Cassandra Jones posted a report of Fr. Alvaro’s homily at yesterday’s Legion of Christ professions in Cheshire. You can read Cassandra’s report here. Fr. Alvaro spent quite a bit of time asking for forgiveness, Cassandra states. But in reading over the report I keep asking myself Forgiveness for what?
Fr. Alvaro appears to allude to the Fr. Maciel scandal on several occasions. I say “appears to” because one is never entirely clear from reading Cassandra’s report that this is what the Legion’s Director General is referring to in sprinkling spiritual advice with mea culpas. As Cassandra’s source reports: “I wanted to know how the scandal would be handled, so that’s what I will emphasize. It was not mentioned directly at all, of course, but a lot of what Father Alvaro was saying seemed to relate to it very closely.” (Emphasis mine). For an order whose defenders were quite specific in denouncing their founder’s victims, “seemed to” is not enough.
Allow me to digress as I confess the following: I have a weakness for Stephen King. (Or in current Legion-speak, “The troubling imagination of a certain modern author has integrated itself into my personal library, which is kept separate from my professinal and spiritual library.”) Some of it goes back to my budding years as a writer, exploring Catholic themes through short horror stories. Some of it, I am sure, is due to the ministry God has called me to as a canon lawyer, which often deals with the darker aspects of man’s fallen nature.
Regardless, there’s a common discrepancy in Stephen King’s writing that I first noticed when reading Needful Things. It’s in the way he portrays clergy. Protestant clergy are generally nutty fundamentalists, no different than Hollywood’s usual stereotype. This contrasts with how King typically portrays Catholic clergy – conservative, heroic, dedicated to the welfare of their flock and of their community, and struggling to overcome one or two minor personal flaws. In short, King often portrays Catholic clergy both sympathetically and realistically as good ministers struggling to be saints.
What makes this fascinating is that King is not Catholic. He was raised by his mother, a strict Methodist who struggled as a single mother to hold the family together after King’s father walked out. It’s his wife Tabitha who is Catholic. Moreover, he disagrees strongly with the Church’s teaching on contraception, as he has made clear through both his fiction and non-fiction. Nevertheless, his fundamentalist protestant clergy tend to be one-dimensional fanatics (The Stand‘s Mother Abagail a noted exception), while his Catholic clergy tend to be multi-layered, reflective and human. The contrast becomes all the more fascinating when King’s Protestant and Catholic characters interact.
Which brings me back to Cassandra’s report about Fr. Alvaro’s homily yesterday. As I read through the report, wondering what Fr. Alvaro was asking forgiveness for, my mind wandered to an incident in one of King’s books. It begins with the child of a Bible fundamentalist doing something naughty to a Catholic neighbor. It might have been a rude insult or a small act of vandalism, and I think the book was The Regulators. I can’t recall the details and it’s been several years since I read it, so I apologize if I recall the story vaguely or incorrectly.
Yes, I apologize. Specifically, I apologize for my recollection that is not as specific as my apology. And this, according to King as he describes the incident, is what distinguishes devout Catholics from fundamentalist Protestants.
In the book, the child’s father frog-marches the kid before the victim of the child’s bad behavior. The child alludes to the wrong-doing, if I recall correctly, but doesn’t actually name it. The child beats himself up verbally, inviting the wronged party to follow up with a physical beating as the kid’s father watches on. What follows is my recollection of the passage.
The victim suppresses a smirk, looks down at the child, and says something along the lines of “I just want you to do one thing. Look me in the eyes and tell me what you did wrong.”
Upon hearing this, the child transforms from resigned and robotic to visibly uncomfortable. He begins to squirm and looks up at his father with a pitiful gaze. Father is as horrified as son and begins to protest as parent. Speaking through the voice of the narrator – or perhaps the child’s victim – King launches into a thought about how admitting to one’s wrong-doing is the worst form of punishment one can inflict upon a Christian fundamentalist, who sees no value in the sacrament of confession. On the other hand, Catholics understand that freedom from sin only comes when one lets it out by confessing to the wrong-doing. What an interesting insight from a writer of psychological horror.
In short, Stephen King gets it. He may not have been raised Catholic; his novels may be saturated with dark themes and four-letter words; he may lack the grace of holy orders, of advanced degrees in Catholic theology, of being the head of a large Catholic order – but in spending a lifetime observing and writing about the darker side of our fallen nature, he understands that forgiveness and healing are tied to a specific admission of one’s wrong-doing and guilt. So he gets it.
Here’s the question: Does Fr. Alvaro?