"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

After asceticism

Given that I should have posted this during Lent, I've decided to recoup a bit by making my title a pun.

In 2004 The Linacre Centre, a research institute for moral theology sponsored by the UK bishops, and which normally focuses on biomedical issues, issued a study explaining the roots of the sex-abuse scandal rocking the Catholic clergy. It's called After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests; you can buy it in either paperback or e-book form. It's well done, making inferences to the best explanations from the best empirical research then available, including the John Jay Report. The publisher's blurb does it justice without hype; here's the blurb's conclusion, with emphasis added:

After Asceticism draws the connection between the ancient ideas about sex, prayer, and spiritual friendship with modern scientific research on the biology of fasting and the psychology of hope. It warns, however, that as society becomes more deeply immersed in pagan sexuality, the Catholic Church will remain mired in sexual crisis absent a return to its ascetical tradition.

I could not agree more, and I speak from personal experience as well as from the wisdom of the saints.

Alas, it's not in the least surprising that the book has garnered so little attention. 'Unpopular' is an imprecise word for its message; 'incomprehensible' would be closer to the truth. Most Catholics in the developed countries today have little or no conception of what real asceticism means; all that survives in most quarters is a token, ritualistic 'giving up' of chocolate or alcohol for Lent. Young people preparing for confirmation might also be encouraged to deposit change they would otherwise spend on fripperies into a makeshift poorbox. I blame the clergy for this wretched state of affairs, including Paul VI; I remember from my childhood the first, almost ecstatic Friday evening steak-grillings in my Catholic neighborhood when he made the no-meat rule optional outside Lent and a few other special days. And so neither is it surprising that the gutting of our ascetical tradition affected the clergy disastrously. Neither can the laity escape blame: there's no point in complaining about priestly sodomites if we fornicate, contracept, and divorce as much as the general population.

Next Sunday is The Feast of Divine Mercy. A great way to observe the feast would be to use the prescribed prayers to seek the Lord's pardon for our collective failure to heed the Apostle's advice to "make no provision for the desires of the flesh." Perhaps such a prayer might be better heard if we resume serious ascesis when "ordinary" time resumes after the Easter season.

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