Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Gathering of Geriatric Men: The Papal Conclave and the Critical Mom

I'm gazing at a photo of Boston's Cardinal O'Malley on his Air France flight to Rome.  He's looking pretty frail himself in his brown Franciscan robe, trying to hide behind a newspaper.  As frail as the realism of the church whose ideals he wants to uphold?

Wisdom doesn't come from virginity.  Or celibacy.  Mary may be pure, but she's not Sophia, and Sophia was no virgin.  Not if we take her name, which means "wisdom" seriously.  Various church teachings ally her with Mary, but Sophia's name allies itself naturally with the fruit of the forbidden tree, as in experience, that "name we give to our mistakes," Oscar Wilde remarked.

The gathering of geriatric men forming the papal conclave likes to present itself as pure and untouched by the world.  Without cell phones, without TV, without any word from the outside world, sequestered in secrecy, they will surely do what most people do:  choose what makes them feel comfortable.  Or worse, what makes them feel moral.  But never what makes them feel realistic, because reality remains the thing that they avoid the most.

Once upon a time, becoming a priest or a nun meant a good opportunity, especially for a person of extremely modest means and high ambitions.  You had a roof over your head, a full stomach, and job security.  You got to learn to read and write.  The vow of celibacy meant secrecy if you were a man, and if you kept it you got used to it.  If you were a woman, it must, often, have been a small price to pay.  Marriage, until the mid-nineteenth century, meant renouncing your entire fortune and it meant running the risks of childbirth, which, in a world without ultrasound and antibiotics, rendered you at high risk for a short life.  Independence for women remained moot.  A nun, however, had her body to herself and her finances intact.  Lesbians were good at remaining invisible; heterosexual women in a pre-information age could remain as blissfully unaware as Bernini's Saint Theresa in Ecstasy of their orgasms, if they were lucky enough to have them. 

I have yet to meet a member of a religious order who fails to show signs of strain, presumably as a result of celibacy or of sexual problems.  There was the priest with a Ph.D. in psychology who seemed so vibrant at first, who enthused that "we don't spend enough time praising God!" and who threw himself into revitalizing the church garden.  His hands shook every time I saw him.  If you didn't look at his hands, he looked normal.  There was the nun who is president of a large American Catholic college, who chatted with me at length at a party when I was nursing my infant daughter.  I felt impressed that she seemed friendly and unperturbed that I was nursing.  She and I talked about students, good and bad times we had experienced teaching, and the wear and tear of everyday life.  Just as I was thinking to myself that I had finally met an entirely normal nun, she brought up a student of hers who liked animals, and whom she had encouraged.  "One day," she confided, "he brought a snake to class."  She shivered almost convulsively with disgust.  "Ooooooh, I just cannot stand snakes!" she breathed.  I had the impression that because she felt comfortable talking to me she had confided her real emotional state, and that she remained unaware of doing so.  Here was a woman whose bad experience with a "snake"--her drunk father?  a priest?  a stranger?  had condemned her to a celibate life.  Then there's the nun who is directing my daughter's first communion class, a bracingly vivacious woman who appears to love teaching, and who plays soccer with the toughest boys in the school.  We ran into her on a tram platform not long ago.  In a friendly manner, she asked how we were and we chatted.  As we talked, she started to pat my daughter on the head in a cheerful way, but the patting went on much too long--just as I was about to jerk my daughter away, our tram came.  That woman is lonely.  Profoundly, pathologically lonely.  What happens to that kind of loneliness?  What happens to a dream deferred?  The intensity of this nun's loneliness struck me forcibly, and I looked her up in a parish newsletter.  She had wanted to be a mother of six, but "it did not work out," and she became a nun.  What didn't work out?  Some guy left her?  She felt unable to conceive, and the only other career left was being a nun? 

Not now.  Not anymore.  Ten minutes on that tram platform, and I wanted to airlift that woman into a therapist's office. 

What I wish for this gathering of geriatric men is a bunch of good books, and I didn't have theology or even the bible in any of its myriad translations in mind.

What I'd like them to read is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, a trilogy that re-writes the fall of man from what you might call a creative feminist perspective, ending with the idea of building a republic of heaven, and with plenty of Milton's Paradise Lost thrown in.   A young girl becomes a Christ who harrows hell and an Eve who seduces in order to save the world.  And she ends up a scholar, possibly even on her way to an unwanted celibacy, but she's already lost her virginity.  "The history of human life," says an angel in the book, "has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity."  She and the rebel angels, we are told, are the followers of wisdom who have "always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed."  God is an ancient, pathetic creature in this novel--he dies.

The church does not like this book.  All the more reason why those men in their conclave should read it.  Think about it.  Study it.  And if there's a God out there, enjoy it!

It is a great story.  And in so many ways a true one.  It is a guide to wisdom--that wisdom is born in uncertainty, in doubts, in difficulties, that nothing is permanent, that flexibility is divine, that a vice and a virtue are two sides of the same dynamic.

Happy reading, conclave.  At least you can't burn folks like me at the stake anymore.


  1. His Dark Materials was such a beautiful book, and certainly not a "children's book" in the sense of being simplistic or easy to understand. I was so happy to see you mention it.(Even the fictional exploration of physics in that book was deep and difficult to plumb.) In the very small-town conservative, heavily Christian and predominantly Catholic area I grew up in (southern Colorado), it was banned. Yay for the librarian who fought to have it un-banned!

    1. Yes, hurrah for courageous librarians! I've found some Catholic websites that really think this book is dangerous. I agree that it is not a children's book--but it is a book for young teenagers as well as adults. It's well worth re-reading, too.