OPINION: Catholic church an easy target, but compassion shows true priest
The Catholic church is an easy target.
A socially conservative agenda stands in broad opposition to mainstream thought in liberal western democracies.
The church's stance on homosexuality, contraception, abortion, transgender issues, the ordination of women and euthanasia is no longer that of the majority.
Its history is full of examples of failing to live up to the high standards of Christian behavior. You cannot easily sweep the Crusades, the Borgias or the Spanish Inquisition under the carpet.
In the 20th century questions about how the church rose to the challenge of fascism can be posed.
It was on the side of Franco in Spain and there are at the very least conflicting views about its relationship with a Nazi regime where a good portion of senior leadership claimed nominal Catholicism.
Then there is the issue of historic sexual abuse by its clergy and the systematic practice of covering these obscene crimes up and even perpetuating them by shifting offenders from one parish to another.
That the institution put the needs of its reputation above that of innocent children is now an acknowledged fact. If the church refuses to engage in a conversation about the effects of enforced celibacy on priests or the predilection of those who put themselves forward for the priesthood to offend it can no longer deny that grave and indefensible errors were made.
To purport to believe in one thing then to do the exact opposite is bad enough. To lie about the contradiction rubs salt in the wounds. The lying is a sin in itself. There were millions of victims.
The film Spotlight, a movie about the investigative journalism that began the long process of unravelling this deception, is coming toward the end of its run in New Zealand cinemas. A contender for the top award at Monday's Oscars, it's a smart and muted piece of filmmaking that has the virtue of knowing what story it is telling and doing so in a clear and compelling manner.
Spotlight isn't about the abuse itself nor even about the cover-up per se. It's a film about working reporters who come to realise that they too are implicated in the crime. By failing to grasp the implications of clear evidence sooner they played a part in perpetuating abuse.
Late last week I discussed Spotlight with a Catholic priest. The occasion was a melancholy one. My father-in-law lay breathing his last in a room at Waikato Hospital. Father Gerard Boyce is not only the hospital chaplain but my mother-in-law's local priest. He was there to support her and the family. I had been instructed to make conversation. It was not an onerous assignment. I had met Father Gerard before, briefly, after he had officiated at the finest funeral either of us are likely to attend.
Given the tragic circumstances it was a surprisingly convivial exchange.
Mindful of who I was and what I have written in the past about the church, Father Gerard mentioned at the outset that many of his parishioners as well as Catholics in the wider Waikato region hold me in very low regard. Fair enough. You cannot expect a civil response if you go out of your way to attack another person's beliefs, especially if you do so with sarcasm and a little venom.
For himself, Father Gerard had no problems turning the other cheek nor holding his own in any moral or religious debate. He knew more about the Boston case dramatised in Spotlight that I ever will and volunteered information about the Hamilton priest referenced at the end of the film, an unfortunate local expression of this pattern of offending.
When I introduced the topical subject of euthanasia we swiftly agreed to differ on positions but his perspective went vastly beyond the dogma of the institution he served. Here was a man certain of himself but one capable of seeing the bigger social and political picture.
The warm and comforting presence of this transparently selfless individual reminded me of a line from a movie. In the last instalment of The Godfather trilogy, Michael Corleone finds a measure of solace after confessing to a devout, guileless servant of the church, a man he calls a "true priest".
After a long and taxing day Father Gerard arose from his bed at 4am to be with my wife and her mother at the very end. This was not religion as a crutch, this was heartfelt compassion. The work of a true priest.