Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Colm Toibin: Among the Flutterers

Colm Toibin writes splendidly about the sexual problems of the Catholic Church in the current London Review of Books. With a wry, wise touch he addresses the Church's sorry efforts to assert its own 'victimhood', notes its (much needed) loss of authority in Eire ("The bishops, priests and nuns are sinking, but have every intention of putting up a struggle before they drown"), and is interestingly sceptical about conservative Catholics who believe their Church was only corrupted quite recently by a kind of homosexual entry-ism.

On a personal level (at 16 Toibin too thought he had 'felt the call') he writes with the expected candour and precision: "Becoming a priest solved not only the outward problem of forbidden and unmentionable sexual urges, but, perhaps more important, offered a solution to the problem of having a shameful identity that lurked in the deepest recesses of the self." (The solution Toibin has in mind, by the way, is a quiet life of compassion, "doing good and being good", not seizing the chance to live in an all-male cloister and prey sexually on the innocent and powerless.)

There is humour too, as he mentions a writer friend who visited an Irish seminary in the 1980s, and looked on as a fair few "young candidates for the priesthood, boys from rural Ireland, attempted Wildean witticisms; he noticed them wearing specially tailored soutanes, moving around each other, excitedly, like a flock of girls..." This is Father Ted territory. Toibin also has some sport with the suspicions that seem to attend Pope Ratzinger's desire to carry on like an elderly fashion victim and keep a handsome valet at his side. But I wouldn't know anything about that... Nor do I understand what Toibin's trying to admire, like so many before him, in the enigmatic fence-sitting John Paul II.

By the end, though, Toibin has put the Church's sex problem back into succinct and troubling form: "The problem is that, after all that has been revealed, many of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we once listened to sermons about how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters. And that senior members of the Church hierarchy protected these men, believing that the reputation of the Church was more important than the safety of children, and that Church law was superior to civil law. When they were found out, their sorrow was not fully credible."

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