The Invisible Churchman

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The #MeToo movement has finally reached Rome, and the wisdom of priestly celibacy is being hotly questioned. As it happens, H.G. Wells questioned it just as hotly nearly a century ago, and along many of the same lines. Though his denouncements of the Catholic Church and her priesthood have been largely forgotten, it is his enduring science fiction that has borne out a message that is appallingly applicable to invisible predator priests and their gaslighted victims.

“Why do we not bomb Rome?” Wells asked in his wartime indictment of Catholicism, Crux Ansata (1943). Wells’s hostility arose from a view that the Church was an enemy of free, democratic thought. “Even in comparison with Fascism and the Nazi adventure,” Wells wrote, “Roman Catholicism is a broken and utterly desperate thing, capable only of malignant mischief in our awakening world.” H. G. Wells’s perception of the Catholic Church may be interpreted as a gaslighting that took place over centuries, with clergymen exercising unnatural control over their victims, acting as unsuspected, even unseen, predators.

It is here that Wells’s science fiction seems to carry this message more poignantly than his generally repudiated history. The Invisible Man, released this year, is enjoying praise by moviegoers and critics alike as a chillingly fresh take on the classic character. While the new film based on Wells’s novel examines the psychological torment of domestic abuse in the context of the #MeToo movement, Wells certainly would have welcomed this as an analogy of the abuse he alleged within the Church, where he imagined depravity proceeded systemically through a shady hierarchy as the blind leading the blind. Or the invisible leading the invisible.

In the days when Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) was bracing up the solidarity of the Church by insisting on priestly celibacy and the complete detachment from normal human living that this involved, there had been an extraordinary willingness to believe the Catholic priesthood good and wise… The tragedy of the Church is that she put her spiritual influence to evil ends and abused her freedoms without measure.

 

As Wells suggests—just as #MeToo cries for empowerment and the Church licks its wounds—the technique of gaslighting is to some degree inseparable from any type of abuse of power. Crimes were committed by priests who, like menacing invisible men, carried out their depredations on unsuspecting souls, even making their victims question themselves and give the benefit of the doubt to priests long before questioning them. Many could not believe or even see that they were assaulted or under assault, having been groomed and gaslighted into silence and shame. From The Invisible Man, “Great and strange ideas transcending experience often have less effect upon men and women than smaller, more tangible considerations.”

In Wells’s novel, the eponymous Invisible Man removes himself from the human throng, grasping at what he assumed would be freedom but is nothing more than license. He perpetrates acts of mischief and mayhem in the absence of public constraint. This results in moral deterioration as the Invisible Man runs the gamut from stealing to slaughter—and it drives him mad. How many priests have succumbed to this same invisibility, this same insanity? How many have they driven to the brink of a different insanity? How many victims suffered in denial or disbelief at such inconceivable injury? Wells was eager to point out the potential for sexual misdeeds within the constructs of Catholicism, though he desired to lay the blame for such malfeasances at the feet of the Church and her purportedly inhibiting rules rather than the weakness and wickedness of her ministers.

Watch a priest in a public conveyance. He is fighting against disturbing suggestions. He must not look at women lest he think of sex. He must not look about him, for reality, that is to say the devil, waits to seduce him on every hand. You see him muttering his protective incantations, avoiding your eye. He is suppressing “sinful” thoughts… The appeal of sex is as natural to a young male as eating. Its suppression is a defiance of everything for which a healthy male exists. So that in the priestly mind we deal with something frustrated and secretly resentful, something sexually as well as intellectually malignant.

Wells was wrong in his assessment of the priestly vocation and ignorant of the action of grace upon human nature. The same must be said of those who propose to abolish celibacy as a remedy to sexual abuse, as though married men could not perpetrate such evil. Being capable of it by nature, they may have proved abusive husbands and fathers. The problem is not that priests were tempted to immoral behavior due to restrictions, nor that given more freedom, they may have better avoided temptation. This argument misunderstands the priesthood, for its celibacy is a type of freedom.

Through Holy Orders, a man accepts celibacy freely and receives the consequent freedom to unite himself to Christ and His Church wholly and unconditionally. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah from their co-authored book on the obligatory tradition of priestly celibacy, From the Depth of Our Hearts: “The ability to renounce marriage in order to place oneself totally at the Lord’s disposal is a criterion for the priestly ministry.”

Cardinal Sarah added to the topic in light of the Amazon Synod’s proposal to excuse celibacy for priests in missionary territory:

Priestly celibacy is not a simple canonical discipline. If the law of celibacy is weakened, even for a single region, it will open a breach, a wound in the mystery of the Church. There is an ontological-sacramental link between the priesthood and celibacy. This link reminds us that the Church is a mystery, a gift from God that does not belong to us. We cannot create a priesthood for married men without damaging the priesthood of Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.

The Catholic Church, wrote Wells, “presents many faces towards the world, but everywhere it is systematic in its fight against freedom.” Man is free when he acts well in the sight of other men according to his vows. To act invisibly is to be isolated, which is restrictive. When churchmen assumed an immoral invisibility by betraying their celibacy, they lost their freedom, enslaving themselves to sin by enslaving others. It is not celibacy that promotes secrecy, mendacity, and abuse, but breaking the promise of celibacy. The laws of the Church are not impediments to freedom which cause pathology. The invisibility seized by licentious, homosexual, and pedophile priests is a denial of the freedom of the Faith. H. G. Wells may not have seen the true face of the Church, but he sensed a lurking, unseen threat that has terrorized and traumatized invisibly for far too long.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis. He's graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, Penn. with his wife and family of four.

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