Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Monk-ey Business

Readers of a certain age will remember Gary Hart, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, who dared the press to catch him womanizing on a boat called Monkey Business. The press obliged, thus quickly ending Hart's presidential ambitions. What is it, we wondered then and many times since, that makes smart, talented people fritter away their potential on stupid stunts?

We have wondered this lately as we consider the abbey Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, in Rome, which Benedict XVI has recently closed. Most of the press coverage -- like this titillating spread in the Daily Mail -- has centered on one tidbit, which is the occasional presence there of one Anna Nobili, a former lap-dancer turned nun, who now performs a new dance which is not, one gathers, sufficiently different from her old ones. Not to mention that Madonna visited! And yes, these are juicy details which play to all the cheap jokes about easy-living monastics which have been repeated through the ages, thus making for readily-digestible journalism.

But John Allen, in the National Catholic Reporter, urges a more sober assessment of the closure and its meaning. The Cistercians, who have been located there 450 years, have built a powerful reputation for Santa Croce:

Until quite recently the basilica was actually seen as a major success story. The consensus was that a renaissance was unfolding under Cistercian Abbot Simone Maria Fioraso, an ecclesiastical mover and shaker if ever there was one. Vocations were growing, and the basilica had become a crossroads for Italian nobility, political VIPs and pop culture icons.

In the autumn of 2008, Fioraso ... organized a six-day reading of the entire text of the Bible, called "The Bible Day and Night," carried live on Italian state TV [and in which many famous people took part].

It's tough to overestimate what a media sensation the event constituted in Italy. Headlines proclaimed, "Holy Cross in Jerusalem becomes a superstar."

Now, of course, it has been closed, for what the official statements refer to vaguely as "numerous allegations of conduct incompatible with the vowed life," which are said to include "liturgical abuses." Underneath this, however, Allen detects something larger than some sexy dancing buy an underclothed nun:
... the monks ran a successful boutique and hotel, apparently without clear accounting of the revenue flows. More darkly, there were rumors of "inappropriate relationships" carried on by some of the monks, understood to be code for some sort of sexual misconduct.
Quelle surprise. But the point isn't really the abuse, so much as the official response. And it is here that Allen finds in this closure evidence of a "quiet revolution" begun by Benedict, in which high-flying and outwardly successful church leaders are not given a free pass, but rather subjected to careful scrutiny and ready discipline:

The suppression [of Santa Croce] is part of a pattern under Benedict XVI, which began with crackdowns against high-profile clerics such as Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. More recently, in September 2008 Benedict laicized a well-known priest in Florence, Lelio Cantini, whose Queen of Peace parish was regarded as among the more dynamic in the country. Earlier this year, Benedict permanently removed Fernando Karadima from ministry, a legendary priest in Chile known as a spiritual guide to a large swath of the clergy and episcopacy.

All those cases, and others like them one could mention, pivoted on charges of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Allen does say, and rightly, that none of this will really make a difference in the public eye until the bishops who exercised such seemingly lax discipline in decades of sexual abuse cases are dealt with firmly and publicly. What he does not say, incidentally, that is was the now-and-hastily-Blessed John Paul whose blind eye was turned during many of those decades, and whose mess the less wildly popular Benedict is beginning to clean up.

All good points. But we are still stuck on the underlying psychological conundrum, what one might call the Hart-Clinton-Gingrich Syndrome. What is it that moves smart, able, leaders like Fioraso to take stupid risks which endanger not only their personal position but the credibility of their ideas? This is surely not just about sex, sublimated or otherwise; nor is it likely to be just about money. It is about the strange dark recesses of the human heart, and the peculiar minds of those who are most drawn to the limelight.

Which is why, at we at the Egg have said so many times, the moment we hear the words "charismatic leader," we turn in the opposite direction and run. Fast.


Mark Christianson said...

Your point in the last two paragraphs is well taken, and I, too, tend to run the other way at the words "charismatic leader." Yet it is interesting to note the difference between the cases of papal discipline of the charismatic leader type and the bishops implicated in various sex-abuse scandals, even to the point of refusing resignations of some who have had a part in it. It is certainly possible that Benedict's actions also take on man others who are not well-known, and so those actions get no publicity, but the difference between the "charismatic leaders" and the bishops makes me wonder. Could the sexual improprieties, definite problems themselves, be offering an excuse for a crackdown with some other aim over theology, orthopraxis, or papal/vatican authority and power? Not only does sexual monkey business endanger the credibility of a leader's own ideas, but removal on such a basis is a potent way for authorities to dismantle that credibility as well. These things are certainly serious, but the possibility of abuse can run in many directions. This might be wild speculation, but the differences between the bishops and near-celebrity clerics at least gives me some pause.

Father Anonymous said...

Honestly, it's not impossible. No way to say, of course, but not impossible.

A great deal of Benedict's reputation and legacy will eventually depend on how (and of course whether) he addresses the bishops who have been, by any reasonable standard, so profoundly negligent in their duties.

In many instances, his hands may well be tied by canon law. No matter what people want, for example, it is unlikely that he will or even can do anything now regarding Cardinal Law. But, sadly, it is all but certain that there will be more cases. And when they occur, the world will be watching every signal that the pope sends.

Anonymous said...

Charismatic clergy-classic psychological profile for abusers.
And not just in xtianity/catholicism.

Father Anonymous said...

Yup. Something that any organization needs to take into consideration when choosing leaders.

Although, to my shock, there was an article in some psychological journal a few years back which disputed this connection. It found that -- looking at a sample of Lutheran clergy, as it happens -- rates of abuse were no higher among the clinical narcissists than the general population. I only read the abstract, and wouldn't be qualified to evaluate the research anyway, but I assume that the sample was too small to base any general claims upon.