Thursday, May 21, 2009

Martí and the Need for a "Catholic Reformation," or "Padre Gasolina" and Father Cutié

One of the most controversial of José Martí's writings is his "Carta al hombre del campo," in which he advised the common man not to pay the local priest to baptize his son but to do it himself for no one loved him more or was better qualified to open the door to eternal life than he who had giving life to him. Martí felt the duty to protect the poor from exploitation by dishonest priests no less than by venal rulers, not because he was anti-clerical but because he valued humanity above dogma and could not conceive of "men of God" who were not also devoted to mankind. Socially-conscious priests, who put man's needs before the temporal interests (real or imagined) of the Church, commanded his respect and were defended strenuously by him. The anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, which was still then and long would remain a dominant theme of continental politics, was always rejected by Martí, who was never an enemy of established religion, but, on the contrary, believed in the essential truth and value of all religions. His censure was reserved for those who violated that truth for their own gain, the real enemies of religion.

Clerical misconduct in Martí's day consisted chiefly in violations of the confessional seal. Many priests then believed in the divine right of kings as many still do in the divine right of dictators, and they regarded it as both their religious and patriotic duty to denounce confessions or even suspicions of disloyalty to the Crown. It didn't hurt, either, that this was also the most efficacious means of obtaining preferment in the Church. In effect every neighborhood church was a CDR, except that the "D" then represented "Destrucción." Other priests, less "high-minded" and more venal, would blackmail penitents for money or sexual favors. The rural clergy were the worst because they were largely unregulated and their victims the most vulnerable.

Priestly celibacy, as such, was the least concern of the communicants and not much of a concern for the clergy. Priests made no effort to live double lives because concubinage was the norm and concealment was neither expected nor necessary. The more scrupulous among them were not impeded from becoming husbands and fathers, nor did they have to exercise those roles by stealth. It should be noted that from time to time there were ecclesiastical efforts at "reform." One bishop, Antonio María de Claret, was actually canonized for his success at convincing priests to abandon their wives and children. The people, however, erected a statue to a priest from Jesús del Monte nicknamed "Padre Gasolina"who fathered 12 children and did not abandon them.

Today hypocrisy is more institutionalized within the Church than it ever was in Martí's day. Then what was normal was regarded as "aberrant." In the 20th century what was aberrant came to be regarded as normal. Ironically, abnormality sometimes makes it safer to practice normality. Witness the case of Father Alberto Cutié. Most Catholics (and especially his own predominantly-Cuban parishioners) were actually relieved to know that his indiscretions, however public and notorious, were not predatory or directed at children, and, accordingly, they were disposed not only to forgive but even to justify his conduct. Not that his conduct, of course, needs any justification. If he had fathered a child and abandoned him, as Paraguay's bishop-turned-president did, twice, then his failure as a man would be far more execrable than his failure as a priest. But what Father Cutié did is not censurable in a man or in a priest. Even the Church seems reluctant to condemn with severity Fr. Cutié's departure from the abnormal and inhuman practice of celibacy, almost as if it regarded the story of a sexually active heterosexual priest as good publicity.

The idea of priests as "eunuchs for Christ" (as John Paul II called them) or nuns as "brides of Christ" seems now rather antiquated, not to say ridiculous. Who is this "Christ" who needs "brides" and "eunuchs?" Certainly not the Christ of the New Testament. It sounds more like some Eastern potentate, perhaps Herod himself. Even the Apostle Paul, the most misanthropic of Christ's disciples, though expressing his personal preference for the single life, yet enjoined those who could not sublimate their sexuality to marry and be spared hell thereby.

Celibacy in the Catholic Church is not a dogma but an administrative rule adopted 700 years ago to ensure its temporal power. That is, its wealth. Married priests tended to be as fond of their children as other men are and as desirous of providing for their earthly needs. Had they been content to deny them their protection, letting them wander the streets as so many "waifs of Christ," priests might never have been forced to embrace the rule of celibacy; but when they started to endow dowries for their daughters and bequeath the "Church's property" to their sons, the pope dictated that henceforth no priest would be allowed to marry, which meant that all priests would have to be celibate because extramarital sex was also forbidden. Whereas Paul had prescribed marriage as a "cure" for fornication, the medieval popes substituted celibacy, except that a hair from the dog that bit you is not a good cure for rabies.

While celibacy turns many priests into hypocrites, it does not turn them into pedophiles. But it is undoubtedly true that it discourages vocations among normal men, creating a void that pedophiles are only too happy to fill. What better cover can there be for the most sexually aberrant of men than to appear as sexless before the world? In fact, these priests were not above sex as much as beneath it. The scandals of pedophile priests and the bishops who abetted and even facilitated their predations did more harm to the Church than all the fictions of the Da Vinci Code.

When isolated cases of abuse, concealed and unaddressed by the Church, suddenly exploded with all the accumulated force of decades, the exceptions came to define the conduct of the entire priesthood, when, actually, the incidence of pedophilia among priests is no higher than among the general population. Here, however, is one instance when the media are not be faulted. If the Church had not so zealously collected its skeletons for all these years, the closet would not have been so full when it finally burst open. The house-cleaning that had so long been deferred, which the Church hoped might not even be necessary, required now the levelling of walls and uprooting of foundations, literally, to compensate the victims of abuse with billions of dollars in settlements. And there is the final irony: the Church does not allow priests to marry because then it might have to pay them a living wage to support their families. Instead, it has been obliged to spend billions to make a tardy amends for the natural consequences of its unnatural policies. The closure and sale of churches and schools, and the general erosion of the Church's temporal and spiritual authority, is the price which it has had to pay to maintain the rule of celibacy which was initially instituted to preserve intact its patrimony and power.

Father Alberto Cutié is in a privileged position in respect to other priests because he is an attraction and rainmaker, and this may have caused him to assume (correctly) that the Church would accommodate his particular lifestyle, as it has always done for a small clique of powerful hierarchs. When compromising photographs of Cutié with a woman were published in a Spanish-language gossip magazine, the Church had no choice but to publicly lament what it had privately sanctioned for years, and still its response could not have been more equivocal, leaving all decisions concerning his future in his own hands.

Father Cutié, who does not seem quite grateful for this special dispensation, has raised the possibility that he may have been set up by the Castro regime (the Cuban equivalent of "the devil made me do it."). It reminded me of Reynaldo Arenas' assertion in his political testament that Fidel Castro was responsible for his AIDS. That may well be the only thing for which Castro was not responsible in that writer's tormented life. A man controls little in this world and less in the nether world that is Castro's Cuba. Of one thing, at least, he is still master, here or in Cuba; and Castro, unless corporeally present, has nothing to do with that. Fidel Castro has robbed all Cubans of much of their autonomy. I see no reason to surrender to him control of aspects of our lives which are not in his control. Personal responsibility for one's acts and the adverse consequences which sometimes attend those acts demands a level of maturity which the Church is unwilling to grant its servants. Celibacy, ultimately, is enforced infantilization, which sacrifices real morality to superficial morality. What is merely superficial is always most vulnerable. It is time for the Church to abandon its revival of the Cult of Hymen and demand of its priests at least the same level of responsibility for their sexuality as it reposes in laymen. Responsibility, however, is impossible without choice. The Greek Orthodox tradition, which runs parallel to the Roman, has always allowed priests to choose between marriage and celibacy. Unless the Roman Catholic Church follows suit, Byzantium may yet again conquer Rome.

When Martí said that "Christianity died at the hands of Catholicism," I think this is what he meant: the extraneous elements which the Church adopted from paganism for less than Christian reasons are subverting the message of Christ and should be discarded before Christianity itself is the casualty.