Michael McCarthy: How could Catholics do such a thing?

That priests should be in a State of Grace was the foundation of their moral authority

Related Topics

Expressions of outrage concerning the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church grow superfluous, but even though our primary focus must of course remain on the victims, and their abusers, and the cover-ups, there is nonetheless another way in which these events are profoundly troubling, to which I have seen as yet no reference whatsoever.

They are distressing to Catholics themselves, certainly to practising and sincere Catholics, for they concern the spirituality which is at Catholicism's heart, and its betrayal – once entirely unthinkable, but now quite clearly widespread.

To understand instinctively the full terrible power of this betrayal, one probably needs to be a Catholic oneself, or at least to have been brought up a Catholic, as I was, more than 40 years ago; so for an age which has grown ever more secular, perhaps some background information should be supplied. The spirituality of Catholicism is what is there when the Church and all its appurtenances, its altars, priests and cathedrals, are stripped away; very crudely, it is a mode of apprehending an eternal entity which we might call Love. This has been written about down the centuries. For Dante it was there in the final line of his quest, in the Divine Comedy: he called it "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars". For T S Eliot it was there in the final passage of Four Quartets: he called it "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything".

Catholicism offers access to and union with this entity, to this Love, if you like, through prayer and meditation, through the story of Christ and his passion, but most tangibly through the Mass and its central event: the sacrament of Communion, which is the physical reception into one's own body of the consecrated host (the wafer of bread). This commemoration of the Last Supper is treated by Protestantism as just that, but Catholicism has treated it as far more: as the miraculous transformation of the host into the body and blood of Christ, which is known theologically as "the Real Presence".

To receive the host in communion, there was always an utterly indispensable condition; one had to be in a State of Grace – forgive the capitals, but old habits die hard – which meant that one had to be free from Sin, the other pole around which Catholicism revolves. This was the reason for the parallel sacrament of Confession: one's soul could be cleansed in advance of communion by confessing one's sins to a priest and receiving absolution for them. The idea of receiving the host without having been so cleansed was unimaginable. Indeed, it is hard to express the horror of the idea in the Catholicism in which I was brought up; it was the greatest moral transgression which could possibly be thought of, worse than murder, worse than anything.

This was illustrated with real force in one of the 20th century's great novels, Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, where Scobie, the fallible colonial policeman, is eventually forced by circumstance into taking communion when not in a State of Grace, and kills himself as a result, as he thinks there is no hope for him. (The book's epigraph from Charles Péguy – "The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity" – implies that there is.)

Among Catholics, it was unthinkable, then, for people such as you and me to go up to the altar on the occasional Sunday morning and receive the sacrament, while in sin. But if it was unthinkable for you and me, it was even more unthinkable for priests, who did not just receive the host on the odd Sunday, but every single day, during the daily mass which it was their duty to say. Every day of the year, every day of their working lives, priests needed to be in a State of Grace, fit to receive the body and blood of Christ into their own bodies; and they understood what was at stake in this, spiritually, better than anybody. That they were such people was the whole foundation of their spiritual and moral authority.

How then can it be, that in recent decades there have been hundreds, or as it now seems, thousands of priests across the world who have continued as priests, and continued to consecrate and consume the host – daily saying the miraculous transforming words, Hoc est enim corpus meum, "for this is my body" – while raping children? How can they have done both things? How can they have continued living for years with the condition which to practising Catholics was the ultimate anathema, which caused Scobie, experiencing it once, to kill himself?

What was going on in their souls?

If they had lost their faith, then why did they not leave the church? They surely cannot have believed that the violating of the innocence of a child was morally neutral. It was a sin, surely? They were the experts in sin. So how does a priest who has violated more than 200 deaf children, as in the case highlighted this week, continue, as he did so, to consecrate and receive the host? Through absolution? What, absolution from a fellow confessor-priest for violating children – 200 such absolutions, and more? What, then, has happened to the moral compass of the absolver?

The crisis affecting the Catholic Church is currently being treated as the failure of an arrogant institution, a sort of colossal religious Watergate, and indeed it is that, but we are starting to see that the trouble runs even deeper, right into the church's spiritual heart. Some sort of terrible worm has got into the bud of Catholicism; its crisis is only beginning.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape