I open this brief posting with the title of Umberto Eco’s famous novel about an extremely corrupt abbey in the early fourteenth century where monks were ready to kill to preserve the secret of the legitimacy of humour according to Aristotle. I find it hard to believe that all or even most monastic communities were so deeply mired in sin, even then. Fast forward to modern times…
Someone left a comment on my earlier posting of today on other aspects of ecclesial sin and corruption. I decided to allow his opinion about an abbot I met last summer, in the name of free speech. I hesitated because I wondered whether I might be liable for libel. Therefore, if someone judges this to be the case, I am prepared to take that comment down with this posting. I will try to be objective and careful about what I write. What happens when you sail too close to the wind? The boat stops and ceases to respond to the helm, caught “in irons”. You have to push the boom forward with one hand and let the wind reverse the boat by pushing the helm over into the direction of the sail. When the boat is sufficiently to lee, it suffices to sheet in, get a bit of speed up, and then compensate with the rudder to keep on the new tack. So much for sailing close to the wind in its literal meaning. Figuratively, it means taking a risk, being at the limits. For this reason I reserve my judgement on the persons discussed here or in the web sites I link to. I wondered whether I should leave this subject altogether, but I believe that different opinions need to be heard.
What is this about. I opened the blog Another Abbot Extraordinary. This thing has been up for two years, and had the law been broken, it would have had to be taken down, so I express myself in good faith. I can make no comment about the various accusations this blog expresses. I met the Abbot of Farnborough for a short conversation one Sunday morning. I know Dom Alcuin Reid who is now in a community in southern France. I occasionally correspond with him about the liturgy, but I haven’t seen him for more than twenty years. I have been on a retreat at Fontgombault (1985) and spent six months as a working guest at Triors in 1996-97. At neither of those houses did I see the least problem or irregularity. I had a great deal of esteem and respect for Dom Hervé Courau, the Abbot of Triors. He is known to be stern and austere, but that is the nature of monastic life. It is the ultimate Communism, the subjection of the person to the collective. Thought of in those terms, monastic life is truly shocking. However, men join it freely and their commitment is made difficult by the novitiate and simple profession process, rightly so.
About the English communities mentioned in the blog, the problem seems to be one of sexual manipulation and carnal lust. Perhaps this is a consequence of sexual repression that is an intrinsic condition of monastic commitment. Whether monks in themselves are homosexuals or heterosexuals, the community is single sex like an English public school, the armed forces or a prison – so homosexuality is the only option a man has when he has poor control over his desires and feelings – and finds another who feels the same way or is weak under manipulation. I have great esteem for the monastic ideal, but I find it difficult to know how the circle can be squared. What is holiness? It is certainly a notion that goes far beyond the trite Catholic slogans we usually read in Counter-Reformation spiritual books.
This blog on the English abbots made me feel quite sick, though I have actually kept my food down today! Does such stuff belong on the Internet? Without public exposure, is the institutional Church able to reform itself? I think also of the priests who have been found guilty of child abuse and those diocesan bishops who covered up. In my article Clericalism and Priesthood, I commented on the big scandal in France involving Cardinal Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon and Primate of the French Church.
It is perhaps in consideration of such turpitudes and lassitude that I am more sympathetic to a few of the independent clergy whose visions and ideas are devout and noble. It was said that the Church in the early sixteenth century was extremely corrupt. There were the Borgias, prostitutes in the Vatican, executions by the most barbaric and sadistic means possible, simony and fraud, something like the old regime of Caligula or Nero. It was the primary cause of the Reformation, the French Revolution and the death of institutional Christianity in our days. It is not a subject I enjoy writing about! Because of these lassitudes, my own Church has been forced to implement procedures of screening, background checks and every other possible means of ensuring that one corrupt priest cannot destroy our entire work and modest resources.
I understand Mr Wood’s bitterness from his experience of a devout Catholic seeking his vocation. This is something that takes away a part of our soul and innocence, making us cynical. It’s all very well being told to forgive and forget, but the screaming wounds in a man’s soul cannot be consoled. Whether the Internet is a place for this kind of thing, I don’t know. I have been through a lot myself, but not sexual abuse. The closest I came was a parish priest stroking my thigh as I played the organ at age 18, but he stopped when I told him to. Self-control is more difficult for some men than others. It probably comes from self-knowledge, having come to terms with oneself, and especially having empathy for others. There are simply things we may not do, as a human being, let alone as a Christian.
I have written on the question before. I am not a psychologist, but I do have some knowledge in this field from reading. The kind of people who need to be rooted out of churches, politics, teaching, medicine or anything to do with people are the most successful and ruthless. I speak of sociopathy and narcissistic personality disorder. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to recognise the symptoms. Any observant person can tell when they are dealing with someone who is toxic or manipulative. What narcissistic people stand for is the antithesis of the Christian Gospel of empathy, compassion for the weak and respect for children, women, vulnerable souls and other men. If a whole community becomes infected, then (if Karma is served) you get the ending of the Name of the Rose. The whole place goes up in smoke, the community is dispersed and those who have been wronged find justice by scavenging in the ruins.
I would hate to be a Bishop or an abbot!