The dawn of the era of scandal
Edward F. Palm
The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is making headlines again. Back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, retired Pope Benedict XVI allegedly ignored allegations of sexual abuse by four priests and simply shuffled them from parish to parish.
It’s just the latest in a series of scandals that have cost the church millions of dollars in legal settlements and exposed a pervasive problem that the church has finally had to acknowledge. It is important to note, however, that most of the abuses reported have involved older priests, many of whom have since passed away. As a Catholic apostate of a certain age, I think I know why this is so.
Back at the Catholic primary school I attended – Holy Spirit School in the New Castle area – our eighth grade nun, Sister Mary Norberta, engaged us in a kind of meditation widely practiced by schoolchildren Catholics at the time. We were told to lay our heads on our desks and ask ourselves, “Do I have a calling?
In other words, a call to the priesthood or to the convent.
“You will never be happy,” the sister warned, “if you have a calling and ignore the call.”
Sister was the press of the whole court because at that time some of the major religious orders and larger dioceses were running residential seminaries and convent high schools for children who thought they had vocations. The church wanted to put children on the path to religious life after eighth grade—when they were still young and impressionable and could be somewhat insulated from the distractions and temptations of secular life.
Apart from pressuring children into making a major life decision at too early an age, this system has always impressed me as the perfect plan to create schools of scandal, especially for boys. The average eighth grade boy is 13, the age at which most boys begin to feel the first embarrassing thrills of puberty.
This is also the age when most boys begin to have what the nun called “unclean thoughts” about girls. Think how easy it was for a boy who didn’t have those same thoughts to take this as a sign of special election—as proof that he was called to the celibate life of the priesthood. And then think of how many of those boys later in life, after being ordained, who had to admit that the reason they weren’t attracted to girls was because they were attracted to men or even the children.
The counter-argument, of course, is that wouldn’t this kind of attraction be felt during puberty? Maybe, but the church I grew up in seemed to consider the kind of pre-adolescent sexual experimentation often done by boys not as bad as the things bad girls try to do.
To its credit, the church no longer aggressively recruits seminarians and novices from the eighth grade. I would like to think that church leaders have finally realized how wrong this age-old system is. As Robert Browning’s wandering priest Fra Lippo Lippi complains, you shouldn’t take a young boy “and make him swear never to kiss girls.”
There are only a few high school seminaries left in the United States. According to the Catholic Answers website, pragmatic concerns forced most to close. By the 1960s, the dropout rate made maintaining these schools very expensive, and of the graduates who were subsequently ordained, many left the priesthood to marry. In addition, the church found that “the isolation of normal high school” was not conducive to forming mature pastoral relationships with women. I can understand that.
As for my eighth grade class, no boy heard the call. Two daughters did, but one left the convent before taking her vows and the other left later in life.
Sister Norberta tried, but it was in 1961, and in the words of the bard of my generation, “Times, they [were] to change. »
Edward F. Palm, a Delaware native and Vietnam veteran, retired from the United States Marine Corps as a major. He resides in Forest, Virginia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.