Feet of clay: Let's take back the church

The Rev. John Banks, a New Jersey priest, was recently convicted of molesting an altar boy. He told investigators his vow of celibacy "made no direct mention of abstaining from sex."

Father Banks could be the moral interpreter of our times. True, the first definition of "celibacy" in the dictionary is "refraining from marriage" as part of a religious vow. It's only when you get to the secondary definition that it says anything about sex, and who pays attention to secondary definitions anyway?

That the Catholic Church is boiling over with sex scandals is news only because we live in a litigious society now. The dark secrets have always been there.

Some Catholics still respect and fear the hierarchy of their church, but not as many as in the past. The congregation is starting to see through the church's smokescreen. Priests, cardinals, and popes are just men. They are not holier than thou or I. The priesthood is less particular about who gets in than the Marines are. And in some instances, the church is a refuge for twisted men and women who are way less holier than most of us.

We are supposed to buy into the conceit that these people are anointed by God, when clearly they are appointed by man.

This would come as no surprise to my grandmother. My family has been on the outs with the church for more than four generations. Nana was on to them from the start.

"They have their heart broken by some man, so they become nuns and beat up the children they can never have," she said. She told them that to their face, too, and they locked her in a closet. Although adulterers in the family continued to take communion, the divorced were shown the door. Piety was in appearances.

I'm sure we weren't the only outcast Catholics who perceived some murky humanity under the black cassocks. The vow of poverty, for instance, is a technicality as vague as Father Bank's definition of celibacy. Except for the few who actually go into hostile mission fields, nuns and priests have lodging, vehicles, clothing, transportation, and food provided for them. And the higher they climb in the hierarchy, the more palatial their pads become. Everything needed is provided by the church as part of a lifetime job from which you cannot be fired, no matter how poor your performance.

It didn't seem like a vow of poverty to me, and whenever I was feeling overwhelmed by life, I fantasized about becoming a nun, disappearing into a life where all my basic needs would be provided for. I would be given work I didn't have to interview for and couldn't be fired from. People would treat me with respect and awe. I'd be holy, when you came right down to it. What more could you ask? And who knew you could still have sex on the side, too?

That's always been the fatal flaw in the Catholic design– that the caretakers of the faith marry the church and are perceived by the rest of us as superior for doing so. As if working for a living and raising kids is the easy way out, and their choice the sacrificial one! They purport to be conduits to a God who is already on record as saying we should have no other Gods before Him, and assuring us that we need no intermediaries but Christ.

So who are these black-frocked guys standing between God and us, declaring themselves worthy to hear our confessions, forgive our sins, and bestow blessings? Why are we kissing their rings?

The apostle Peter is Catholicism's founding father, yet nowhere do you find Jesus instructing him to go forth and wear a big hat and sit on a throne in Rome. There is nothing about popes or Vatican cities in the Bible, unless you count the warning about the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelations, which comes so close to describing the church that Catholic scholars spin like tops trying to discount it.

The apostles' instructions were to own nothing, accumulate no treasure on earth, and spread the word. Only one– the writer John who wrote several books of the New Testament– died a natural death. The others were variously beheaded, crucified, stabbed, stoned, clubbed, and burned at the stake. It was a religion where the leaders were truly humble, poor, and fearless. How did we stray so far?

I heard a debate on the radio recently on whether Jesus would drive an SUV. Not a single caller knew the right answer.

Jesus would take public transportation. Jesus owned nothing. He paid his taxes with money found inside a fish, rode borrowed donkeys, and made dinner out of donated loaves and fishes.

But somewhere along the line, the church became an institution with real estate, wealth, levels of assumed-to-be chaste bureaucrats living their lives on the company dime. And for this cushy lifestyle, all they had to do was listen to confessions, dole out the Hail Marys, wear elaborate costumes, chant in Latin, and wave pots of smoke. The few who actually did anything self-sacrificing were elevated to literal sainthood because it was such a novelty.

It's time the sidewalk Catholics who feel all of this has gone too far take back the church and rebuild it as a community of believers accountable to God and His law, not the amendments of Vatican revisionism and the mafia of the degenerate priesthood.

Not that it would be a new idea. We have Lutherans and Episcopalians among us. The root of the word Protestant is "protest," after all, but where are those truly humble Protestants who aren't engaged in their own building programs, erecting their own mini-Vaticans? I don't recall Jesus instructing his followers to go into the construction business and pop up houses of worship like McDonald's franchises. We have all fallen short of the ideal as our new Jesus drives a SUV and is adding a gymnasium to the rectory.

Faith is the humility of mankind before God, not the hubris of god-like religious leaders. They were supposed to be guides on the road to faith, not mystic administrators of the business of religion. Under the shroud of false holiness, they have bought into the lie, embraced the power and its corruption, and we let them. And now we are surprised and shocked to discover they are just men after all.

Essays by Richmond-based Mariane Matera appear in numerous publications.