Sex in the Rectory

December 10, 1993|By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Middle-aged men on the ''Phil Donahue Show'' are talking about sexual assaults they suffered as altar boys. A woman who claims to have had an affair with a bishop is on ''Oprah'' -- or is it ''Geraldo?'' It makes no difference. What you never learn from these electronic confessionals is that we get the kind of priests we deserve.

I am a loyal son of the church. I confess this to you so you will understand: I am not neutral on the subject of priests and nuns. I cannot imagine my life -- or my death -- apart from the theology they imparted to me. They connected me to seasons of ritual, a prayer life, lives of triumph and human failures.

Good Roman Catholics don't always admire their priests or even like their priests. There are Catholic countries in Europe and in Latin America which have long traditions of anti-clericalism. Priests have sometimes associated themselves with one side of a political struggle, sided with the landowner perhaps, with the palace or not.

Priests may bravely journey far from home. Master foreign tongues. Carve paths through the jungle. There is nonetheless a long habit, an adolescent male habit, of mocking the priest. Priests are pictured as dour virgins in the films of Federico Fellini. American priests, by contrast, have been pictured as the sentimental Barry Fitzgerald or the tough-guy chaplain, Pat O'Brien, or we have settled for the middle-of-the-road Bing Crosby, a regular guy.

But the old women of Catholic villages in Poland or in Guatemala always knew when Father was sleeping with his housekeeper or if Father was drunk. Graham Greene wrote a novel about a whiskey priest in Mexico called ''The Power and the Glory.'' The whiskey priest is drunk even as he prays over the chalice of wine.

There is a splendid irony in Greene's novel. Greene's whiskey priest is a true moral hero. A criminal during Mexico's years of anti-Catholic persecution, saying mass at the risk of death, Greene's whiskey priest is heroic in spite of his humanity and within his humanity.

It is hard to imagine a novelist writing about one of today's failed priests with such generosity. We are as unforgiving as we are obsessed with sex. Our national piety about sexual indiscretion is as old as ''The Scarlet Letter.''

And then we Americans are levelers. We don't like people lording it over us. We sniggered when Jimmy Swaggert, the televangelist, fell, and Johnny Carson joked about Jim Bakker when Bakker was led from a courtroom bound in chains.

Nuns on TV are usually women hiding behind girlish giggles or they are sadists. In a country that equates sexual experience with adulthood how can we believe in celibacy? On the other hand, how can a country that equates sexuality with maturity be surprised by sexually active 11-year-olds? And yet we are surprised. Just as we are shocked about pedophilia in the rectory, though we chuckle when teen-age girls sell us Calvin Klein underwear on TV or when Marky Mark looms on a billboard, naked, over Times Square.

A few months ago, ''60 Minutes'' ran an expose on the archbishop of Santa Fe who allegedly had affairs with several women. The archbishop was untrue to his vow of celibacy. But I think of all the wedding ceremonies priests have witnessed during their lives. The Catholic bride and the Catholic groom promise lifelong fidelity: ''Till death do us part.'' And then they get divorced.

Our priests and rabbis and televangelists are more like us than we want to admit. We get the priests we deserve.

''Pray for me,'' priests have been asking those of us in the congregation for as long as I can remember. Those of us in the pews were inclined to forget that Father, after all, lived in our world and reflected our own moral lives. He saw our billboards and knew our divorces and knew that we considered his virginity unmanly.

You see them now on the evening news -- hustled by their lawyers into courtrooms, modern Reverend Dimsdales. They are psychoanalyzed on the amoral afternoon talk shows. Failures. Perverts. Hypocrites. Sinners. Geraldo Rivera is disgusted. But they tell us more about ourselves than we want to know.

Richard Rodriguez is author of ''Days of Obligation.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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