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

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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.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

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