Is the Catholic Church Too Big to Fail?

The Wall Street banks were considered too big to fail and were forgiven for driving the economy into the ground and wrecking the lives of millions of Americans and who knows how many other people on the planet. They were not only forgiven, they were pumped full of trillions of dollars and allowed to go back to business as usual.

If Boeing or General Motors or any other giant corporation gets into serious financial trouble, they too have friends in high places to come to their rescue. Is this the same reason, too big to fail, why the Roman Catholic church, after decades of revelations about widespread sexual child abuse as well as continuing sexual assaults on seminarians and nuns, can avoid being held accountable for hideous crimes it has perpetrated and then covered up?

Why, in fact, do we use the euphemism “sexual abuse” for an act that amounts to rape and physical assault when talking about the felonious acts of the clergy of any religion? If public school teachers were accused of such crimes on a scale the Catholic clergy have perpetrated, would we demand nothing more than apologies and promises to do better? Would we continue to pay taxes without a substantial, basic overhaul of the educational system? Why do we leave it to the Vatican and the same people who have enabled and covered up clerical criminality for so long to take the necessary action?

The Church claims more than a billion members worldwide. It lives off the money those members contribute along with substantial corporate investments and other income. How many of those billion are practicing or even believers, I have no idea. What I do know is that no one in the Wall Street banks responsible for the Great Recession of 2009 faced criminal charges as a result or their criminal behavior. And I am not aware of any prosecutions of Catholic or other clergy on a scale commensurate with the crimes that have been alleged against them. Why not? Why are we satisfied with apologies and reforms instead of demanding long jail sentences?

Why also are we not hearing more of the details of specific, individual crimes that have done severe physical as well as lifelong psychological harm? I have in mind the rape of a boy by a clergyman reported in the New York Times, not Catholic in this case, who had to be operated on to repair the damage done to him. Such stories, when they are about media moguls or public officials, fill the front pages of our tabloid newspapers and much of the TV news. Why are graphic descriptions of assaults by those who are not the victims of priests and other clergymen appropriate for the media but the same acts by clergymen are not? Individual stories, whether shocking or heartwarming, engage our feelings in a way no statistics can. Those late-night TV shakedowns by organizations trolling for our contributions always show the appealing faces and withered bodies of individual children. Even legitimate charities attempt to connect individual suffering human beings with individual donors. News media trade on a fact of human nature: the tale of a specific individual is a tragedy, the report of thousands is a statistic. We rarely read about or hear graphic descriptions of clerical criminality, only reports or statements by victims who were “sexually abused,” usually over a period of years. But one graphic description is worth a thousand such reports, just as the account of an individual family who lost their home as the result of a predatory bank is worth any number of cold recitations of the number of such homes that defaulted.

The Catholic Church lost much of North America and almost all of Europe even before the current sex scandals were exposed. It has since concentrated its efforts in Africa and Latin America where it faces serious challenges from evangelical Protestantism. But it’s not yet in danger of going out of business. None of its lay members have any vote about who fills the ranks of their clergy. That clergy claims divine appointment – the same assertion monarchs used to make. Some Catholics agitate for a priesthood that includes women or for the right to use birth control, but they have no power to do anything more than humbly request such reforms. The Church hierarchy retains all authority to itself while demanding complete obedience from its members under pain of excommunication and eternal torture in an afterlife. It is an institution predicated on its own authority, not on democratic principles.

As long as we give our financial and corporate institutions permission to set their own rules we will continue to suffer the consequences of their greed. And as long as we accept the idea that autocratic religion, or “faith” as it is euphemistically called these days, can operate shielded from substantial consequences for its bad behavior, we will suffer the abuses that come with allowing such institutions the privilege of being too big to fail and too big to jail.

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About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on June 3, 2019, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Oh Tom – I never thought of it this way, but you make a powerful point. It seems to me that even those of use who no longer believe in the infallibility of religious authority, simply walk away. Why, as you ask, don’t we demand more from the justice system for those criminals in positions of religious authority? On some level, do too many of us still hold onto the tenants of faith?

    I am closely acquainted with someone who is now suffering from the advanced stages of dementia. She left the church years ago and explicitly discarded belief in Catholicism. But now, she is asking questions about the after life, and why she is being asked to suffer like this, etc, as if on some level she is still holding onto the world view of her childhood religion. Come to think of it, I know a priest who did the same thing. After years of professed atheism and a secular life reflecting that, he called in a priest to give him the last sacraments as he lay on his deathbed.

    As you no doubt know, the Jesuits often say “give us your child by the age of six, and we will give you the man.” I’m the psychologist – I should have some answers to this, but I can’t claim I do. I can only hope that the convictions by which I live now are firm enough to last the full of my old age.

  2. James Carroll has a long piece in the current Atlantic that seems to call upon Catholics to do away with the clergy altogether. I don’t have the patience or the inclination to read it. Entering into the mentality of someone like the ex-priest Carroll is too much like revisiting the world that produced him or returning to the scene of a dysfunctional and/or abusive family.

    I admire and envy people who can walk away from anything entirely, make a clean break. As I grow older I have to take things day-by-day, however much I find the church, politics, human history, etc. more and more a tale of human perfidy. The fears deeply implanted in me as a child are still there and surface sometimes with a surprising lack of alteration. As you know, I consider those terrors a form of child abuse that even the most chaste and best-intentioned of the nuns and clergy engaged in on a daily basis. Such is the power of religion — though it could just as well be a political or otherwise secular system that seeks to control the mind as well as the body.

    However I may feel on my deathbed, my perspective of Catholicism grows wider and deeper and less and less pretty. And yet I continue to feel an affinity for Jesus, for what he preached, just as I feel an affinity for the sensibility of a particular poet or composer. I suspect there are people walking the earth at any given period that are of the same ilk who live and die and are remembered by very few. Many of them, Thoreau comes to mind, credit the gospels as the origin of their own contributions.

    As far as I can see, Terry, the only organized true “Christians” are the Quakers, if the saying by-their-fruits-you-will-know-them holds true. They seem to have been on the right side of almost everything since they turned up a few hundred years ago, a remarkable record.

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