“Spotlight” and the Recovery of a Lost Faith by Cynthia Garrity-Bond


cynthia garrity bondLast week I was finally able to see “Spotlight“, the recent movie depicting the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the priest pedophilia abuses. What makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the shared burden of culpability by those outside the organized Catholic Church. While hunting down the priestly offenders, including Cardinal Bernard Law, “Spotlight” also takes calculated aim at those official offices and individuals that turned a blind eye from the sexual abuse of children. In his NCR review, film critic Steven D. Greydanus praises the film for its ability to include such collaborators as “Lawyers, law enforcement, family members and friends, and pointedly and repeatedly, the fourth estate itself—the press and specifically the Globe – are all implicated.” Which is to say, the sin of silence through a misguided sense of protection of the institution is as damaging as the act itself.

In the Globe’s investigative work, a team of four reporters begins the difficult work of interviewing survivors of sexual abuse. What moved me deeply was the recurrent syllogism expressed by each in their retelling of the abuse at the hands of their parish priest. In the first statement of a syllogism, the major premise is the articulating of the moral principle. Step two, the minor premise, is the particular act to be judged. Step three is the logical conclusion inferred between the major and minor statements. With regard to the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the priesthood and views expressed by survivors, the syllogism looks like this:

Step 1: “By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1581)

Step 2: All priest (as males) reflect Jesus Christ in word and deed.

Step 3: When a priest abuses children it is as if Jesus Christ is also the abuser.

For those survivors interviewed by the Globe, their early religious teaching of the priest as Jesus made Jesus as God a participant in the abuse. Cries of anger over the abuse at the hands of priest who stood in the place of God turned to lament at the losing of ones faith and belief in a benevolent God.

I viewed “Spotlight” with my long-time friend Eleanor (not her real name) who left the Catholic Church years ago yet continues to self-identify as Catholic. As the two of us absorbed the final moments of the movie I heard her soft, quiet sobs. I thought perhaps the movie had brought to the surface suppressed memories of abuse, which it had, only not the kind I had imagined. I asked if she was okay to which she angrily responded, “I can’t talk about it.”

By the time we made our way to the car, she cried out “You know, there is more than one way for a priest to abuse a child.” Indeed. Eleanor was an unwilling participant in her mother’s 30-year affair with their parish priest. The movie resurrected particular painful memories where those close to my friend’s mother and priest remained silent, pretending not to notice the telling details of their affair and how they used her to camouflage the dirty details of their relationship. As parish secretary, Eleanor’s mother spent more time in the rectory than her own home. As a student at the same parish and school, my friend’s close association made her guilty by proximity. Nuns who suspected took out their angst on Eleanor in the form of public shaming or unwarranted discipline. The mother and priest would bring her along on vacations in order to legitimize their time together. Her father ignored all the signs, even the truth-telling by his own daughter in order to maintain the well-cultivated secrecy that inhabited their Catholic identity and community.

There are two moments in “Spotlight” that situate the effect the loss of religion can have on the spiritual psyche of an individual. In the first, Globe reporter Rezendes remarks that as a child he really enjoyed going to Mass and even though the official church has failed him, he always expected to someday return. Now, with the mounting evidence of abusive priest and hierarchical cover-ups, his resentment turned to anger has closed the door to ever returning to the church. It is this theme of returning to church as home that has deeply affected my friend over the years since the death of the priest and her mother. For my friend Eleanor and those depicted in “Spotlight,” the loss of their personal faith is the lingering reminder of their abuse. Over the years, Eleanor has dropped in then out of Mass, unable to tolerate the visual of a man dressed in drag as Christ’s representative.

The second moment takes place when the true life character of Richard Sipe, a San Diego mental health counselor and former priest who has researched the sexual lives of priest since the 1960’s, speaks with Rezendes about his findings. As the conversation begins, Rezendes confirms Sipe as a onetime Catholic priest but who continues to self-identify as Catholic. How, asks Rezendes, does that work? Sipe responds that he is able to distinguish between the institutional Church and “the eternal mystery” in which he participates. In other words, his faith is not contingent on the Church.

This is where the emotional conversation between Eleanor and myself rested, in the “eternal mystery” of a renewed faith that situates the divine outside of doctrine and the mortally wounded notion of priests as God incarnate. Like many of us, Eleanor’s ability to decolonize herself from harmful doctrines and their representatives is a work in process. The freed soul can now ponder the wonders of her faith and the “eternal mystery.”

How would your syllogism capture the “eternal mystery” of your faith?

Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

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Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Catholic Church, Film

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16 replies

  1. I remember two conversations. One in the early 1970s with a priest teaching at a progressive Catholic theological seminary in which after quite a few scotches he told me that most of his colleagues were having sex with women, but that they practiced withdrawal at the last minute, thus demonstrating their self-control. He thought this was sick, and added that many of the women were divorcees who had come to the priest for counseling and thought they were in love with the priest. The other was in the 1980s with a former priest who had married a former nun. He said that when he was a priest he would have said that 1/3 were celibate, 1/3 were having sex with men, and 1/3 were having sex with women. He didn’t know about the ones who were having sex with children, probably they were among the 1/3 he thought were celibate. Lots of harm done all around.

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    • There is a scene in Spotlight in which an abusive priest is being interviewed at his home. He freely admits to the charges against him regarding the children he abused but he does not understand it as abuse because he states, I never received sexual pleasure from the act(s). I think the issue has multiple causes but I continue to wonder what is the major issue? Is it imposed celibacy? The sense of power some have? Why is it the Church seems to have a greater number of offenders than other institutions?

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  2. Oh Boy! There are so many aspects to this it’s staggering! The first and most simple step would be to delete imposed celibacy. Celibacy that is not freely chosen is abusive. The all male, inflated ego style priesthood also centers most men’s brain in their penis. Just look at the subjects of concern to so many of the US bishops.

    I think there is a positive side to people leaving the institutional church. Our world needs to retrieve the teachings of Jesus, and let go of the “magical “son of god”, if I say the correct words I’ll be “saved”, since I am born in sin and worthless unless I belong to “the club”, religion. Many who leave also form new, small, communities of prayer. They are more concerned with social justice and equality for everyone than with the sexuality of people. They are more focused on compassion and respect than on uniformity of doctrine. They work to live the teachings of Jesus and have less concern about the theology men have developed about Jesus.

    “The freed soul can now ponder the wonders of her faith and the “eternal mystery.” … That’s the word I keep coming to in my own heart: “freedom”. The freedom to explore the mystery, the freedom to grow.

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    • What the movie expresses so well is the aftermath of the abuse. To a certain extent many are colonized into Catholicism, making it an all-or-nothing stance. For my friend Eleanor, while she has attempted other churches, they somehow fail her. This notion of a Catholic identity can run very deep trapping the individual into isolation. She is moving slowly into the arms of the goddess (Thank you Carol), but the process of stripping away a patriarchal religion, for some, requires a slow, methodical effort.

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  3. I’ve often asked myself the following question: Why do we hold our religious institutions to different standards than other institutions such as political and educational ones? It seems to me that we have all kinds of expectations from our religious institutions–expectations that we’ve imbued them with in the first place–and when they disappoint us, we’re devastated. I am in no way excusing the bad, sometimes criminal, behavior of individuals who inhabit religious institutions. But, why is it that many of us think that if something is “religious,” then somehow it is inherently good? I think religion gets hold of certain aspects of who we are and expresses them in a variety of ways–hence, the wide variety of religions throughout the world. Reza Aslan, a contemporary Iranian-American author, repeatedly reminds us that Islam (as well as all other religions) is not inherently a peaceful religion, nor is it inherently a violent religion. It’s just a religion. If a person is violent, their expression of religion will be violent. If a person is peaceful, their expression of religion will be peaceful. We give religion a power that we don’t give to politics.

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    • We hold religious institutions to a higher standard because, at least for Catholics, they reflect the God we identify with. A priest is not the same as a teacher, that priest stands in the place of Jesus. This is a powerful image (and doctrine). To a child, and the religious education received, how could you not equate the two? For adults, the aura continues–that the sacrament of ordination is efficacious explains the slow response from the wide net cast by the Church.

      When women finally are ordained in the Catholic Church I pray they do not replicate the same formula as male priest do now. The notion that a ritual changes the ontology of the person by making them stand-ins for Jesus has to be eliminated. We all reflect the divine, we are all made in the image and likeness of God/ess . Period.

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  4. Excellent article. I especially relate to your comment “Sipe responds that he is able to distinguish between the institutional Church and “the eternal mystery” in which he participates. In other words, his faith is not contingent on the Church” – this is true of many spiritual paths. Human institutions are human institutions, vessels for “the Mystery” that are almost always dysfunctional in some way. But that is not very helpful to people, children, suffering abuse in the name of “religion”.

    The patriarchal religions emphasize celibacy, sexual “purity”, and virginity, and this, many believe, goes right back to ownership and enslavement of the female body and renunciation of embodied existance. . How can this deeply embedded root of imbalance bring about anything other than dishonesty and abuse?

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  5. The priests I agree should be allowed to have everyday lives, like the people they serve. I also had a theory when I was a church-going Catholic that Jesus was bisexual. The Gospel itself says that St. John, the apostle, was Christ’s beloved disciple, and there is no question that the Magdalene was in love with Jesus and he with her.

    In answer to your question, thanks Cynthia, at the end of your article, in my understanding, the “eternal mystery” is existence itself.

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    • So interesting you mention the idea that Jesus was bisexual. A colleague and I were just discussing this yesterday! How remarkable would moral theology be if this was the consensus.

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  6. You asked, “How would your syllogism capture the “eternal mystery” of your faith?” I have been struggling with this all day. It is a tough question. At this point the best I can come up with is:

    Step 1: God (Goddess, Higher Power) understands everything and everyone, and the path they are on.
    Step 2: My own understanding is limited. (I’m not even sure of my own path)
    Step 3: Do not use my limited understanding to judge or condemn others. (Everyone is on a different path).

    But I have a very hard time with Step 3, even though the considerable heartache I have been dealt after jumping to conclusions would make you think I would know better, I still struggle. What you see is not all there is- that is the mystery.

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    • I too have struggled with how I envision the “eternal mystery” of my faith. It’s a wonderful exercise to give expression to our deepest longing and hope. I love yours and appreciate the diverse path we are all on.

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  7. Is the idea that faith is an “eternal mystery” part of the problem? Of course understanding is finite and therefore limited, but on the other hand the RC tradition (Aquinas et al) has always stressed that there is a relationship between human understanding and divine truth. In other words God/divine grace is “more” than we might have come to on our own, but not contrary to our rational understanding. So if God’s love is something like what I experience as love (in a non pathological home), then I have a lever by which to judge that what the priest is doing is not love. On the other hand, if everything to do with religion is a mystery, then there is no lever.

    As I write I am reminded that child abusers who are not in the family seek out and groom children who have been neglected and therefore do not have the lever of knowing what love should look like.

    To put the theological point another way, isn’t it more true to say that God is love and that God’s power is not unlimited, than it is to say that God’s ways are “a mystery.”

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    • I was thinking more along the lines of evil exists in this world and God lets that happen. Why? I think this is the mystery that all religious traditions struggle to answer on their own terms.

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