Sewage Detox

It had already been a harrowing spring for me and my family. Two weeks before, my daughter was walking our family pet, an eight-pound terrier, on a leash, when they were rushed by a big dog that grabbed ours by the neck and shook him to death. My wife was devastated; the little fellow had been her constant companion at home. Then a week later we received a phone call from Pennsylvania; her father had apparently suffered a stroke. We packed up as quick as we could, but that was the day of the flooding in our state of Rhode Island, and what with traffic jams and road closures, it took us all day and half the evening to get to the hospital, where he was awake and waiting for us, but speaking in half-gibberish.

As it turned out, he hadn’t suffered a stroke at all but had nearly died of kidney failure, due to excessive and harmful medication for various conditions he suffers. Thank God, he was able to return home in a few days, speaking and thinking normally, and instructed to dump most of his pills in the trash. We returned home in time to make it to Easter Mass at our church, but when we arrived there, the parking lot was empty, except for some large trucks and men in white suits and masks. Apparently the flood had hit our church and its neighborhood. The problem was — and, for dozens of people with homes in the area, still is — that there is a sewage treatment plant nearby, and what the environmental police call “black water” had backed up to contaminate all the buildings within a rather wide radius. So there were red signs reading “Unsafe” posted on windows and doors; unsafe for human habitation, that is. It is not clear whether the wooden houses can yet be decontaminated. If not, they will be condemned and torn down.

Our church, however, is made of concrete and stone, and those can be cleaned. Our pastor, who had to be rescued from the rectory by boat on the day of the flooding, has been on top of the situation. The affected portions of the church and its two attendant buildings have been cleaned up and disinfected — wallboard and paneling and flooring removed and destroyed, leaving nothing but the studs and the framing. Now it is time for the builders and the electricians. We have heard that we will be able to return to our church in about a month.

It is not only our church we want to return to, though, but to our redoubtable pastor and his intelligent homilies, reverent and beautiful liturgies, and well-chosen hymns from the great tradition of Christian sacred music. Quite a few anecdotes, in fact, are told about this good man. I have heard — I have not verified the details — that many years ago he had been assigned to a parish where his fellow assistant pastor was as toxic a human being as ever infected the waters of the Church. He was, in short, a child molester. My pastor found out about it and shouted it to the chancery; but the other man denied it, and the bishop apparently wanted, at first anyway, to believe only nice things about a popular priest. Then one day, according to legend, my pastor met the other man coming down the stairwell of the church, with two boys alongside him. He confronted the abuser right then and there, and when the man told him where he could go, he decked him. Then he told the boys to go straight home and tell their parents that he would be visiting them that evening. For this act of zeal and courage, my pastor was consigned to diocesan Siberia, for several years relieved of his pastoral duties.

I do not want to recall here the stupidities
and the culpable negligence, if not collusion, of so many bishops. What has startled and dismayed me, however, are the recent attempts to smear the pope with the same tar. The latest case concerned a bad man — how bad, not even his local bishop knew for certain — who applied to Rome for a dispensation from his vow of celibacy. He had been accused in 1978 of a serious incident of molestation. In 1985, then-Cardinal Ratzinger denied his request to be, essentially, removed from the oversight of his bishop and relieved of his vow. The bishop, according to the letter, was to follow him up with fatherly care; presumably that would include care to ensure a clean life. Such a view only seems naïve now that we have learned, by experience, how incorrigible the typical pedophile is. In any case it is hard to see, since the man had already been removed from priestly functions, how the granting of his request would have protected anyone — anyone, that is, except the Church. And, in fact, he was to go on his terrible merry way to marry and abuse his own children, and plenty of others, too.

But for this one delay in granting the man his dispensation — he received it in 1987, after all — the pope has been accused by certain Catholics of being no better than bishops who hushed up rumors of evil priests, or who moved them from parish to parish to hide their crimes. That is to construe his decision in the worst possible light, ignoring the fact that the sole question before Rome was whether the priest should be forgiven his vow of celibacy, and drawing an utterly unwarranted general conclusion from it. The absurdity of it all is demonic. In the pope we have almost the only man remaining in Europe who believes in the holiness of human sexuality and the gravity of sins against it; he has been most energetic in ensuring that instances of priestly malfeasance will not happen again; he has been open and generous in meeting with victims; and what does he get for it? He is accused of “crimes against humanity” by a pair of atheists who would be hard-pressed to ground their ideas regarding good and evil on anything more solid than their personal dispositions and the prejudices and preconceptions of their social class.

For, after all, we have lived pleasantly enough amid untreated sewage. Who yet stands against corrupting the imaginations and the bodies of young people? It is hard to find a newsstand in Europe that is not full of pornography of the most graphic sort. Drugstores in America are stocked with soft-core magazines blaring out their messages about hot sex. Television and the movie industry are sewers. One cannot even watch a sporting event without encountering the filth; a commercial for a certain protein product blithely boasts that the man who drinks it can evolve from “friends” to “friends with benefits,” meaning that women with whom he has a casual acquaintance will perform sexual favors for him. Our schools promote sexual experimentation, all under the awnings of “health” and “hygiene.” 

All of which makes the outrage against pedophilia somewhat puzzling. I can understand the sexual libertine finding it a bit unfair and unsettling, that an older person should use his greater understanding and his position of authority to procure sexual satisfaction from a youth. But what, according to their lights, makes the act downright heinous? If an older boy, say a senior in high school, plies a freshman with pornography and lures him into doing the same things that the adults in question did, we would throw the youngster a coming-out party, that’s what wewd do. For we have no sense that sex is for something holy, and that therefore it can be corrupted for ill uses.

And in the aggregate, taking all of our toxins into account, what sexual sins of ours do the most harm? Pornography warps the imaginations of many millions of young people and destroys many a marriage. Yet we live with it; it is America’s chief export; and if anyone ever accused one of the many thousands of Hugh Hefners, or their photographers, or their layout designers, or their willing strippers, of “crimes against humanity,” he would be laughed out of court. Adultery destroys families; fornication results in millions of children born out of wedlock, born without the natural protection and tutelage of both a mother and a father, things which should be theirs by right. Yet no one — almost no one, that is, except Pope Benedict — raises a contrary voice.

Who are the hypocrites here? Not the overwhelming majority of priests, who are clean, and who preach cleanness. We are the hypocrites. We are the ones who have flooded our own homes and schools and public places with filth; and then we are surprised when some people take the filth beyond what we have come to accept.


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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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