The stories about child sex abuse in Ireland keep coming in. It’s a bit like water torture, drip, drip, drip, day after day new revelations of abuse, coverups, new ways of excusing the failures of the church, of blaming the victim, society, the relativist culture, the highly sexualised media, the 60s (!), anything at all so that the people who are truly responsible don’t have to examine themselves and their own religious culture, don’t have to try, at least, to discern the part that celibacy (in the case of the Roman Catholic Church), or just the forms of religion itself play in reducing “other people” — in this case kids, but others are reduced in the same way – to objects that can be exploited and used for illicit pleasure, profit or power. There’s another report about to be made public, from County Donegal in Ireland, which is expected to say that the Garda (the police) were complicit in the cover up, and that not only priests, but lay people, participated in using the kids for their own purposes and pleasure.
And, at the heart of all this? Well, take a look at this:
and a priest:
And they do this in other traditions too:
Each of these pictures shows the ordination, that is, the ordering, of men to the role of holy man. Of course, some traditions now — only a very few – admit women into holy orders as well. The sacred is that which is set apart, set aside from mundane or profane use (which is why names for holy things can be used as swear words, as in French “Calice” (chalice), ‘Tabernacle!” (tabernacle: where the consecrated bread and wine is placed)). I can remember when the sanctuary of an Anglican church was considered holy ground (and when I even regretted that it was losing its sacred power). Women (and it was mostly women) who cared for the altar and its precincts had to cover their heads and wear coverings on their shoes and wear gloves to handle “holy” things. Roman Catholic altars are made altars by the insertion of the “altar stone” which contains (or is supposed to contain) the relic of a saint, memories of the early days of Christianity when worship was carried out at a martyr’s tomb, that is, on “holy” ground. Cemeteries are, in consequence, “consecrated”, set apart for holy use, and only the baptised are to be buried therein. Infants who died unbaptised were often buried just beyond the bounds of the cemetery, in unconsecrated ground (with what effects on their mothers it does not take a vivid imagination to divine); suicides were not permitted to be buried in holy ground, for they had committed an unpardonable sin. They had despaired, and in their despair, by killing themselves, had put themselves beyond God’s mercy, since they had not left time to repent and be saved.
But in the heightened reverence for holy things and persons, things and persons which had been set aside for holiness, there lay (and, indeed, still lies, even in our more secular world) an inherent danger. For persons who are set aside for holiness become, simply by virtue of the act of setting aside, larger than life, and, indeed, set apart from life, so that they are no longer regarded, as they may have been moments before, as merely human and fallible. Instead, they are looked upon — since they, in a sense, stand in, especially in Christian contexts, in worship as in life, for the transcendent in our midst — as elevated above the normal human plane, and therefore as less liable to human failings and peccadilloes. So, it is imagined, in the Roman Catholic Church, just by choice and ritual acts, one man is set above all the rest, as already sanctified and even — it is hard to say this without a sneer — infallible, in certain contexts, in matters of faith and morals.
During my years as a priest I was asked, on two occasions, to deliver a homily at an ordination, one for the ordination of a deacon, and one for the ordination of several priests. At the latter I tried to express, in such a way as to cause no offence, that what we were trying to do was impossible, that is, actually to separate someone from the crowd and make them holy, that we could not do it, because there is no way to separate a human being by means of ritual acts and make them different from all the rest, but that the most we might do is to indicate, by the attempt to do what we were attempting to do, the vocation of all Christians to be holy. I don’t think many people took from my words what I was trying to say, and now it seems to me that the very idea of a vocation to holiness, of separating oneself from humanity as a symbol of the end and purpose for which we were created, is itself, not only an impossible task, but itself an act of hubris fraught with great danger.
The idea that anyone is called and chosen, separated from the nations for a special vocation, is a particularly egregious failure of humanity. The failure of human beings, though a very general one, is exacerbated by the idea of holiness, and this has become particularly evident in the recent troubles through which the Roman Catholic Church has been passing. Of course, we all try to preserve our reputations. Even when we have done despicable things most people will reflexively defend themselves, although there is often something to be gained, when you are caught in the act, from admitting publicly that you are but a human being, and given to failure just as others are. But when you are part of a complex structure of holiness (of “set-apartness”), upon which your own mystique, power and credibility rests, then the defence of that structure becomes of overriding importance. This it is that separates the whole institution from the mean and grubby cesspool in which the rest of humanity is sunk, and to lose it is to lose, not only reputation, but the very mystique and power of the sacred itself.
If you go into a Catholic, an Anglican or an Orthodox church, you will often see that the very architecture and furnishings themselves reflect a hierarchy of holiness, and entering the church is, you might say, a ritual turning from the world towards that holiness. Churches are entered, very often, through the back door, which is, of course, the main door. You enter, very often, into a space filled with filtered light (from stained glass), and the light itself bespeaks the holiness of the space into which you enter, leaving the bright natural light behind — the brightness of which is thought, in itself, to be an illusion. And then you move, through a large area of ordinary space, where the faithful gather, towards the closed (usually East) end of the church, by stages — past the choir, perhaps, or the open crossing, if the church is cruciform — and then, often, through a screen, which may be, as in many Orthodox churches, a solid wall of sacred pictures (icons), or in other churches, a rood screen (though many Anglican churches have lost the rood, or cross), into the space where the sacred mysteries are performed.
Each step of the way takes you further from the profane towards the sacred, from the unhallowed, vulgar wickedness of the unredeemed world into the sainted holiness of the forecourt of heaven, often dim with mystery. And that is where the person, separated by the ritual of ordination stands, and performs the sacred mysteries – in persona Christi, as Anne Widdecombe so archly said in the Intelligence Squared debate with Fry and Hitchens – rehearsing the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, and recreating the holy sacrifice, whether in symbol or in very reality (as some believe), by which the holy are redeemed and made a holy people. And the hands of the priest, who handles such holy things, which, as in the Hebrew myth, have the power to kill, are anointed, and themselves turned to sacred uses, and become, in the act of consecration itself, the hands of Jesus, holy with their wounds.
To protect this sacred rite, made even more holy by antiquity, so that holiness clings to it like a shroud, the holy will do almost anything. A short reflection on the lengths to which bishops and archbishops, popes and cardinals have already gone in order to protect the church’s mystery of holiness, by covering up abuses, and even passing priests along to other parishes where they have gone on to abuse again, is enough to show this. They thought that by covering it up they could preserve the illusion of holiness, but all that they have done is to reveal holiness for what, in truth, it really is: a very elaborate illusion.
But it is more than just illusion. It is a danger to humanity, because it is founded on the myth that somewhere, in another place and at another time, there really was a man who had risen above the plane of the human and partook in genuine holiness. Whether in the Buddha’s enlightenment, the apotheosis of Jesus, the appearance of Gabriel to Mohammed, or the golden scrolls of Joseph Smith — they are all the same — we are asked to see the imagined more than human – that is, the holiness – of which we are all supposed to be capable. But, as Christopher Hitchens has reminded us, we are, each and every one of us, only a few evolutionary steps away from the ancestors of chimps and gorillas. We are animals, clever animals to be sure, but no more capable of real holiness, real transcendence than the dogs and cats we patronise. And the idea that we are so capable has provided a cover story for cruelty and inhumanity from the first glimmerings of experiences we now think of as religious until today. It is far more important to be human than to try to be holy. That doesn’t mean that there will be no atrocities, no inhumanity to other humans; but we won’t be able to conceal the truth by telling stories, and imagining there was a time when in first century Palestine, seventh century Arabia, or nineteenth century America, there were men who walked just slightly above the surface of the earth, and that these men conveyed similar powers to their successors.