bible was available only in Latin or Greek. The only people who could read these languages were priests. Therefore, any believers who wished to hear the Word were wholly dependent on their priests to read it to them. It was a great source of power.

(Another source was terror. Adherence to church practices was enforced through torture and execution by burning. But that's another story.)

The clergy was not amused by attempts to translate the Bible into the everyday language of the people. When a man named William Tyndale suggested that, since the original Bible was written in the everyday language of the people, maybe it would be a good idea to translate it into English, the then-current vernacular, the church had him publicly strangled. Similar fates befell others who attempted to tamper with the power of the priesthood by making the Bible readable to ordinary people, until King James finally took matters into his own hands.

The present-day Roman Catholic church doesn't have people publicly strangled, but is no less enamored of power. It has a complex and multi-layered hierarchical structure, and there is an ungodly (literally) amount of jockeying, lobbying and maneuvering among priests to rise up in that hierarchy. The higher you go, the better the perks. Guys at the top live in mansions, are waited on hand and foot by underlings and dress in fabulously expensive clothes.

What do you suppose Jesus would say about the state of His church if He paid an unannounced visit to the Vatican?

The clergy also has the power to summon kings and presidents and profoundly influence the intimate details of the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

This is not the kind of thing mortals can easily let go of.

Imagine the threat to the hierarchy when parishioners began to discover that their cherished priests had been having oral and anal sex with their young sons. These are sons who were brought up to deeply respect their priests, to believe that they were God's own representatives on Earth, to accept without question that these were men so morally upright and learned that their ethical pronouncements were not open to debate but were to be taken as, well…gospel.

Listen. Obey. Don't question.

So what do you figure are the odds that one of these young boys will "Just say no" when his local priest pulls down his pants and shoves his penis into the kid's behind or his mouth? (Sorry, folks, but that's what it is. It often helps to get past euphemisms like "molestation" and "abuse" and face what this is really all about, which is priests intimidating children who barely know what sex is into doing those kinds of things.)

Pretty small, I'd say.

The church exercises primary control over believers through the offices of individual priests. These are guys before whom captains of industry will willingly humble themselves just because they spent three years in a seminary (where 99.9% of the learning has to do with the words and works of man, not God).

Captains of industry are not stupid. Neither are ordinary Americans. Imagine, then, how they'll react if they lift the covers and find out that their worst pedophilic nightmares are not from the registered child molester who just relocated to the neighborhood and whom everybody has an eye on, but from that guy who they thought was so trustworthy that the church was the single safest place in the world for their kids to be, and now it's potentially the worst. You spend ten or twelve years trying to do right by your kid only to have some monster irretrievably alter him in a few minutes…even the most blindly obedient and unquestioningly faithful churchgoer starts asking some hard questions.

A thing like that can really put a damper on the church's power.

Given this perspective, maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise to find out that the higher-ups in the church hierarchy have, for years, been dealing with exposed molesters by (fasten your seat belts, folks – I'm not making this up) quietly transferring them to new locations, with no warning at all to the parishioners that their new priest had been raping little kids and nothing had been done to see that he wouldn't do it again.

The alternative is for the powers that be to stand up and admit that the local paragons of virtue are not only human, but often less so than the people to whom they're supposed to be ministering. But how do you then accept moral guidance from someone when you discover that he's part of a culture in which moral atrocities are being committed on a daily basis?

After all, the Catholic clergy's heaviest power claim comes from ownership of the moral high ground. Cede that, and there's nothing left.

And that's why the church covered it all up. Not to protect the church — the "church" is the sum total of all Catholics, not a bunch of buildings and an org chart — but to protect the clergy's power base.

The good news is that it's backfiring, and badly. Now maybe Catholics will look at the whole overloaded structure of the church and finally decide that there isn't, and never has been, any good reason to turn over their own good judgment to people with self-proclaimed moral and spiritual superiority.

If you're a Christian, you don't need a bishop to read and love the Bible. You don't need a cardinal to live a moral life. And you shouldn't have to wait on pins and needles for a papal bull to tell you whether you can use a condom or eat meat on Fridays.

All you need do is walk humbly with your God and ask yourself one surprisingly simple question: What would Jesus do?

My bet is that He wouldn't live in the Vatican, wouldn't wear golden robes, and He sure as hell wouldn't let a child molester near any of His flock.

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