The great ship is going down
by William Cleary
review: The Unhealed Wound, The Church and Human Sexuality
by Eugene Kennedy
Here's the book that must be read by former priests – especially if you are one of those black-sheep whiffinpoofs who dreamed of a married priesthood and a gender-equal ministry in your very lifetime. Eugene Kennedy, like many of you, is disappointed too. It's pay-back time for this former Maryknoller whose application for laicization was denied even though he had two cardinals supporting his appeal. (I had no cardinals at all to help but my debasement at the New York chancery office stung nonetheless.)
In the pay-back, Kennedy goes a little overboard, and with slightly overwrought frankness, calls a spade an ax. On almost every page he repeats his diagnosis (built on the Parzival myth) of what ails the clergy and especially the bishops: the unhealed wound of diverted sexual energies, born in dualism, spewing out in sadism, pedophilia, and domination. Kennedy is all too explicit. But we readily forgive him. Whatever you call it or myth you liken it to, the situation is sick. There is also plenty of charm in Kennedy's graceful style and rich historical memory, and lots of laughs. Like the bishop who bellows: "Stop talking about the priest shortage: it gives a bad impression...."
McBrien calls this book "without a doubt one of the most important books on the Catholic Church to appear over the past several decades; I do not exaggerate." James Carroll praises its "brave lucidity." Wills says "valuable and needed." The gutsie author Donald Cozzens in NCR recommends the book but with reservations, then finds Kennedy's analysis "compelling."
I loved the book. It is fun to read a story about a battle in which you fought. And this time the good guys win – in one sense. At battle's end, all the hierarchs you love to hate stand there bleeding from unhealed wounds. Yea!
In another sense, it is all pathetic: pathological, toxic, diseased, yes, but more than that, just pathetic. Piteous, pitiable, tragic. In the high wheelhouse of the majestic Titanic of Catholicism, up where the great males in their nautical regalia and shoulder bars make the big decisions, steering the mammoth vessel that even God can't sink, barking orders down the pipe to the uniformed crew busy with ten thousand minor tasks, up on that poop deck, Kennedy says, there is a pathetic disguised sexual need to crush and humiliate and emasculate all those who would question their authority. Could it be more pathetic? As the pure-minded, illusion-guided patriarchs look out with un-seeing eyes upon the mist-masked iceberg ahead, the smiles of satisfaction look in hindsight simply grotesque. As the hierarchy seek to demonstrate their divinely guided nautical good sense, they give proof that no spirit even remotely holy guides them. The book says, Brothers, you're going DOWN! (They didn't hear.)
Alas, our dearest church is in the hands of ruffians, says Kennedy, who get their sexual kicks "like the lonely men in the back row of shabby theaters." He speaks of the hierarchy's need to master other men – to keep them unmarried and in exile from intimacy with women. Here some people will instantly recognize themselves – with the rush of relief that that particular wound is no longer weeping within them.
The book is all about sex and the church, and the brilliant author most shines in his wide perspective, for instance in paralleling Abelard and Merton whom he calls broken men. "(The church) broke them on the rack of love that was the truest thing in their lives, broke them as horses are broken, broke them on the institutional wall where hung the heads of heretics, that immense wall made for weeping...." That rhetorical paralleling may prove controversial, of course, as will his three pages on abortion, itself worth the price of the book. He irksomely uses the prejudicial phrase "the unborn," but he's brilliant at contextualizing the controversy, and ends explaining why so many Catholic women and their allies are pro-choice even while being anti-abortion.
In everything Kennedy says about sex, he has an authority of a true expert – which makes his criticism of the hierarchy so especially fierce. He speaks of a "putative virginal clergy," calling them at one point "the counterpart castrati." He is not currying favor obviously. But Kennedy's prose grace is obvious when, for instance, he writes in a single sentence of "the man of good will, Gerald Kelly," and of the multitude of priests "wounded by him" and by his injurious classic bestseller Modern Youth and Chastity, a book many of us cut our teeth on.
The book's conclusion becomes questionable for me when our visionary writer himself tapers off almost into denial: ah! there is still the Church of Mystery, the real Church, the true Church, of course. Think of the church as "mystery" and everything's okay, he says. Wouldn't it be more honest to admit that the Roman Catholic Church has lost its way? Rome sends us ideas so preposterous we would not take a minute to even dispute them were not one-sixth of the human family, fully a billion people, caught up in the fatal trance.
Thus beyond Kennedy and sexuality, there are even realer scandals: the sins of the mind, those against the Holy Spirit, claiming "guidance!" How can people not sense the untruth? I sometimes think that "their eyes are held" when they do not notice, for instance, the laughable preposterousness of Ad Tuendam Fidem, which makes infallible the blundering definition of the un-ordainability of females.
Could not Paul Collins be right in suggesting in a recent journal, that the giant Roman thing has become a sect? "Sectarianism is a matter of mentality, not size," he says, quoting theologian John May who put into words, said Collins, "what I had unconsciously concluded but had not articulated." I agree. Rome has simply placed itself outside the great pluralist Catholic thing. For me it is well named a sect, no longer central to the Church Catholic.
In the end this book is another great sadness for our friends still in the active Roman Catholic priesthood. It was largely the healthy people who left the ministry, says Kennedy, leaving a unhealthy scene behind – just the opposite of the way Rome describes what happened. So with our whiffenpoof glasses raised on high, when we finish our "baa, baa, baa," perhaps we can end with the melancholy chanty: "It was sad, it was sad, it was sad when the great ship went down...." #